January 17, 2017
Made in China: A New Puppet Musical from Wakka Wakka
After tackling Iceland’s financial crisis in SAGA and the apocalypse in Baby Universe: A Puppet Odyssey, the visual theater company Wakka Wakka has let loose their beautiful puppets on China in their latest piece, Made in China. Told completely with puppets, this musical, with music and lyrics by Yan Li, follows Mary, a middle-aged American, and her neighbor, Eddie, a Chinese ex-pat, after Mary discovers a note from a woman in a Chinese labor camp in her latest purchase. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg spoke to producer Gabrielle Brechner, one of the leaders of Wakka Wakka who helped create Made in China, about the show—the challenge finding collaborators who would work on a piece about China, writing a raunchy 50-something female protagonist, and doing puppet shows for adults.
Culturadar: What about China made you want to create this piece?
Gabrielle Brechner: First I went to China for two months with my husband, and I was already biased because I had always had a fascination with Chinese culture. Getting through China without speaking Chinese is difficult, but I had such a positive experience that we were like, let’s move to China. When company members Kirjan and Gwen went, they had really different experiences. They found it fascinating but much more challenging, which may have been because they were there to work. When we were talking about China with each other, we realized that we had all been to the same places but our opinions were so different. Then we began speaking with other people about their thoughts on China, and we found that people were hesitant to discuss it. In general we found that people were censoring themselves because some things, like human rights and the one-child policy, were taboo. People were afraid they didn’t know enough about China—China as a concept is vast. We weren’t necessarily going to make a show about it, but then an article came out in the New York Times about a woman who found a handwritten cry for help in Halloween decorations. We were already making a piece about two middle age neighbors, which was about connection, and we thought, okay, this is much bigger than that, and we folded this into the story we were already making, which then changed it drastically.
CR: Why a musical?
GB: We’re always trying to evolve as a company and try new things, even if it’s using a different scale or style of puppetry. We always knew we wanted to make a musical. I can’t pinpoint when the moment was that we decided, but we felt we were upping the ante to match upping the ante with the subject material. Then we had to find a composer that meshed with us stylistically and could work in both Chinese and American musical traditions.
CR: What were the challenges?
GB: The challenge overall was finding collaborators who were willing to be involved in China in any way. People were afraid to take on the subject. Someone said they had to check with their parents. Some people refused us—Americans as well. People dropped out because they weren’t sure where the show was going to go. The show is always evolving, never frozen—we already dropped two musical numbers in the first week of previews—so people couldn’t be sure of what the show would become and were afraid of that.
CR: You develop and perform your shows in other countries, but with this show’s American point of view, is it specifically for American audiences?
GB: We’re a half-Norwegian company, and this is a co-production with the Nordland Visual Theatre. Fifty percent of the development process happened in Norway, and we’ll be touring in Norway with the show next spring. Norwegian audiences engage with it, although the perspective shifts, and we did involve Norwegian audiences in its development. We find that here it’s resonating with Chinese Americans. China and America are the two largest economies in the world, and that affects everyone. It’s global. The show says, we’re going to help China, but we obviously have our own problems here. We changed the last musical number so that we could believe the main character, Mary, had been changed. She can be a little bit misguided, but before she wasn’t looking at problems she had here in America at all. We tried to make the show about the central character and her change.
CR: How would you describe the tone of the show?
GB: We wanted Mary to be a really specific character, based on people we know collectively. All of her cursing and raunchiness, we've had mixed feedback about that, but it’s all her character. She’s supposed to be like that. She’s a product of our original idea, which was a show about two middle age neighbors who hated each other and who were isolated. She was always a consumer whore who set her feelings in isolation and loneliness, shopping, and hoarding. Also, there’s no one around her to check any of that in her because she’s totally alone. It doesn’t matter what she says because she doesn’t interact with anyone. I do think that there is that element of raunchiness in the tone of the show that comes from her.
CR: Why did you want to tell the story this way?
GB: We always want our shows to be funny—our puppets are funny. We find our ways into difficult subject matter by being funny. Mary is really vulnerable in the first scene. If you connect to her right away, you’re then on the journey with the puppets, you’re invested in them. You think, okay, this is what I think the puppet is feeling, this is what I think that means. Humor goes along with it. We like to laugh.
CR: What can adults get out of puppet shows?
GB: I think it’s a lot easier to connect with puppets than with people on stage. We hold puppets to a different standard. We’re exposed to puppets as kids, so we see that we had this as a child and it’s still there—“I used to love puppets, let’s go with it.” The puppets’ expressions don’t change that much. The audience says the puppets are so expressive—but that’s the audience’s perception. And puppets can do things people can’t—one of my favorite moments in the show is Mary and Eddie’s fight in the jail. If that were happening on stage with people it would have to be choreographed and still probably wouldn’t look real. But because people suspend disbelief so quickly, there’s puppet magic. Puppetry is becoming more and more present in adult theater.
CR: While light and fun, Made in China is also political. What did you want to say with the show politically and did that change while you were creating it?
GB: In every grant and residency application, our intention was always to have people start talking about it, to give people an entry point into the conversation. Nobody knows enough. We wanted to say, this letter happened, and here’s how one person reacted to it. This woman’s life intersected with it. That didn’t change that much. After the election, it seemed like the stakes were a little higher. It was important to us to make it clear that both countries should be held equally accountable. That became really important. It’s not China, bad; America, good.
Made in China runs through February 19th at 59E59 Theaters.
Photos by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Posted at 2:44 PM