Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Homunculus Mask Theatre

Homunculus Mask Theatre is creating some of the most interesting and unique work in New York City.

Artistic Director, Joe Osheroff tells us about this cutting edge company that employs one of the earliest theatrical tools.

What are the origins of the Homunculus Mask Theater?

I'd been wanting to start a mask theater company for quite a long time here in NYC.  I've been making masks off and on for fifteen years and I had directed some mask shows in graduate school, but found it difficult to get it started again here in New York, where most of my focus was directed towards being an actor.

About four years ago, my friend Kevin Laibson, who was curating at the time for the Tank, asked me if I would like to create a mask show for a Halloween show at his venue. Apparently one of the acts had dropped out. This was exactly two weeks before the performance date. At first, I was pretty apprehensive, but then decided what the hell, why not? Somehow, I managed to wrangle a few actors together and we created about forty five minutes of material in ten days. The audience seemed to really love it, so we decided to keep it going. 

Somewhere down the line I cast Michael Raimondi in our adaptation of Karel Capek's RUR (the only traditionally scripted show we've done). He subsequently took the initiative to help legitimize the company, so to speak, and took on the role of Executive Director. He's pretty much the reason anything gets done, and definitely shares the same passion for this kind of work that I do.  

Why work with masks? and how do the masks enhance or change the work?

I've always been fascinated with masks, both from a theatrical and cultural/ritualistic standpoint. My parents used to work a lot in Africa, so we always had these crazy wooden African masks all over the house, which must have influenced me in some way as a kid.

I've studied a lot of different styles of mask work, but have always noticed that there isn't a whole lot going on to move the form forward theatrically. If you look around, you might find a lot of masks used in folk tale theater or in commedia troupes. I've never been interested in going down that road, although the work we do is certainly rooted in a lot of the older styles. What I'm attempting to do with Homunculus is make mask work more accessible to a modern day audience - make it a little more rock and roll, if you will. 

There is something incredibly simple and beautiful about watching mask theater.  It seems to often reach an emotional place for the audience that is unexpected. In terms of our productions, I don't think that the masks enhance the work. I think it's the opposite - the work enhances the masks. Or maybe it's a symbiosis between the two. If a mask is embodied fully by the actor, anything can happen.

The choreography and movement of the piece is very important. How did the movement enhance or support the production?

The choreography is a vital part of what we do. About eighty percent of what we do is set to music, so it's important that we allow the music and the movement to intertwine. On the other hand, what we are doing is not dance. We are telling stories with soundtracks. Sometimes the choreography is very exact, depending on the piece, and sometimes the actor has the leeway to use the music to inform his or her choices. 

I think the music enhances the production because it helps set the tone and inform the world we are creating. It's also essential to have certain moments in the show that don't have music - this juxtapostion adds depth to the overall tone of the show. 

What's essential to remember, though, is that nothing will work if the actors aren't being truthful with the masks. No amount of music or underscoring can cover up a "dead" mask. So, the piece should be able to stand on it's own without the music, although the music definitely gives it the boost it needs to be more visceral.

Homunculus: Reloaded was created by the group. What was that process like?

The process was fun but intense. A lot of times it felt like we were all jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.  There was definitely a freefall period between the first rehearsal to about two weeks before the show that was a little nerve wracking. I guess the same could be said about working on any show, but when you are up against the clock and trying to devise original material, you have to have a lot of blind faith that it will actually come together.

Our process included a lot of brainstorming and problem solving. Most of the time I would come into the rehearsals with an image in my head that I'd want to explore, or a piece of music that I'd found. Other times, it was a little more straightforward, where I'd have a definite story I'd want to tell. We'd do a bunch of improvisation based on these ideas. More often than not, something entirely new and much more interesting would emerge than what we originally set out to do, which is a testament to the amazing group of actors in the company. 

The concept of this show and a lot of our other work is to present a series of energetic, but non related scenes that segue seamlessly from one to the other.

After we found the overall arc of the scene, we'd then set about polishing it. With mask work the proof is in the details, so this would often take a lot of time. For example, we opened the show with a scene in a restaurant where everything goes woefully awry. The music was from the Barber of Seville - Evan Zes, the assistant director, and I were watching TV one night and heard that song on a car ad and immediately decided we needed to put together a restaurant scene set to that song. In our heads, it had all the elements of being something really cool - a bumbling waiter, an uptight maitre d, an abused customer, on and on. In reality, though,it was incredibly challenging.  Every second of that scene had to be airtight - in the end, the scene was about four and a half minutes long, but ended up using about twenty props and took thirty hours to rehearse. 

What is next for the Homunculus Mask Theater?

We are trying to regroup and gear up for a production in the next eight months. As you well know, it's crazy expensive to produce in this city, so we are going back to square one with our fundraising. In the meantime, we hope to keep busy by premiering new short work  around the city - we just did an few pieces at the Living Theater as part of Elephant Run Lab's evening of new work. We are currently collaborating with the Asian theater company Leviathan Lab to do a playwright/mask making program in the Chinatown school system. I'm also working with composer Bobby Cronin, Jack Feldman (Tony award lyricist of Newsies), and playwright Alan Mogul on a musical adaptation of the cult film Mary and Max, that will use masks to help tell the story. 

Contratulations to Homunculus Mask Theatre!

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