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Artfully curated by Culturadar

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March 11, 2013

Puppets for adults: Wakka Wakka Productions

Most of us grew up loving puppets, and, thankfully, the theater company Wakka Wakka produces innovative puppet theater pieces to keep our love alive into adulthood. Their latest show, SAGA, which began performances March 7 and runs through April 14 at the Baruch College Performing Arts Center, mixes Vikings (which could become the latest craze thanks to the History Channel’s recent program) and the Iceland economic crisis. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg chatted with producer and Wakka Wakka company member Gabrielle Brechner about creating SAGA, the formation of Wakka Wakka, and why adults love puppets.

What was the process of creating this show?

It started with Vikings because we’re a half-Norwegian, half-American company. We work a lot in Norway, so we’re all intimately connected with Vikings at this point. If you’re touring in Norway, there’s often a Viking museum to visit no matter where you are! We were interested in the Viking epic, Egla. Originally the piece was going to be a retelling of that. In examining this particular epic, which we did a little bit up at the O’Neill Center Puppetry Conference last spring, the story found its way to modern Iceland, and now it’s mostly modern. There are Vikings in it still, but we went from Vikings to telling a story about the economic crisis in Iceland.

How is SAGA different from the other shows you’ve done?

This is the first show that we’ve done that doesn’t take place in the future or in the past. It’s a big change for us to be telling a modern day story. We did a show about Ibsen, we did a show about the Holocaust, we did a show about the apocalyptic future. There’s a sense of mystery to the future and the past that there just isn’t to the present. Finding the sense of mystery in the present was a challenge, and I think the tone of the work is really different because of it. There’s still a sense of mystery because we do go to the Vikings.

And I think the show is a little bit of a criticism. It’s not an outright criticism but it’s clear that it’s holding a mirror up to what is happening in the world. And because [you experience the show through this man], you come out clearly on one side of the issue. We’ve never really taken sides like that before.

How did you become involved with this company?

[Founders] Gwen [Gwendolyn Warnock] and Kirjan [Waage] went to Ecoles Jacques Lecoq together, and after they graduated they did one show as Wakka Wakka with a bunch of other Lecoq people. Then they came to New York and Gwen moved in with me—we’ve been friends since we were 15 years old, and Kirjan followed. They were rehearsing in my living room, and inevitably, the company became us.

What is your role within Wakka Wakka?

I am producing this show. In the past I’ve done more creative stuff as well, but I had a baby during the workshopping process for this show which made that impossible. For the last show, Baby Universe, I produced it but also built a lot. I’ve been involved in the process of finding the story and have been a creative producer more so in the past, and this show is the first show I’m mostly just producing.

Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to take on the producer role?

My father ran the American Jewish Theater for 25 years, so my dad always tells the story about how embarrassing it was to have an eight-year-old being like, “Let me take you to your seat,” and working in the box office, and selling tickets. I must have always wanted to be a Producer deep down.

What draws you to working in this type of highly theatrical puppet theater?

One of the reasons that we all gelled together was that all three of us share a very similar sensibility in what we find interesting on stage. Narrative drama is a wonderful, amazing genre—and our work is strongly rooted in narrative drama—but, for us, when it’s physically and visually astounding it’s much more interesting. The work was always very physical, very visual. Lots of props. Puppetry organically found its way into the work, and it opened up this world for all of us. [We] all of a sudden had this strong narrative play being told by these magical beings. Kirjan makes beautiful, sweet, and accessible puppets, and all of a sudden the light bulb went off: Look at how easy the audience connects to these puppets. The audience all of a sudden comes on the journey with you right away instead of taking those moments to get to know actors on stage or even on film. [They’re] just like, “Oh I remember puppets, I like puppets.” And they’re in it, and it’s so fast.

How did the company’s relationship with Nordland Visual Theatre come about and how do you guys work together?

We had done a show about Ibsen in 2006 and were invited to perform it at the centennial of his birth celebration in Oslo. The theater had people there. They approached us, and we started a conversation. Through that conversation we came to develop our next show with them, FABRIK. It’s an amazing, amazing place. It’s this island of 1400 people in the Arctic Circle, in Norway. There’s three or four theaters on this island now for 1400 people, which tells you something right there. You come in, you develop a project, you show it to the local community, and then you tour. They help you tour and grow it. It’s really a generous, supportive arts program. Now this is our third project with them, and the relationship just keeps getting better and better.

And someone in Wakka Wakka is Norwegian?

Kirjan is from the West coast of Norway and Oslo as well.

What ages are your shows for?

It’s different show to show. Our work is written for adults, and we’re always really happy when we get great response from younger audiences. We had a whole teaching curriculum that went with FABRIK. We did that show for kids 10 and up, and I think that was a great entry way for kids to learn about the Holocaust, especially in Norway because they were a little bit less afraid to have younger kids come see it. I think Baby Universe was less accessible for kids but still definitely had something for them. But this show has some specific language and content in it that I wouldn’t bring a very young kid to it. We’re saying 16 and up because of the language in the show.

What do you think adults can get out of puppetry?

[It’s] about getting the full theatrical experience. You’re not looking at humans moving around the stage. You’re looking at beautiful—sometimes ugly—objects, but objects that tickle other senses. And it becomes a full experience. Once you make that leap that—oh, that puppet’s flying and I totally believe that that puppet’s flying—then there’s all sorts of other things that you can do. You can light things on fire, a la puppetry. The effects and the regions that you can go to are just bigger, I think. It’s more exciting.

Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest), Sophia Venetia Voyager, and Soon Never, and her work has been featured in concerts at Lincoln Center, The York Theatre Company, the Duplex Cabaret Theater, the TriArts Sharon Playhouse, the Goodspeed Opera House, and The Laurie Beechman Theatre. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also blogs about theater for The Huffington Post.

Posted at 9:41 PM

< The Humana Festival: 37 years of new plays | Main | The Greene Room: The *Desis are Coming! >