Kyle Whalen is a Chicago writer and theatremaker. He has written for PerformInk and Chicago Stage Standard. He is a company member of Commission Theatre Co. Follow him on Instagram/Twitter @whalenschmalen.
Pictured: “Wojtek: The Happy Warrior”
This weekend will bring the fourth annual International Physical Theater Festival to its conclusion. Closing the festivities at Stage 773 this weekend are Wojtek: The Happy Warrior, performed by the UK-based Quarter Too Ensemble and Anatomy of Fear by the eclectic Teatteri Metamorfoosi. As usual, Physical Fest has curated an evening of plays that cross the emotional and intellectual spectrum, reminding me of the breadth and innovation of the body.
Wojtek: The Happy Warrior
There’s no artifice or pretension to The Quarter Too Ensemble. As the audience files into the theater, the company members are there, on either side of the stage, smiling and sharing chummy pre-show glances. They’re here to tell an incredible story and they obviously take delight in the telling.Each member takes a turn embodying the eponymous Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear who was enlisted into the Polish army during World War II. It’s a true story–too strange and wonderful to be otherwise–and Quarter Too’s interpretation has the air of a fairytale: buoyant, sweet, and not without its darkness.
As in most fairytales, the narrative runs straight and true. An orphaned and displaced bear cub finds a home with a band of equally displaced Polish soldiers, who cannot resist a rallying point, a thing to love, a baby. The cub is called Wojtek, which means in the literal translation “he who smiles at war” and Wojtek is indeed happy, wrestling and eating and traveling with his friends, though, he says, he always feels as though there’s something to be sad about.
This is the first hint of the play’s subtle and incisive depth. There’s such intense joy in the playing of the thing that it’s easy to forget there’s a war on. Watching every actor large and small so adroitly settle into the lumbering posture of a bear makes me giddy, and a heap of old, army-issue objects become trucks and boats and landscape. I feel almost certain that in all this monkey business, a shoe is going to drop–that Wojtek will prove too dangerous and too absurd to keep in a camp. But the soldiers are hurt in other, more familiar ways, and as they offer up statistics and figures about how many men are killed at the battle of Monte Cassino, it’s clear that war is the most absurd thing and that it creates a space where perhaps we must look for connection in the extreme, the strange, and the wild.
Wojtek has many delicate and plaintive notes to strike even after the allies emerge victorious, and I won’t reveal all its charms. I wouldn’t want you to skip it.
Anatomy of Fear
Actor and director Davide Giovanzana and his doppelganger–a slightly larger than life puppet fashioned in his image–explore mediocrity, shame, and the fear of failure in this dark, lyrical, and sometimes grimly funny piece based on Giovanzana’s own life experience. Operated with a wealth of expression by Elina Sarno and Riina Tikkanen, the Davide puppet is the enemy, the embarrassment, and the responsibility of the man, who alternately attacks, instructs, and comforts it.
I walked out of this piece gnawing on a number of questions about my own experiences with fear. Why is “mediocrity” so frightening? And what does it mean to be a mediocre person? Does understanding a fear response in the brain make it better or worse? If I know that my fear is based on chemicals released in the brain, can I overcome it? Or is it a biologically predetermined conclusion that I cannot combat? Is there such a thing as mind over matter when the matter is all in your mind?
The play offers no concrete answers, and there is a sense that it isn’t so much trying to explain or master fear as it is showing us what it might look like if we could see it. The images are sometimes nightmarish, sometimes grisly, but never more arresting than when they’re understated. There’s a visceral physical understanding to the moment when, after the Davide puppet has pulled snakes from its stomach and tossed them on the floor, the man Davide calmly, almost instinctively, puts them back into his own.
A fear of failure is wide and irrational; it can encompass every action and interaction in life. That’s what makes it so paralyzing, so often silent, and so difficult to dramatize. Teatteri Metamorfoosi has drawn the personal out into the light and mucked around in it for all of us to see.
The last image is a complete surprise, hopeful and weird and so splendidly theatrical, again I can only urge you to go see it for yourself.
Workshop #3: Red Nose (with Mark Frost and Paul Kalina)
For most of this workshop, I sit on the side and observe. The group start with warm-ups, led by Mark Frost.
A common theatre warm-up game is “sending the energy,” in one form or the other. Often, the group stands in a circle. Someone starts by slide-clapping one hand across the other in front of them, pointed toward someone else in the circle. This is passing the energy. Sometimes the person will say something onomatopoetic—“zip, “zap,”—as they pass the energy. At this moment, they’re saying the name of the person to whom they’re sending the energy.
Whenever the energy hits them, people freeze, they vocalize urgent “uhs” and “ums,” mostly because many of them have only just met, and don’t want to mess up a name. Frost pauses the game for a minute. “As actors, our bodies need to be in a state of readiness,” he says, encouraging the group not to lock their legs, to become more available and alert for the game at hand. They start again—the passing is smooth, the tempo much steadier.
Frost says, “Acting is a hunt for the next game.” Paul Kalina begins to guide the class, expanding on that idea of a hunt, of a curiosity.
“Boredom is a proposal,” he says, “to find the thing to make you not bored.” He instructs the students to explore the space, letting one of their five senses lead: first touch, then sound, then smell, skipping taste for health reasons, and finally sight. As the students wander, Kalina reminds them not to draw inward, to resists retreating into themselves—which can happen without you noticing. The clown must stay available. Out of this game, we reach the workshops sort of double-thesis.
Frost proposes the idea of “the parent and the child.” Think of a parent watching a child play on a playground, he says. The parent must set a few serious boundaries—don’t wander out of sight, etc.—but the moment the parent enters the realm of play, tries to join or direct what the child is doing, “the parent squashes the play.” The actor-self is the parent, and the clown-self is the child. Developing your clowning skill, for lack of a more precise term, majorly involves balancing the part of you that knows what happens next, and the part of you that is almost innocent, ignorant—but “the clown is not stupid,” Kalina reminds us.
After the introduction of the parent and child, Paul leads the group through a few more exercises—I joined in here. Then, after a water break, he pulled out the red noses. Donning a red nose unlocks some secret door to a person’s sense of wonder. The light in the room changes. Not to over-sentimentalize it, but I begin to feel the way adults feel when children discover the world. (Think of the GIF of the kid at a tee-ball stand who takes “eye on the ball” literally.)
We spend the second half of the workshop playing a game called The Interview, which, as Frost and Kalina point out, is really a game about finding more games. Several clowns go up one by one, and enter the space, with the rest of us watching—and Frost and Kalina interview them. All they can do is nod “yes.” This leads to a delightful set of contradictory or absurd answers. (“Is your favorite color blue?” Yes. “Is it red?” Yes. “Which is it?” Yes.)
One of the real moments of learning here, is how a clown can direct their emotional response through the nose, instead of around the nose or behind the nose. In other words, the game is kind of frustrating—Kalina remarks after one round of constantly reminding a student to keep their jaw slack, that it can be frustrating to be seen in an unusual way: “That’s what they see? They’re seeing me? Am I like that? I’m not like that!” But he encourages us to “allow the emotion welling up to come out,” to give what we’re feeling to the audience as the child, not as the parent.
Due to time constraints, and for the fun of it, the interview expands from one interviewee to two to groups of three. By the end, Kalina and Frost are prompting clowns to demonstrate (read also: invent) their famous disappearing act or their great secret handshake.
I’m reminded as the other students struggle and succeed—for clowns, often the same thing—of what Frank Wurzinger said in his class: the audience can look at the clown in a crazy or difficult circumstance and think “I know that dance.” I know what that’s like. I felt illuminated watching all of the interviews, even though I never got up myself.
Kalina and Frost’s workshop encouraged us to breathe, to commit to the gesture, and to do our best as actors to get out of the way of our clowns. But the thing I’ll really take away is how much the two of them loved watching it all. In a good clowning class, the teachers laugh the hardest, and they never squash the play, even as they’re guiding and correcting. In the most positive, least-patronizing sense, it was like a parent and a child.
I love how generous people can be to each other.
Workshop #4: (Quarter Too Ensemble)
“How much more available can I be to the ensemble, at every moment?”
That question, that encouragement, is the cornerstone of Quarter Too Ensemble’s workshop on ensemble building and devising work.
Like Mark Frost did the day prior, Glenn Tillin has us change places in a circle. After the first go, he pauses us. Did we all check out as we walked to our new spot? I had—it seemed like most of us had. Like Frost did yesterday, Tillin has caught us in a habit we didn’t know we had: we’re only available at certain points, like when we’re standing in a circle, or milling around the space. But at certain transitional moments, for example, we retreat inside ourselves. A lot of this workshop became about staying available, about being on the clock for your ensemble-mates as long as you could.
The first half of class consisted of trust-building activities, developing a rhythm and vocabulary as an ensemble. Tillin and co-teacher Kitty Myer instruct us to step in a 4/4 rhythm, standing in a circle, breathing in tempo, making eye contact. Then we move around the space, making eye contact with not only our neighbors, but those across the room. Then we move on to trying to balance a six foot tall stick in the middle of the circle—which is impossible—so wherever it falls, that member catches it and puts it back. This, too, develops into a rhythm and language, as we all continue to remember to keep our bodies and our attentions generous. Then we loft the stick in rhythm around the circle, having to change whoever is in the middle before a certain amount of passes pass.
Tillin and Myer continue to increase the quantity and quality of demands on our attention, to stretch us into greater availability. For the rest of my whole day, I notice I check out less. For example, I look up at people in the coffee shop as they enter more, as I’m writing this sentence. Building on the week, they’re asking me, “how extensible is your generosity, Kyle?” “How present can you be?” Apparently, a lot more present.
Using those rhythms and our newly budding trust, Tillin leads us in devising a super short version of Little Red Riding Hood. The second half of class becomes an exploration of how Quarter Too Ensemble begins developing a devised piece. In general, Tillin doesn’t allow his fellow ensemble members (or students) to get too precious with their ideas, because, as he says: “ideas aren’t cheap. They’re free.”
We divide into three teams and come up with three different textures and concepts for our version of Red Riding Hood. One group dreams an immersive theatre experience poised to make comfortable things (blankets, food, etc.) terrifying and dangerous. Another will be set in a dark gymnasium with only practical lighting. My group pitches a street performance busking concept that critiques the city school system. Tillin guides each group through a debrief of their ideas, to develop them further, to find what they might expand and explore—if you’re going to have food, what kinds of food? If you’re going to busk, what instruments or noisemakers are available?
And then it was 1pm. Well, we actually ran a little over, which made everyone glad, because it was a fun workshop. (That actually happened in all four workshops so far.) But the members of Quarter Too Ensemble leading us that day gave us the tools to begin and then gave us a map where to go—whether we were teachers going back to our own students, devisers ready to start anew, or just solitary players, looking for a team. It was a wonderful introduction into a whole world and way of creating.