Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Tale of Two Who Love Puppetry and Masks

About Rogue Artists Ensemble

Rogue Artists Ensemble was founded by a group of theater artists studying at the University of California, Irvine who shared an emphasis on the visual aesthetic of creating theatre. They use the term “Hyper-theater,” which comes from “hyperbole,” to emphasize their dedication to making big exaggerated choices to make each moment of their storytelling the best it can be. As they’ve grown, Rogue Artists Ensemble put an emphasis on education. Sharing the work they do and their process has become just as important as showcasing the work they create.
Puppetry and mask work have always been important aspects of creating theatre for Rogue Artists Ensemble—the next company to present a show in South Coast Repertory’s Studio SCR.

Sean T. Cawelti, Rogue’s artistic director, never dreamed that his childhood love for these two art forms would give rise to a company, let alone draw in such talented and dedicated artists like Songs of Bilitis playwright Katie Polebaum.

A-Typical Storytelling at a Young Age

Early on, Cawelti had a knack for artistic storytelling through his drawing and paintings. At age 4, his parents took him to a swap meet and let him to pick one toy. He chose—and still has—an old marionette from Mexico, which he named Pedro. Puppeteering fascinated him, so he bought and built as many puppets as he could. He used leftover scraps of fabric from his seamstress mom—who earned money by making clothes for Cabbage Patch dolls—to create even more puppets. Add to all of his puppet work the fact he grew up in the age of The Muppets, Cawelti quickly began to see how puppets could interact with humans to tell stories.

Sean’s parents got him involved with Orange County Children’s Theater. And by middle school, he already was directing school plays—incorporating puppetry, multimedia and special effects to explore different types of story telling. But according to Sean, most grade school shows were miserable failures. “They were never great pieces of theatre. But it wasn’t about the end, it was about the process.”

At UC Irvine, Sean connected with like-minded artists who had an interest in puppetry and mask work; their first production was The Poe Play. The 10 artists realized they wanted to continue producing art together even after graduation and officially formed Rogue Artists Ensemble, a self-proclaimed nerdy reference to Star Wars’ Rogue squadron.

East Coast Parallels

At the same time Cawelti explored puppetry and mask work in high school, on the East Coast, Katie Polebaum started working with her high school technical director, who also had an interest for these art forms

In 2006, at Middlebury College, she channeled her passion into her senior thesis on puppetry. Nearing graduation, she found a Rogue Artists Ensemble post on Craigslist. She visited their website, knew it was an artistic match and sent a cover letter, resume and photos of her work. Within two weeks of graduating, she packed her bags, moved to L.A. and was working with the Rogues.

At first, Polebaum simply volunteered, but after two years of saying “Yes” to whatever they needed, she became an ensemble member.

 “I love them. I moved across the country for them. They are my West Coast family. The work that I’m passionate about is with Rogue Artists Ensemble.”

Making It Real

She and Cawelti share a keen understanding of why puppetry and mask work are integrated.

Notes Cawelti, “When used properly, a mask or a puppet can help get to an idea, emotion or action that you can’t see with an unassisted actor. If you have a well-defined mask, it gets to the heart of a character that a human face can’t. Especially characters that are bigger than life. They link audiences to what the other characters are thinking.”

Adds Polebaum, “Because, puppets aren’t constrained by the laws of physics; they can fly, disappear, get huge and become tiny. It allows for motr theatrical ways of story telling.”

Get your tickets for Rogue Artists Ensemble’s production of Song of Bilitis, directed by Cawelti, presented as part of South Coast Repertory’ Studio SCR. February 14 – 17, 2013.

Photos from top to bottom:  Sean T. Cawelti, Katie Polebaum and Sean and Katie.

Songs of Bilitis
The Origins of Bilitis

The play originated with The Getty Villa, which reached out to Rogue Artists Ensemble to collaborate on a project, and proposed an adaptation of the written works of Bilitis.

Polebaum began to research Bilitis, her poetry and her stories, but grew more fascinated with telling the story of the man who created the fictitious character of Bilitis, the real-life poet and writer Pierre Louÿs.

Louÿs did not simply create the character of Bilitis, but attempted to pass her works off as real poems written by a real ancient Greek courtesan. With so much praise being lavished on the fake Bilitis, the actual talent behind her—Louÿs—was overlooked.

Polebaum never got a satisfying answer as to why Louÿs created Bilitis and her writings. He was known to be a bit of a prankster and a failure at gaining the success that he wanted. As a result, his story in Songs of Bilitis is mostly fictitious. Polebaum uses the play and the actual text of Bilitis to explore Louÿs’ thought processes while he wrote Bilitis’ poems. Polebaum says, "In the play, Louÿs is creating a work that is better than anything he ever thought he could write himself. It is so much bigger than anything he had done before that it creates a chasm between the creator and the created."

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