Meet The Master of PuppetsThe Pillowman
, at its core, is a play about the art and consequences of storytelling. Throughout the play, the audience is presented with glimpses into the mind of the characters through the lens of Katurian’s dark fairy tales. To bring life to these writings, director Sarah Gazdowicz turned to the talents of puppetmaster Matthew Woellert who transforms light and shadow into vivid, moving, and sometimes troubling imagery.
With less than two weeks remaining before opening night, we caught up with Woellert to pick his brain about his work and its role in this production.
FET: How did you first get into performing with shadow puppets? What aspects of this medium appeal to you?
After seeing a shadow puppet show at the DeCordova Museum, I went home and spent a few hours on the Internet looking up shadow puppetry and how to create it. I have always loved animation and for years have dreamed of making cartoons. Shadow puppetry served as a cheaper and quicker way to tell the stories I’ve always dreamed of telling through animation. I also love the high contrast, black on white aesthetic; “punk as f***”, one might say.
FET: What elements of The Pillowman drew you to the project?
It’s a bit of a blast from the past. When I was younger I was really into twisted, dark and scary stuff. Now I’m more into things that put dark subjects into a context where they no longer are; things like cute monsters or sexy devils. It’s been fun going back to explore some darker subject matter, but at the same time I have these moments where I think, "Oh, yeah, that's why I don't do much of this anymore!"
FET: The play was written with actors in mind for the story sides, but this production is going in a different direction. In what ways do you feel that shadow puppetry contributes to the narrative of the play?
The thing I enjoy about the puppetry in this production is that it creates a separate world for the stories to take place in. In other productions of this play, actors are used to create a space outside the central narrative--which works--but using puppets allows the audience to step into a completely different form of storytelling. It allows the stories to take on a life of their own.
A lot of people perceive puppetry as just silly fun for kids. With this, we’re inviting the audience into this world of “puppet story time” only to break their preconceived notions by showing some decidedly non-wholesome stuff. It kind of messes with your mind.
FET: Katurian's stories deal with some pretty grim topics. What has it been like to bring life to these jarring tales?
Honestly, when building/performing a puppet show, I am fairly removed from what is going on in the scene. For instance when creating a scene depicting child abuse, I don't sit with the horrifying reality that countless children experience this violence every day. Rather, my mind is more in the space of, "How do i make this work?" It is a very mechanical process, not an emotional one. That's not to say that I don't care or think about issues like child abuse, but when making puppets I'm focused on the mechanics of the work, and not the larger social reality of the subject matter.
FET: Have you done any other multimedia collaborations combining puppetry with traditional theater?
Yes, my puppet company Woellert&Clark did a theatrical adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut Jr. story Harrison Bergeron
. In the story a couple is watching TV, half of the story is between the couple and the other half of the story is on TV. In our production, the TV was a shadow puppet screen that the actors watched as we told the narrative that takes place on the TV with puppets. (Editor’s Note:
Videos of this production can be seen at Woellert&Clark’s website, http://woellertandclark.com/
Matthew Woellert has been creating shadow puppet shows for the past two years. He is the head puppeteer and designer for Woellert&Clark
, and has worked with various other puppet/performing groups in the Boston area. He is a musician and visual artist who lives in Jamaica Plain, Mass. He teaches puppetry through the Cambridge Performance Project, an after-school program in Cambridge. He has spent many years playing music with multiple bands, putting out records and touring, entirely in a DIY manner, his preferred aesthetic. He studied visual art at ACAB, Marshall University and Ohio State University, where he holds no degrees.
In the confines of an interrogation room in a totalitarian regime, writer Katurian bears his responsibility to storytelling under the threat of pain and sacrifice. A resemblance between his most violent modern fairy tales—those depicting mutilation and murder of children—and several horrific crimes under investigation casts suspicion on Katurian and his childlike brother Michal. With the police prepared to go to any lengths necessary to solve the case, the brothers are forced to relive the traumatic events of their upbringing through the lens of Katurian’s writings.
Playwright McDonagh is best known as the writer and director of the acclaimed film In Bruges
, and has authored several noteworthy plays including A Beheading in Spokane
, The Lieutenant of Inishmore
, and the Tony Award–winning black comedy, The Beauty Queen of Leenane
. The Pillowman
was awarded the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2004, and received a 2005 Tony Award nomination for Best Play. With Flat Earth’s production, director Sarah Gazdowicz
embarks on a bold new examination of McDonagh’s work, employing multimedia techniques to explore this dark meditation on the opposing roles of artist and authority. She is joined by puppetmaster Matthew Woellert
, whose visual storytelling illuminates the human core of McDonagh's unflinching black comedy, and gives life to Katurian's microcosmic stories of abuse and imagination.
is to be presented August 10th-18th
at The Factory Theatre
, 791 Tremont St, Boston. Tickets and more information can be found at http://flatearththeatre.com