CULTURE CORNER | 20 QUESTIONS WITH THE WOODSMAN'S JAMES ORTIZ
No good fairytale would be complete without a tragic love story and an evil villain. Enter The Woodsman, the brainchild of artistic mastermind James Ortiz and theatre company Strangemen & Co. centered around a love story story behind America’s first fairytale. Brilliance in cast and crew permeates each detail of the production, bringing the hauntingly beautiful tale to life through enchanting nonverbal communication and extraordinary puppetry for a truly moving off-Broadway experience. We went behind the scenes to pick Ortiz’s brain on the ins and outs of producing (and acting in) the Theater District’s most revered new show.
LA: The story of The Wizard of Oz has been told in numerous ways through numerous mediums. What drew you to create The Woodsman?
JO: Well, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the first novel that my mother ever read to me, so there's an emotional attachment. I remember, even then, being fascinated by the Tin Woodman's story, which is only hinted at in the first novel. In fact, most of the chapters of the first novel end with some reminder of the tragedy of the Tin Man’s story – it definitely haunted me.
LA: What makes this version of the story of the Tin Woodsman different from other portrayals?
JO: I think this might certainly the most grounded adaptation of Baum's writing. Oz, for Baum, was a real place, and not a dream as it is the classic movie. So taking that idea a little further, we decided to take that to heart (pun intended) and try to depict Oz as just that – a real place where extraordinary things happen.
LA: You've had quite a few celebrities come to show support for The Woodsman. Any favorite or funny stories about their visits?
JO: Rosie O’Donnell truly didn't believe me when I told her that there were 14 L. Frank Baum Oz books. It was great. I also got a chance to meet Morena Baccarin and as a HUGE “Firefly” fan, I was completely star-struck and unable to speak. I know that I must have seemed like the most cagey weirdo ever. Ah, well.
LA: When creating this version of the story, did you draw inspiration from Jack Haley, Nipsey Russell, or any other evolutions of the Tin Woodsman?
JO: Since most versions of the story we've seen in film or theatre have almost entirely drawn from the Jack Haley interpretation, I knew that I wanted to go in a completely different direction and source the books. I drew inspiration from the 150 years of illustrations of the Tin Woodsman and culled together our boy from the work of those great artists.
LA: For the most part, the actors create the sights and sounds of the show without using dialogue. What inspired you to use this technique in The Woodsman? Was it difficult to bring to fruition?
JO: It’s hard to pinpoint where this came from initially, but it was largely reverse-engineered. In working with the puppets, we all realized that dialogue really destroyed their effectiveness onstage. This knowledge, coupled with the fact that Baum's Oz has an “Old World” and tactile, handmade quality to it, a world that resembled the American life of a craftsman in the mid-1800s, it just felt right that everyone in our ensemble should also take part in the making of the story, using whatever means they have available: singing, finger snaps, breath and body movement.
LA: Tell us the story behind the old family photos covering the walls of the theatre.
JO: The photos consist of research images we asked the cast to bring in early in the process – from the time in which Oz grew up and his time spent writing the Oz books. Many of the actors found pictures that helped inform their characters and build our American fairytale world of The Woodsman. We also pulled images from different illustrators who brought Oz to life in their artwork. For example, you can find a map of Oz, illustrations from the first books, and even photos from an early stage production. Finally, we also have images of actual cast members, some of their ancestors, and of course, the show's great ancestor and his family, L. Frank Baum himself. We're trying to help the audience gain a real sense of the Oz we've created, and to feel a part of that greater family.
LA: The transformation from man to puppet was incredible. Was that a difficult set of scenes to design and/or execute?
JO: At first it was a bit daunting, but it was very clear which attempts at different moments of this sequence really didn't work so it became a process of elimination, actually. We tried so many different ways of attaching the tin legs to my body, and in earlier drafts, it was in a running sequence. Once we found the right take, it became about adjusting other moments in the show.
LA: Was it difficult to create a puppet that could convey emotion to the audience? How did you do it with the Tin Woodsman?
JO: This ensemble features some of the best actors I may ever have the pleasure of working with. Conveying emotion via the puppets was something that I think we all wanted when we first started. The conversations in the room when creating those sequences always were rooted in an emotional and character-driven place as opposed to something choreographed or a “wouldn't it be cool if...” sort of place.
LA: Tell us a bit about what the puppets are made of and how they were constructed.
JO: The Tin Woodsman, as he is depicted in Baum's Oz novels, is a mixture of strength and softness. He is made of metal and held together by his own stubborn willpower, but his emotional life is quite fragile. In the design for The Woodsman, I was trying to depict both these sides of the character. He would be made of heavy looking pieces of metal, but his limbs would be long and spindly, and you would be able to see daylight through his joints. The character is fragmented, so I was also interested constructing him out of a variety of discarded and found objects.
There is a fair amount of riveted metal - mostly aluminum as it’s a lot more durable, accessible, and user-friendly than tin. His head is entirely made of a thin sheet of aluminum that was patterned and cut, and then riveted together into the contours of his face while his shoulders are coffee cans. There's a bit of lightweight wood to take some weight off of the puppeteers’ arms and there's also a lot of plastic to keep the puppet itself lightweight: from PVC tubing in his limbs to a torso re-configured from a water cooler bottle. The hands are made from malleable armature wire, so that the puppeteers can form them into any shape they'll need throughout the show.
LA: The witch is especially haunting. How were you able to envision and create such a realistic incarnation?
JO: I’m so glad you feel that way! She's one of my favorites. Baum gives very little information about this character, because, of course, the house has already fallen on her when the books begin, but a major detail (from the books) we ran with is that the witch was so old that all the blood has dried up and her heart no longer beats so she manages to stay alive by means of her magic. This is a powerful woman that is doing everything she can to remain in power, even as her body and mind are failing her. Being in the latter years of her life, and fearful that it might end at any moment, forced a desperate, violent urgency in everything she does. This detail also helped define the character of her slave girl, Nimmee. The witch wants to stay alive and is losing her power, so she keeps the unknowingly magical Nimmee around as a rechargeable battery pack, really. The witch sucks the life and magic out of Nimmee in order to survive. For Nimmee, the witch is the only parent figure she has, so it just makes their relationship extraordinarily complicated. I think all of these elements collectively make that puppet all the more “alive.”
LA: Upon seeing The Woodsman, what do you hope audience members take away from it?
JO: That these classic children's stories still have something of value and importance for us adults to hear and experience again in retellings.
LA: What drew you to theatre and puppetry specifically?
JO: Theatre for me was a full bodied form of expression and puppetry was an even further extension of that with no limits. I could be anyone and do anything through puppetry.
LA: You and your fellow SUNY Purchase graduates created Strangemen & Co, an innovative theatre troupe. How has the company evolved since its inception?
JO: We now have the opportunity to share our original vision and passion for unusual, extraordinary stories with a wider audience.
LA: Did you ever envision one of your shows making it to a commercial production?
JO: Never in my wildest dreams!
LA: Is it safe to say that Strangemen & Co. is going to take more classic tales and spin them into an avant-garde piece of art, like The Woodsman or The Little Mermaid?
JO: I love folklore and mythology and it certainly lends itself to a heightened style of theatricality. I also love reimaging other stories in unusual and inventive ways which is something that Strangemen is always working on. Personally, I like the challenge of putting things on a stage that traditionally don't fit there.
LA: Speaking of The Little Mermaid, you took the helm much like The Woodsman; directing, acting, writing, and designing/creating the puppets. Does that get exhausting and overwhelming?
JO: Yes and no. I have surrounded myself with an insanely talented group of artists that make the show happen every night. Thankfully, it’s not all resting on my shoulders.
LA: Can you give us an insider look on the next Strangemen & Co. production, The 13 Clocks?
JO: I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s very much a fairy tale for adults and about the restorative power and the wisdom hidden inside of great stories. It’s directed and conceived by Will Gallacher, the movement director of The Woodsman and who also plays 'Pa' in the show, so you can expect a highly theatrical, physical piece. It’s gonna be awesome!
LA: You recently worked on The Tempest with DC Shakespeare and created large scale puppets that were rather breathtaking. Tell us about that project and the challenges you faced.
JO: Teaching puppeteers to operate goddess puppets (20 feet tall!) on a shifting sand dune. Hilarity certainly ensued!
LA: What is your dream story to adapt into a stage piece? Can you describe your vision?
JO: This is a great question! I’m always aspiring to create other pieces of theater. For the longest time, The Woodsman was my dream, and to reintroduce Baum’s Oz to audiences has been the highest of highs – the peak of everything. It’s a great feeling.
LA: Besides your own, what is your favorite show in New York and why?
JO: Oh, don’t make me pick! The original production of The Glass Menagerie, hands down. But I lost my mind at Next Fall a few years back. August: Osage County meant a lot to me. And years ago, Susan Stroman's Contact was life changing.
Contact your Attaché for tickets and stay tuned for updates on The 13 Clocks.