By James Bash
For the Hollywood Star News
No words are used, just pantomime and large, evocative masks. That’s the beauty of Wonderheads, a multi-award-winning theater group that combines exaggerated gestures, physical comedy and whimsy to tell stories. Audience members often compare Wonderheads shows to wordless cartoons. Judging from the trailers on Wonderheads’ website (wonderheads.com), the group’s unique style of storytelling engages the imagination.
“Audiences are often very surprised by how much can be communicated without words,” said Kate Braidwood. “And by how much of an emotional journey they go on while watching our shows, even though we never say anything.”
Wonderheads is the brainchild of Braidwood and Andrew Phoenix, who live in the Sullivan’s Gulch neighborhood. Braidwood and Phoenix met at a physical theater school called Dell’Arte International, which is located in Northern California. They both have a masters degree in ensemble based physical theater.
Their first big hit was “Grim and Fischer.” Grim is the grim reaper, who comes to claim an elderly woman, Mrs. Fischer. But she is not ready to go; so they battle it out. The hour-long performance, with its funny and poignant take on life and death, has won 10 awards from festivals in the United States and Canada.
“The stories we create come from personal places,” explained Braidwood. “Our very first show, “’Grim and Fischer,’” was developed during a time when some of our family members were facing death. Andrew and I met as friends during that period and ended up falling in love and then getting married. So we decided that our second show should be about love. That’s where the impetus for “’Loon’” came from.”
“Loon” tells the story of an older man named Francis, who falls in love with the moon. Like “Grim and Fischer,” “Loon” spins a tale that has awed audiences and critics in Canada and the United States and won eight awards so far.
One of the keys to the success of Wonderheads is the expressive masks that Braidwood makes for each show. The masks are made out of paper-mache or neoprene (which is similar to latex) and take 50 to 80 hours to create from start to finish. Elastic bands are used to hold the creation to the actor’s head like a baseball catcher’s mask.
“I’ve always loved sculpting,” said Braidwood. “I’ve always made figures and faces with my hands, using clay and other things. I think that I’ve made about 20 masks for our productions so far.”
Back in 2009, Braidwood and Phoenix created “Grim and Fischer,” and then took it on a summer-long tour in Canada, which has a summer festival circuit. By 2011, they sold out shows in five cities.
Consequently, since 2012, they were able to give up their day jobs to work on Wonderheads full time. Still, they don’t have a manager and do all of the bookings themselves.
When I talked with them in early May, Braidwood and Phoenix were travelling in a new Toyota Highlander through eastern Montana on their way to give performances in London, Ontario, Canada.
They explained that their style of storytelling evolves through a shared, collaborative process. According to Braidwood, Phoenix is the goofier of the two, but Phoenix countered that Braidwood is equally silly yet more practical than himself.
With two very successful productions under their belts, Braidwood and Phoenix began working with director/performer Emily Windler and created a new show called “The Middle of Everywhere.” It is about two strangers (an adult man and a little girl) who meet at a bus stop and discover a mysterious radio. When they change the station on the radio, it transports them through time and space so they have to figure out how to get home again.
“’The Middle of Everywhere” is a family friendly adventure,” explained Phoenix. “The other two shows are more for adults and deal with darker themes.”
After they finish their engagements in Canada, Braidwood and Phoenix will drive to Orlando, Florida, where they will team up with Windler for seven performances of “Grim and Fischer” at The Orlando International Fringe Festival. Afterwards, they return to Portland to present “Loon” from June 25-28 at Coho Theater (2257 N.W. Raleigh St.). You won’t want to miss it.