Portfolio of Kimberly Johans

A collection of articles created during my stint as a journalist at The Macau Daily Times

Bringing the absurd to delightful life

Posted by Kimberly on July 14, 2007

By Kimberly Johans
Published in The Macau Daily Times
July 14 2007, page 13 (1,231 words)

 

If you happen to be one of the lucky ones with a ticket to watch Imago Theatre’s Biglittlethings this weekend, then strap yourself in for a treat.
Or a shock, depending on your outlook.
In one segment of the show, giant polar bears will choose to either sit on your lap or say hello with their behinds.
That’s the beauty of a show like the ones Imago Theatre produces; they’re fantastical, funny and in some instances, surreal.
The title of the show, according to one of the show’s directors, signifies a conversion of ideas; that things that are normally small are big, and vice versa.
Biglittlethings predominantly uses animals as characters, not to produce what Jerry Mouawad, one-half of Imago’s creators calls, “National Geographic realism of the animal,” but “to find the human condition in the animal.
“To find how we as people can laugh at ourselves.
“We reflect upon ourselves when we look at the animal world quite a bit.
“It’s a family show so if you’re doing a variety show for families it’s difficult to stay away from animals, especially when you’re doing masked theatre,” he says.
Other animals in the shows include rabbits inhabiting a car, an anteater receiving appalling restaurant service and hippopotamuses having trouble sleeping.
Even though animals make up the majority of the shows segments, Imago’s performers also take on the characteristics of a few inanimate objects, such as in the paper bag segment and one called ‘bows and arrows’, a special effects piece exploring archery “in a fantastical way.”
The concept for biglittlethings began back in 2001, as a follow-up to Frogz.
“We had a group… of actors that were coming in to explore different things and one of the things that we were exploring that particular day was water.
“We were playing with different rhythms of water and we started putting water in our hands and seeing what that would be like. And eventually the hands became fish.
Further exploration led to puppets and as Jerry admits, “it begins in a small seed, grows to very large experiment and sometimes the experiment fails.
“Well most of the time it fails,” he says.
While the pieces tend to have a development time of two to three days, that’s not to say the end result is final.
Pieces are worked and re-worked depending on their success with the audience.
“We have a big following in different parts of the United States [US] so when we return with popular shows they always want something new.
“A lot of the work that we do is experimental in that we’re not sure how it’s going to work.
“This show we started in 2001, working in a laboratory environment with different actors and we probably created 20 variations of the shows.
“We’re doing about an hour and 15 minutes of material in this show but we’ve created more like twenty hours over the course of six years,” says Jerry.
It’s this constant updating and playing with existing ideas that Jerry feels “keeps us fresh.
“Also when we play for different audiences in different countries, that also changes things for us,” he says.
Since Imago Theatre’s creators Jerry and Carol Triffle, first started the group in 1979, in Portland, Oregon, they’ve gone from performing solely mask theatre in small communities around America’s Northwest, to performing world-wide, expanding their repertoire to include experimental works, originals and adapting contemporary classics such as Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
But despite the numerous accolades and Drammy awards [outstanding achievement in Portland theatre], Jerry laughs at the suggestion that recognition of the group’s efforts could be considered ‘old hat’.
“No! Being in the theatre and art world, especially in the United States, it’s difficult to survive in itself and any recognition from full houses to extra sold seats are well appreciated, especially awards!
“No, we never underestimate an award,” he says.
As is the case almost everywhere in the world, the arts are rarely supported to the extent that the organisations would hope, and the United States is no different, according to Jerry.
“All the groups in the US, except for the commercial Broadway productions are all non-profit organisations. All the ballet companies!
“It’s impossible to survive. The government funding for the arts is very slim so you need to be non-profit in order to get the grants from other organisations.
“Even the larger organisations that are even more established than we are, are struggling in the US,” he says.
The group can rest assured that support from the audience will be guaranteed here in Asia.
Their past visits to Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as their first visit to Macau in 2004 to promote Frogz, another production of the group’s, were of pop-star proportions, as Jerry recollects.
“We played Taiwan in 1991 when we played Frogz, and for the first half they did not make a sound and in the second half they went crazy.
“Fifty kids attacked me one time. And I couldn’t tell them to get away because I couldn’t speak the language,” he says laughingly.
The same thing happened in Hong Kong, where the children bombarded the edge of the stage to try to grab at the creatures.
“The kids get very excited. The very young kids think everything is very real in the show because the work that we do is close to realism.
“I mean we try to create illusions. The masks are worn on different parts of the body. “We work with the actors to try to create something that’s not necessarily realism but fantastical and very young kids can get very scared.
“And the other kids, about four to six, are very much excited by it.
“It’s also sophisticated enough that adults very much like it too,” says Jerry.
The experience is as unique for one of Imago’s performers, Jonothon Howard, who joined the group a year ago, as it is for the audience.
“I come from a traditional acting background, dramatic narrative theatre and there was a time I just wanted to stop being so concerned with psychological narrative,” he says.
“I wanted to explore a kind of theatre that was telling a story through the use of the body…so when I found this company it was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for.
“I like the moves, the personalities of the actors.
“You’re not watching a show about the performers. You’re watching only about the characters because they’re entirely removed.
“Even our faces our covered,” he says.
And, as expected, new members bring an entirely different element and a change in dynamics to the group’s performances.
“It’s interesting because everyone brings their own different style to it.
“It’s interesting too that two of the people who were in the show have been away for a while so this whole year, they were two of the cast members I hadn’t worked with, so even they’re coming back and doing new things that they hadn’t been doing before,” says.
He adds that “each time there’s a new cast member, certain bits are lost, certain new things are found so yeah, it’s always evolving.
“This show is not written down in stone where every year it’s the same show. Almost every time there’s a performance, it’s different,” he says.
So whether you saw 2004’s production, or are viewing Imago’s world for the first time, expect the unexpected.

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