Wood Boy Dog Fish: An Interview with Sean Cawelti of Rogue Artists Ensemble




TO CALL WOOD BOY DOG FISH — a production of the Rogue Artists Ensemble that recently had a run at the Bootleg Theater — a play would be a disservice; even labeling it an “innovative theatrical work” or some such term falls way short. It is an experience, almost the way a trip abroad is an experience — the noteworthy details, the questions raised, the things you’re still thinking about afterwards.

A retelling of the original Italian Pinocchio comic, Wood Boy Dog Fish is phantasmagoric. It spins from conventional dramatized scenes to song and dance, to complex Japanese puppetry techniques and TV commercial parodies — even to a 3-D sequence for which the audience is given glasses, then sprayed with water. The production remixes the Pinocchio story into something barely recognizable yet still intimately familiar, setting up an interrogation of themes of consumerism and spectacle relevant today.

I sat down with the director of the play, Sean Cawelti, to talk about the 10-year odyssey of creating the production, Rogue’s influences, and death as a cultural offering.

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AARON SHULMAN: Wood Boy Dog Fish was 10 years in the making. Talk about that process.

SEAN CAWELTI: Around 10 years ago I was talking to very good friend of mine, Lynn Jeffries, who has been one of the most constant presences in my life, as a mentor, board chair of the Rogue Artists Ensemble, and puppet designer. We both really loved the original The Adventures of Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi, published in the 1880s in Italy, and the first meeting we had about it took place in Disneyland, at the Blue Bayou restaurant, where you see the Pirates of the Caribbean boats drift by. Lynn eventually became the dramaturge and collaborated with many different writers who worked on the project. Rogue has never really had a single dedicated playwright in the ensemble so we often collaborate with guest artists on the writing of the plays we produce. The first few incarnations of Wood Boy Dog Fish were all over the map and varied greatly as we worked out how to adapt this complex episodic tale into a stage play we felt said something new. Throughout all the development of the script, we designed production elements and staged readings to continue to gather feedback. It wasn’t until about three years ago that we had enough experience as a company and as an ensemble that we knew what was working and could say, “This is where we want to go.” Interestingly, we ended up realizing the perfect person to write it was Chelsea Sutton, our marketing manager, who we had actually first encountered when she submitted to a contest we held when we were selecting the very first writer for the project years before. She ended up being a runner-up, and later we realized she was the only person who had been a part of the whole development process, participating in all the conversations and attending every reading. She said that to be able to take it on with confidence she needed to start over, so that’s what we did, and she carried Wood Boy Dog Fish across the finish line.

Considering the different versions of Pinocchio — from Collodi’s dark and strange original to Disney’s (inherently) Disneyfied version — how would you describe yours?

Wood Boy Dog Fish is a modern-day fairy tale. It’s a deconstruction of Collodi’s book, a piece of literature that is broken up into a lot of different chapters, many of which have nothing to do with others. (It was originally serialized.) Like a lot of episodic works, the sum of the whole is not necessarily greater than the sum of its individual parts. That’s definitely the case with The Adventures of Pinocchio. Ours is set now in a parallel world from our own, called Shoreside, once a popular fantastic tourist trap that has fallen into disrepair because of an adventure ride closing down. (I used to work at Disneyland, so I feel a particular connection to circus-y theme-park settings, and there is also a certain California-ness to Shoreside.) The ride is revealed to be the Dog Fish, which in the Disney version is the whale. In our version, Pinocchio and Geppetto have to confront their fears and reconcile with each other inside of the ride. We looked at a lot of themes that Collodi was tapping into: death, reconciliation, rebirth, things found in all the major religions in the world. But we also wanted to look at themes of goodness, and what makes us human is not the physically beating heart, but the love we have.

What were your aesthetic and dramatic influences in creating Wood Boy Dog Fish?

We were really influenced by these old carnival rides in the heyday of the traveling fair, often dark rides lit by black light. For example, we have a scene only in black light where the audience puts on 3-D glasses and are transported into the interior of a ride. We were also influenced by the Japanese puppetry tradition Bunraku, which is one of Japan’s most treasured national art forms. We used Bunraku in our approach to Pinocchio. And we were really influenced by the interactions between tourism, consumerism, and death. There’s such an industry surrounding this type of things, all over the world, but particularly in LA. Halloween has become parallel to Christmas in terms of the number of offerings. There’s a huge amount of money going into creating experiences that cause us to experience fear. And the same thing happens with actual death in terms of it being a production of sorts. Funerals can become a spectacle and a huge cost. We loved the idea of jumbling and heightening this fear-death-consumerism zeitgeist, and then you have the central character of Wood Boy — who we never call Pinocchio; in fact we never even use the word — right at the middle of it all, disoriented and clueless amid the monetized spectacle, just trying to understand what it means to be human. He starts out not really being anything, but through the characters and conflicts he encounters we explore how all of this changes him.

The challenge was playing light against this dark milieu, finding the humor in grim circumstances. We often called it “surfing the line,” because it’s easy to do badly. But once we win over the audience — which Chelsea did an amazing job of with off-color humor and endearing character work — we are able to take them to some really dark places, most of which are from the original book. Collodi’s Adventures of Pinocchio ends with Pinocchio hanging dead from a tree; that was the end for him. The lesson was that Pinocchio didn’t learn a lesson. It was only after Collodi went broke that he went back to the story and woke him up. We did use this: the end of our Act One is Pinocchio hanging dead from a noose. But we saw that as the point for the rest of the story to begin. Even the happily-ever-after is not quite happily ever. We wanted to make sure that our work was a piece for adults and had a kind of gravitas, and an anchor equal parts emotional and intellectual, so that it never took on the feeling that it was all going be okay. We wanted the audience to feel like, “Oh shit, maybe we’re not going to make it out of this alive.” But the parts that do have love are more powerful because they’re set against this backdrop that’s grim.

How does it feel to finally stage something after 10 years of preparation?

We were so scared. It wasn’t until after the first week of performances that we could say we had figured it out. We had a couple of really rough preview performances, without critics, just to get feedback from the audience that then helped us to rehearse and tweak. I really did not feel good after seeing it those first few times. It still wasn’t ready, and we had a lot of work to do. We ended up cutting a whole half hour from the preview performances to the more polished final version. Once we opened we had an incredible response, almost sold out the entire run, and we extended it. People were hungry for it. Whether you’ve seen the film or read the book, we all have the Pinocchio story in our collective consciousness, we know the characters, and part of what made it fun was the audience coming to the space and having their expectations played with. There was always a level of surprise and intrigue.

Can you talk about The Rogue Artists Ensemble and the team for Wood Boy Dog Fish?

Rogue is an ensemble that met at University of California, Irvine, in 2001 when we were all undergrads in the theater program, and the group formed as a response to the very traditional work of the university. From the beginning we explored puppets and masks and special effects, and we still have artists from the original group in the ensemble today. What distinguishes us as a theater company, I think, is that we are rooted in design and storytelling, have a commitment to creating original work, and our ensemble is comprised of primarily designers and not actors. We approach the work in a holistic way, asking ourselves, “What is the text, the look, the purpose for telling the story?” That’s where the production lived for many years, without ever a thought about the individual roles or who might play them. When the work finally went into formal production, we were really honored to have some incredible folks join. Brian White, who’s been a friend and collaborator for many years, did a lot of the conceptual work for the puppets and helped build them. And we also had Greg Ballora, a puppeteer and really when it comes down to it puppeteer engineer, who specializes in mechanics and how puppets move. He builds a lot for movies and TV. Rounding out the puppet design team were myself, Jack Pullman, and one of my other favorite spirit guides, Christine Papalexis. We were joined by an incredible design team, including François-Pierre Couture, creating the scenic design; Stephen Swift creating the lush sound design; Adrien Prévost composing the songs; Brandon Baruch designing the lighting; Kerry Hennessy and Lori Meeker tasked with designing the myriad of costumes, and many, many other incredible artists. In the end we had a team of about 40 people, including 11 cast members. It was a big production.

The puppet for Wood Boy — or Pinocchio — was interesting, as it was controlled by three people. But they’re all dressed in black and after the first few minutes you stop noticing them. How did the puppeteering of him work and come together?

The title character of Wood Boy was inspired by the Japanese puppetry tradition called Bunraku, which requires three puppeteers to give life to one puppet. It’s a really grueling approach but when done right can be completely captivating. In rehearsing, the puppeteers spend an incredible amount of time creating the character’s vocabulary of movement. The lead puppeteer always provides the voice, but that doesn’t mean he’s controlling the head or mouth exclusively. He might be doing the feet at times and throwing his voice while someone else is manipulating the head. The three puppeteers stay connected through the monitoring of each other’s breathing, which comes from practice and repetition. There’s a huge learning curve, but eventually it becomes like a meter, and they know, for example, that on this breath they’re going to make this movement, etcetera. While breathing together, they also use taps and touches to indicate when a movement is going to happen. The three puppeteers, Rudy Martinez (who provided the voice), Lisa Dring, and Mark Royston, are an amazing trio of artists. Each had some small amount of puppetry experience, but nothing to this extent. It’s quite risky to make a puppet a central character in this kind of play, because in the wrong hands it can be an emotionless vacuum. To bring life to Wood Boy the way they did was incredible. It was so much work for them; they completely created this illusion of life on stage every performance.

The amount of care and level of detail seemingly put into nearly every object used in the play — from props to costumes to masks to sets — was staggering to me.

I’m glad you felt that, though the piece is definitely unfinished in a certain sense. There are things we’re always talking about improving upon or tweaking. One of my obsessions as a director and designer is homemadeness — that everything be very tactile. The advantage in theater is to be able to have audiences see detail you can’t see in a film or on TV, so I think everything should feel very alive; that it should have as much texture and palpability as the dramatic performance itself. So I get a little crazy. I like everything to feel as though it’s aesthetically connected to the piece. I love weathered things and the feeling of old things. And something beautiful happens when this very tactile, homemade world combines with slick things like video projection and complex lighting and visual effects. That’s a big thing that makes Rogue unique, along with the puppet and mask use. Plus not a lot of companies create original work. It’s a personal aesthetic, and it’s interesting finding a group of artists who share a similar love of that tactile care for detail. I love the big challenges, like, “How do you make a coach that takes you to Funland?” We love the opportunities to make these complete worlds.

I can’t help but ask about the economics of how you sustain the development of a work over 10 years and then finally put it on?

A project like this survives because everyone working on it keeps deciding actively that this is worth putting their time into. It’s less about money and more about the investment of energy and thought, and the concentrated hours when you are together in the same room. Ultimately, we’re a nonprofit arts organization, so we raised funds in several ways. A Kickstarter campaign covered the bulk of early development; our individual donors and supporters have been fearless supporters, along with grants from the Jim Henson Foundation, the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, Union Bank, and local others. We also teach a lot of workshops and bring puppet and mask tradition out to the community, and through this we’re able to bring in some money to put towards the development of new work and paying artists.

Is it now on to the next for Rogue or more to come for Wood Boy Dog Fish?

We’re hoping to bring the show back and take it on tour in the fall of 2016. It looks like it’ll be in Santa Ana, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. Our hope is that this little tour will help us to forge relationships with folks who will help it to have a bigger tour. It’s about baby steps to realizing the dream of being an arts organization that home-brews original work in Los Angeles and tours it nationally, and hopefully one day internationally.

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More info about Rogue Artists Ensemble — www.rogueartists.org/woodboydogfish

More info about Sean Cawelti — www.seancawelti.com

Facebook — www.facebook.com/rogueartists

Twitter — @Rogue_Artists

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Aaron Shulman is currently working on a book about the Spanish Panero family for Ecco/HarperCollins and tweets here.


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