ZooZoo, straight from the polar bear’s mouth

What makes Imago's all-star critter spectacular such a cool seasonal treat? Get the whole scoop from an inside-the-costume source.

ZooZoo, Imago Theatre’s one-of-a-kind, all-ages, greatest-hits show, opens again in Portland on Friday, and I’m here to tell you, if you’ve never seen it, get your tickets now. If you have seen it, see it again: Things are always shifting, and given the unique relationship between audiences and performers, no two performances are exactly alike. An amalgamation of vignettes from Imago’s internationally renowned signature show, Frogz, which has been hopping around the globe since Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad founded the company in 1979, and Biglittlethings, which opened in 2003, ZooZoo is an enthralling 90 minutes of mask and mime theater and benefits from the blood, sweat and tears of some of Portland’s most gifted artists over the past 40 years. Last year’s production, for instance, featured a new piece called “The Magic Cloth,” a collaboration with The Lion King’s Broadway co-designer, Michael Curry.    

The author in full polar bear mode. Photo courtesy Danielle Vermette

Why take my word for it? First, I’ve gifted this show many times to friends and family, always to ecstatic responses. More to the point, as an Imago performer since 1999, I’ve been in it. I still appear now and then in Imago’s other works, namely in Triffle’s original shows, but my touring career ended after about a decade.  While my heart is forever green and some of my fondest memories are of slithering, frolicking, and white-knuckling my way across the country with comrades in the show (and sometimes in the snow), frog legs ain’t easy to come by: my knees began the slow slide into retirement mid-career in 2005 in a gymnasium in Arcata, California. 

Looking at ZooZoo from the inside out rather than the outside in offers, I think, some intriguing insights. These days I find myself firmly in the good ol’ days camp, the benefit of which is that I can recall the generative process of many of the creatures that now inhabit the Imago landscape.  I tell Tour Stories with the best of them and consider myself part of a lucky group who, for a glorious moment, made a living as a giant amphibian with an inferiority complex.  

Given my long affiliation with the show, one could make the claim that my passion for it comes from a place of bias. I’d reply that it makes me a more discerning critic.  For many an hour I’ve studied the movement of penguins and the particularities of polar bears, and I can tell you some fascinating facts about frogs. They do not, for instance, drink water. They absorb it. Several species of frogs even care for their young. I can spot a false movement with a mask from all the way across town, and judge mercilessly when the timing of a piece takes a wrong turn somewhere between Tucson and Topeka.  I am officially a Veteran of The Company. 

Seeing red in ZooZoo. Imago photo

I’d wager that former cast members are among the only people with breath in their bodies not likely to enjoy a performance of ZooZoo. In fact, I’ve watched the show with former cast members a year or two after their tour ended, and the scene always looks the same for the poor had-been performer.  Brows knotted, body moving of its own accord, they look as if they’re about to leap from the balcony straight into the scene in perfect sync with the uncannily brilliant soundscapes of Imago’s resident composer, Katie Griesar.  I’d wager that I’m not the only alumni who still hears Katie’s music in my sleep, either! 

I would also venture that I’m not alone in suffering anxiety dreams that always seem to center on Imago. I once had a dream that I crawled inside my “home,” which was the giant paper bag from the cat-and-the-bag vignette, only to discover that someone had redecorated it and stolen all my furniture.  In other dreams, the artistic directors, Jerry and Carol, are in the audience and the show has started but I’m naked or only half-clothed and can’t recall where I placed my masks, what city we’re in, or even what pieces we’re performing.  Failure, humiliation and ultimately, cringe-worthy vulnerability, figure in the dreams – an interesting parallel to the experiences of the creatures in the show.

If you’ve seen the show these dreams will make sense, as far as dreams go, anyway. The vignettes are short. The costume changes, split-second.  The actors’ ability to see depends as much on fully-body sensing as it does actual sight. High-level physicality is required to pull off the show just once or twice. Athletic discipline is necessary to endure the rigors of an entire touring season.  Those who’ve been most successful at it have the abilities of a dancer and the instincts of an actor. 

If you haven’t seen any of Imago’s family shows, the experience can be profound. The shows work on several levels. The lifelike costumes and funny antics of the characters entertain and surprise while also managing to touch some tender places. The vignettes, perched somewhere between hilarity and agony – the territory of all great comedy – illustrate our foibles and insecurities wordlessly, through the easy distance of an anthropomorphic lens. 

Somehow, it’s wildly entertaining to watch a penguin fail or a concertina collapse in terror only to bolster itself up and face the source of that terror. It’s delicious to watch a married couple suffer, at least when they’re hippopotamusus who can’t get a decent night’s sleep.  Watching a frog that’s frightened to leap?  Well, can’t we all relate to that one? In fact, of the five most important lessons I learned from touring with Imago’s family shows, the first and most valuable is that pain is often hilarious. 

The giant paper bag “home” tilts precariously. Imago photo

The deeper and more believable the sink into that pain, the more delightful the victory on the other side of it. The rally out of the pit of despair usually translates into laughs. I can’t adequately describe how tuned one’s ear becomes to different qualities of laughter — how crucial that laughter is to guiding the performer to the sweet spot, when all the considerations of the mask, the movement, the stillness, the timing come together and coalesce into that can’t-help-myself giggle from an audience member.  As a performer, some of the most satisfying laughs roll from adults unwittingly. As Mouawad often said, half-jokingly, “A dollar for every laugh!” 

Once, after a particularly long tour, or perhaps in preparation for a run at the New Victory Theatre in New York, I felt like I’d earned a master’s degree in clown anguish after participating in an exercise called “Taking the Bead,” the gist of which is that you see a performer onstage completely alone, with a single prop. Though the audience (in this case, castmates) is not encouraged to be hostile necessarily, they’re instructed to laugh only when something is genuinely funny and not just to ease tension or lend support to the person on the stage. The performer can’t speak, and remains on the stage until they can elicit genuine laughter, no matter how long it takes.  I often wonder if this exercise doesn’t have some value outside the theater.  I can think of several people who might benefit from such an exercise. I can say resoundingly that, well, it hurts, and it’s the quickest way to kill an ego, or possibly to condition the ego, or at least to become familiar with your ego in a whole new way. The best part of working with Imago for so long has been this kind of long-term training.         

Mining these states with honesty, nuance, and precision – without using your voice or facial expressions, while sometimes manipulating costumes like a puppeteer – can challenge the best of actors, and could explain why Imago performers usually stick around for a long time. I’ll never forget the first time I understood that a mask’s “eyes” move in such a way that a tiny head movement from the right to left could read to the audience as a fast sweeping movement for a character with a long snout.  It took me years to take the performance out of my face. Early on my face would display emotion inside the mask, until one day, I realized in rehearsal that my face was void of expression, signaling to me that I had fully transitioned from a psychological actor to a movement one. Which is too bad, in some ways, because I’ve been told that my “penguin face” was quite entertaining.  Jerry and Carol have an incredible story of performing, possibly in Alaska, the sloth circus piece when they had forgotten to unpack the masks.  This is the stuff of aforementioned dreams, I tell you.   

The thrill of performing this kind of mask work is so rewarding that you barely care that no one may ever know if you’ve just offered the most honest moment that’s ever appeared on any stage, anywhere. In all of that greatness, you’re still inside a mask, the second bug-eye to the left, and probably not the person the audience is looking at, anyway. Which brings me to my second great lesson: Accept that there will never be another like you, and also that you are totally, 100 percent, replaceable. 

An anteater a day makes the giggles OK. Imago photo
On the road again: Imago on tour with (from left) Rex Jantze, Joseph Lymous, Jerry Mouawad (front), Danielle Vermette, Jonothon Lyons, Jonathan Godsey. Photo courtesy Danielle Vermette

The whole experience of touring a show is a lesson in humility and Buddhist attachment.  When you’re on the road, the only constant is that you’ll be back in the masks before the sweat has time to dry. The road unfolds as a series of endings. Curtain up, then curtain down.  Unpacking the suitcase, then packing it again. Loading in the show, only to load it out again. Preparing for a long night along I-70, you at the wheel while your castmates snooze, the rumble strips your only company thanks to a co-pilot lovingly nicknamed The Napigator

Whether we were in New York City months after 9-11, on a beach in Hawaii in January, or tucked in for a dreamy run in Harvard Square, touring life couldn’t help but blur a little.  Every homecoming back to Portland felt the same: Why do I have so much stuff? I don’t need all this stuff! And all the while, knowing it wouldn’t last forever and wondering at the edges of what’s next?  Do skills as a frog translate in today’s marketplace?  Who uses the word marketplace? Is that one word or two? Will I ever find a job this … unique again? 

The show’s past echoes can be observed everywhere. Costumes with past players’ names scratched out. Bits that so and so created just before a show in Kansas, which requires a precise maneuvering of the wrist in just this specific way. As an actor, you must bring imagination to every single second of the show for hundreds of shows in a row, and that effort is never wasted, but there’s always a knowledge that the work belongs to everyone, that you can never fully take ownership of it. Each actor carries forward and builds upon the creativity of those who came before. And just when you think that no penguin can possibly find as many funny bits or embrace their inner flightlessness as brilliantly as you, the season after you leave, there’s this guy named Rex Jantze who makes your penguin look like a pelican with its beak stuck in the mud. 

Both artistic directors, Triffle and Mouawad, are disciples of the renowned theater artist Jacques Lecoq. Triffle studied with Lecoq in Paris from 1986 to1988, and completed a third year with the master in 1997. Mouawad studied Lecoq theater at the Hayes-Marshall School of Theatre Arts.  They began touring a version of Frogz in the 1970s, and in addition to a varied and impressive body of other work, they’ve been kicking out fevered animal dreams ever since. 

What makes Imago's all-star critter show such a cool treat? Get the scoop from an inside-the-costume voice.
Penguin, penguin, who’s inside the penguin suits? Imago photo

Working with Triffle and Mouawad for two decades changed my view of theater completely. I came from a “traditional” background, with lead roles in college shows like Arcadia and The Lion in Winter. I learned plenty in those experiences. But I remember thinking during a run of Broadway Bound, as I played an emotional scene about my husband’s infidelity and watched sweat roll off his forehead into his cup of tea, that I was missing something. I focused on the actor across from me, thinking, “Why aren’t we moving our arms?”

There was something about the fourth wall, too, the strict adherence to the make-believe notion that the audience does not exist, that always made me feel like I was on a television set.  They do exist! I can see them! Even theater auditions, which often require an actor to deliver a monologue to a make-believe person, highlighted artifice to a degree that seemed the opposite of theatrical. If acting is reacting, shouldn’t auditions be about that, about how well a character listens on stage rather than delivering a speech to a room filled with auditors while pretending to speak to someone who isn’t there? There’s another great lesson in here: acknowledging what’s before you — making use of it — offers a lot more possibility than ignoring it altogether. As with all of these tips I learned from working with Imago, they probably work offstage as well as on, and maybe this one especially. 

In all the years that I have worked with Carol and Jerry, we haven’t spent a whole lot of time talking shop. Next to the work we’ve focused on creating, talking shop isn’t that interesting, or even particularly helpful. I’ve grown to appreciate that more than I can convey: Don’t dissect, just do! In the first few years, this was a learning process. Coming from a background where every motivation became the source of a lengthy discussion, not talking can be frightening.  Now, it’s a relief. Now it keeps me in the imaginative part of the brain rather than the critical/analytical. There’s a lot of value to this when you’re trying to create, and it’s probably one of the most important lessons I’ve learned.  At least the second-to-last most important. 

ZooZoo‘s on the cold cold tarmac: Imago flying from Valdez to Anchorage, Alaska. Photo courtesy Danielle Vermette

Surprisingly, the final lesson didn’t come from a harried near-death drive at 2 a.m. through a snowstorm in Canada, where I was sure I might be responsible for overturning the bus; or during a windswept jaunt through Wyoming with the trailer fishtailing and the radio repeating one public service message over and over: Highways or Die-ways, YOU DECIDE! My great epiphany didn’t hit me in the basement of a theater in Aspen — so disoriented by altitude sickness that I couldn’t figure the difference between the closet and the exit. Or two days after that, even, with the bus cresting a mountain at the exact second the sun came up — a moment so perfect and otherworldly that I can still see it when I close my eyes.

The final good tip has been a slow absorption more than an epiphany, and it comes straight from 20 years of watching two inimitable artists run every aspect of a theater company and create their own work exactly as they want, against all possible odds. It’s been the little things, really. Day after day. Watching them work their fingers to the bone fabricating costumes and masks; rehearsing actors endlessly just to decide the piece doesn’t work at all and discarding it. There are lot of words that could get near it, without really getting at it. I guess when I think about it, I can’t really put words to exactly what that lesson is yet. And maybe that’s why I’m still around.  

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