Rutabaga's Artistic Director discusses her puppet-rich Grendel adaptation Fire and Meat
Like all decent people, everyone at Artpunk Club HQ loves puppets. And we laughed our butts off at “An Irish Exit”, Rutabaga Story Co’s contribution to this year’s Fertile Ground Festival. So when we heard that the same folks were doing a puppet-centric version of Grendel’s story, we were instantly intrigued. So much so that we reached out with some questions, which Artistic Director Eve Johnstone—Fire and Meat’s playwright—graciously answered.
Artpunk Club: Why Beowulf?
Eve Johnstone: I hated Beowulf when I first read it. It was dull, with super heightened language, and a plot structure that consisted solely of "There’s a monster, dude kills monster, rinse and repeat." But when I read John Gardner's Grendel, I fell in love with this grizzly, ancient world that this young creature was curious about, then furious at, then nihilistic as all hell. So I guess, I fell in love with the story of Grendel, rather than the story of Beowulf. I've made multiple iterations of Grendel's story, but this is the last one. It's finally the story I want to tell with a team that can bring it to life in such beautiful and unexpected ways.
AC: Why Puppets?
EJ: I fuckin' LOVE puppets. I think puppets tap into an audience's childhood imagination. They're toys. For a moment you see cardboard, fabric, foam, but once a puppeteer has that cardboard, fabric, foam breathe there's suddenly a monster in the room. Or a wolf, or a rabbit, or a bird. Our imaginations know how to latch onto a puppet and make it a real living creature - we did this for years as children. I often find that the more rudimentary the materials, the more ready we are to play pretend. A cardboard puppet is not as silly as a person in a costume, and not as dangerously (or disastrously) complex as a fully automated, hyper--realistic, movie-ready machine. It's simple. It’s theatrical.
AC: What is Rutabaga Story Co all about?
EJ: Rutabaga's mission is to produce new, fun, accessible theatre with an emphasis on visual storytelling. One of our goals is to get more young people into the theatre both as creators and as audience members. We are dedicated to producing new works by young or early-career writers and boosting up people that might not have the most extensive resumes, but have the passion and excitement to learn through the process. For audiences, all of our tickets are sold on a sliding scale from $10-$25 so people pay what they can. We also offer Arts4All $5 tickets for anyone with an Oregon Trail card. We include the word "fun" in our mission statement because we believe that theatre should be enjoyable in every regard: making it, rehearsing it, watching it, discussing it. This doesn't mean everything is funny; it means keeping audiences and actors safe in a way that they can enjoy the thrill of intense work without ever thinking "God, I can't wait for this to be over." And finally, we just love working with visual elements like puppets, masks, morph suits, slapstick, all that good non-verbal stuff. If you're seeing a Rutabaga show, you can definitely expect at least one, if not more, of the above.
AC: What's next for you folks?
EJ: Our next big project for Spring, 2020 will be co-founder Danny Gray's new play, An Irish Exit, which premiered as a staged reading in the 2019 Fertile Ground Festival. A dark comedy with magical undertones, An Irish Exit explores the coming together of loved ones from beyond the grave. When Johanna returns to her childhood home after a mental breakdown, she and her mother struggle to coexist. Jo tries to summon Satan to see how he can help her out, an unexpected guest arrives in his place, and hilarity ensues.
We'll also be back at the Fertile Ground Festival next year to workshop a collaborative, devised piece called Little Bones, which follows a young boy who wakes up as a skeleton and must figure out what caused his death in order to finally be laid to rest. Little Bones will premiere as a fully staged play in Fall of 2020.
AC: If you had Three Wishes for the Portland Theatre scene, what would they be?
EJ: An effective promotional platform to help reach audiences who don't already go to the theatre, affordable rehearsal and performance space, and more puppets of course.
Fire and Meat runs May 4th - May 18th, info below.
@ Headwaters Theatre
55 NE Farragut St.
BONUS! As avid fans of both puppets and Rutabaga, we let our enthusiasm get the better of us. Please enjoy these unauthorized pirate bootleg shadow puppets based on Rutabaga's Fire and Meat character designs. Download, print, cut out, and play Fire and Meat at home!