For Kate Braidwood and Andrew Phoenix, there’s nothing quite like that moment when the audience takes a collective breath and lets it out again in a soft gasp of surprise, an “ooh” of wonder.
“That’s what we want the audience to get most from our work, that sense of wonder and awe and magic,” says Phoenix, on the phone from Victoria.
He and Braidwood are the co-founders of the Wonderheads, a physical theatre company that specializes in masks and storytelling. Their whimsical reimaging of A Christmas Carol is on tour on the Island now and will be onstage at the Massey Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 21.
They’re retelling the Dickens story in their company’s signature style: wordlessly, with puppets and full-face masks, with just three performers bringing to life some 20 characters throughout the evening.
“It’s full of whimsy and humour and heartfelt moments,” says Braidwood. “It’s really this very unique way of telling a familiar story.”
She admits it was daunting to think about taking on a story that’s been told so many times, in so many ways – especially given the fact that their theatre style is purely visual.
“It’s visual and wordless, and we’re taking on a story that is traditionally pretty text-based,” she says.
But Braidwood notes there are elements in the classic Dickens tale that also work exceptionally well for the Wonderheads’ style.
“It’s a story that’s filled with amazing imagery,” she points out. “The world of A Christmas Carol is filled with amazing images – the ghosts and things like that. How do we translate ghosts and magical moments through masks and puppetry?”
The masks and puppets (Braidwood makes the masks, and Phoenix builds the puppets) are backed by a soundscape that features original music by the Los Angeles-based band The Singer and the Songwriter, and the show also incorporates projections – which is where some of the expected text comes in.
“We do bring up some of those quintessential lines, like ‘God bless us, every one,’ and ‘You will be haunted by three spirits,’” Phoenix notes. “There are some guides along the way.”
To tell a story in purely visual form, the two note it means getting right to the emotional core of the story – “distilling stories down to their foundation,” as Braidwood puts it.
A Christmas Carol is full of characters who take emotional journeys, she points out – most obviously Ebenezer Scrooge himself, but also some of the secondary characters.
For Phoenix, the one secondary character that stands out is Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, largely remembered as the cheerful young man who asks his uncle to Christmas every year and who, every year, gets a “bah, humbug” for his troubles.
“When you really think about it, this is his only, as far as we know, his only living family member,” Phoenix points out. “I think for me, if I only had one uncle left, and they wouldn’t come to me – that’s heartbreaking, not just for Scrooge, but for the people he’s affecting.”
Plumbing those emotional depths through movement alone is nothing new for Braidwood and Phoenix, who both possess master’s degrees in ensemble-based physical theatre from Dell’Arte International in California.
They’re also familiar with having to transfer quickly and seamlessly from one character to another, so the task of bringing 14 masked characters and six puppets to life with only three performers isn’t perhaps as terrifying as it sounds.
Braidwood herself plays only one character: Scrooge. But Phoenix and fellow performer Jessica Hickman take on several masked personas and puppets each – Phoenix is Bob Cratchit and Fezziwig, among others, while Hickman is Marley, Fred and Belle.
Braidwood notes one of the joys of physical theatre is the built-in ability to throw a mask on and become a totally different character – though she confesses it can be physically exhausting. (“We’re all very sweaty by the end,” she admits with a laugh.)
“Artistically, what draws me to this form is I love how it’s very magical,” she says. “As soon as you step out onstage in these masks, you can feel the audience lean forward in their seats and get drawn into this other world that you’ve created. I think it makes people sort of touch in with their inner child, and they go with you on this imaginative journey that is a little different than other styles of theatre.”
It’s the same kind of magic that attracts the duo to animation. They grew up on Jim Henson, they still go to Pixar movies in the theatre, and, yes, the Christmas Carol movie they’re consistently drawn to is the classic Muppets version.
In that same spirit, Braidwood says, they really try to create shows that work for both adults and kids. For this one, they recommend it for audiences aged five and up.
“There are a few spooky moments. It is a ghost story when it comes down to it, but it’s also whimsical and fun,” Braidwood says.
For Phoenix, the year of effort that’s gone into creating this show paid off when their Christmas tour opened at Courtenay’s Sid Williams Theatre on Dec. 3. The audience was packed with kids and families, and there was none of the restlessness and rustling you expect when kids are present.
“You could have heard a pin drop, they were all so engaged and focused the whole time,” Phoenix says.
When the entire audience responded with a standing ovation, Phoenix and Braidwood knew they’d succeeded in drawing them in for the journey.
“To see that finally come to that place was really quite magical and lovely,” Phoenix says, then laughs. “And exhausting.”