Some people might think folks at Quasimondo Physical Theater are lunatics: they don’t do things like other theater companies in town. Not only do these dynamic young artists create four original, visually dazzling, and thought-provoking shows each season, but late this August they did something completely bonkers: they packed up their very successful show Karaoke Cutesauce Cosplay Club into a trailer and took it to the New York Fringe Festival. Since the show has a cast of ten, along with elaborate costumes, props, and giant set pieces, the prospect of taking it to a little venue on Manhattan’s East Side for four performances— with fifteen minutes to load in and load out for each show, in a festival with over 200 entries—would make more sensible people blanch, tremble and walk away muttering: “madness.”
Did Quasimondo do it anyway? Yes they did. And they won recognition, applause, admiration, three reviews, and a full-color picture splash page in Time Out New York, advertising a festival that they were not to even perform in for another week (it pays to be photogenic). One critic wrote of them: “This eclectic group of talent has a synergy that makes this New Yorker wonder if maybe a slower paced city allows for this type of avant-garde dynamism to fuse and meld into a weirdly, fantastic show.” So yeah, they made Milwaukee look good. In the spirit of celebrating enterprise, ambition, and ninja organizational power, we met with some of the company to talk about their adventures before the memories could fade. In attendance were Artistic Director Brian Rott, Tour Manager Michael Pettit, and two of the ensemble, Alex Roy and Thom Couley. We began by talking about their logistical challenges. (Interview has been condensed and edited.)
Brian Rott: It was refreshing to come back to a piece we had made in a short time and take a second look to see how we still felt about it. And then it was all logistics: you know, how we could pay for this, how can we get there, where are we going to stay, how are we going to fireproof and all the others.
Michael Pettit: Most of us had never been to New York before. I had a few friends there, and you reach out on Facebook and think, oh yeah, somebody is going to give me a place to stay. [laughs] It didn’t exactly work that way. That process went up to the last few days before we left. But once we got there, everything worked beautifully. The venue itself was Celebration of Whimsy, this is where the Living Theater ended up when they came back to the US after touring in Europe. With their experiments with theater in the late 60s and early 70’s, that was just amazing, so just being there was an incredible thrill. We had a guy, Joe, whose sole job was to be there when we pull up with the van so he could drive away and find a place to park during the show.
Thom Couley: His job was to stand by the van if a cop came by to say, “It’s cool, just a little bit longer.” We had fifteen minutes to load in and fifteen minutes to load out every show. So, find a parking area and everyone just, conveyor belt, bring out the costume bags and the prop bags, bring them down. Everything had to go just “bam bam bam.”
BR: It was serious and kind of Zen in a way. I was impressed. It helped because we had these shows in Milwaukee and we had taped out the dimensions of the truck. For the performances in Milwaukee we did the whole setup and takedown as well. Yeah, it was impressive, I think [laughs].
Q: What kind of reception did the show get?
MP: The majority of the shows in the Fringe are actor-oriented, with just a few actors, minimal props. But we do exactly the opposite. We’re coming out of nowhere, Milwaukee, with this flashy show, tons of set pieces, bright costumes. We got attention because of that, coming from an unexpected place and doing something nobody else is doing really worked to our advantage. People showed up for the spectacle, but they stayed for the content, to see where we would go with it.
Alex Roy: I heard stories of people coming to the show just because it was Anime, like “Oh, I wore my Anime socks today because I wanted to see the show.” Our first audience was younger, so I think they understood. other audiences were older, so maybe they weren’t sure what was going on. The first show was our best show because from the start they understood what was going on. They were into it, they were laughing and clapping.
TC: The last show, too.
MP: Those guys were way, way up on the first show, and it just got tighter from there.
AR: Nobody was phoning it in, totally.
MP: Everything was against us on the second show. It was a matinee, a full moon, our second show. Jeff Kriesel hurt his finger. While we were setting up he smashed his finger between two set pieces, like literally ten minutes before the show.
BR: He’s a nurse in his other life, so he wasn’t fazed at all.
MC: He only stepped out of one scene. He just made a splint for himself so his finger wouldn’t fall off and wrapped it up.
BR: I was watching, I couldn’t even tell that he had hurt himself.
MP: As the nights went on, the feedback was a little bit weird. I distinctly remember this one woman in the second row, just stonefaced, no reaction whatsoever. From what I heard afterwards she said she liked the show. I think some people might have had a problem with it.
AR: Some people were a little offended, they thought it was a little bit racist, which I can understand why they would think that, but at the same time, you have to look at the context of the show, look at the broad perspective. We weren’t trying to be offensive, we were just paying homage to a certain thing, a culture that people who haven’t come out of Japan have worldwide accepted and you know, love.
MP: There were a few Asian people who were laughing at the jokes, some of the lines that were in Japanese. They were like, “Hoho, that’s real Japanese.” The thing people didn’t understand about the show is, it’s not our take on Japanese culture. It’s a reflection on what stereotypes of Japanese culture are reflected through the culture of Anime and Cosplay, which can be narrow and racist and misogynist.
BR: One of the reviews was like, “Well, they sure had a lot to say about Japan,” and I’m like, that’s really not what it was about.
MP: It’s not like we were ripping on Japan.
AR: We’re kind of honoring it in a weird sort of way. Cosplay became a cultural phenomenon that started in Japan, but as it moved around the world everyone started piling up on it. It’s not exclusively one culture. Anyone can do it because we basically all love the same things. There was one review that said they displayed overly gratuitous crotch shots without an overt message and [laughs] I’m like, this feeling that you’re writing about probably had something to do with the message. If you just take a second and think about it, it will make sense, And you can ask us questions. It’s a thing in anime, but it’s also a message that we had about women and the body image that’s pressed upon them, and how some people can be uncomfortable with it.
BR The exploitation of gender roles in popular culture and fitting into those models, those costumes, more or less was a recurring theme throughout. I thought that was pretty obvious.
Q: How did the women performers feel about it?
MP: They really insisted on it. If you’re going to put that forward, you have to show the insidious mythology behind that, and show a payoff of overcoming that at some point.
BR: The beautiful thing about cosplay is, you have the power to choose what you want to play, regardless of gender, or body image, or human being or creature or robot. It can be the most random thing.
MP: The great thing about wordless theater is, if you do it right you can make statements that are really hard to put into words.
BR: The people that I talked to in New York, more than anything they were very impressed with the ensemble; they were like “where did you find these people? What is the culture of physical theater in Milwaukee?” I didn’t expect that. And I was like, yeah, it’s just these guys [laughing]. Actually most of us here have worked together on a fair amount of shows, and I think that really shines in our work as an ensemble. From the beginning I knew it would be expensive and there was the question of why are we doing this you know. For me there were a few reasons. One of them was to revisit the work and make improvements and make one of our shows able to tour, so we could fold everything up and take it out of boxes and set it up. In that respect it was a good exercise for us as a company, being able to create work for the future that’s made to tour to different cities. I still think creating original work and putting it on for three weekends and then being done with it—there’s something lackluster about that. I’d rather have a long rehearsal process and more locations set up where we could tour our work across the country, I think we have to go in that direction as a company sooner or later, and this was our first step in doing that.
Q: Would you do it again?
TC: Yes—someplace closer. We literally missed the application for the Chicago Fringe by like, 12 hours.
BR: In the future, if we go again, we would work to be part of the opening weekend, and be part of that excitement. It’s a smart place to show new work.