Interview: Broken Box Mime Theater Artistic Director Becky Baumwoll Talks About This Week's Pop-Up Shows "Asks Why" and "Frankenstein"

Image from Broken Box Mime Theater
Broken Box Mime Theater (BKBX) is a New York City-based collaborative theater company that performs original, contemporary short plays entirely through movement. Founded in 2011 and winners of New York Innovative Theatre Awards for Outstanding Movement/Choreography, Performance Art, and Ensemble, BKBX reimagines French pantomime through the lens of contemporary U.S. American theater. This week, Broken Box Mime will present special pop-up performances of BKBXKids! Asks Why running in rep with A BKBX Frankenstein. Performances will take place at the Theatre at the 14th Street Y (344 East 14th Street) from November 17-20, and tickets are available for advance purchase at www.brokenboxmime.com (with free admission to BKBXKids! Asks Why for anyone under 5 years old).

BKBXKids! is a division of Broken Box Mime Theater that aims to inspire unplugged creativity and shared imaginative experiences in children and families by way of joyful, movement-based storytelling. Inspired by a question from a 9-year-old named Sean on Sesame Street's June 6th, 2020 Town Hall on racial justice about why Black people are treated so badly despite their incalculable contributions to the world, BKBXKids! Asks Why employs embodied poetry, modern mime, and a dance party to explore Sean's question and to create an entry point into conversations about racial justice for young people and their families. The show's run at the 14th Street Y marks its NYC debut after a two-week stint at Seattle Children’s Theater last month.

Exploring a different variety of horror, A BKBX Frankenstein remixes and riffs on the themes found in Mary Shelley’s gothic/horror/sci-fi classic, with a focus on technology, creation, and modern monsters. The show stitches together a mix of favorite restaged repertoire with a new cast and fresh interstitials, and its centerpiece is BKBX’s ode to sci-fi cinema, "Starship Excelsior," which brings a new space opera twist to that famous moment when creator and creation meet for the first time. It also features "Automatic," in which five actors perform a trance-like, dance-like ritual disassembling and assembling a rifle in perfect unison, and "Boyz Side," an absurdly comic segment that shifts from a boy band in mid-choreography to a striptease that, quite literally, cuts to the bone.

In anticipation of BKBXKids! Asks Why and A BKBX Frankenstein's pop-up run, we talked with BKBX Founding Artistic Director Becky Baumwoll about the shows, individually and together, and about what BKBX has in store for audiences next.


Becky Baumwoll. Image from
 Becky Baumwoll — Broken Box Mime Theater
Thinking Theater NYC: Given that BKBXKids! Asks Why and A BKBX Frankenstein will be running in rep, what relationship, if any, do you see between the two shows?


Becky Baumwoll: There are two answers to this one! First, our artistic voice ties them together. Broken Box’s take on modern mime is rooted in collaboration, a mix between metaphorical and literal storytelling, and creating performance that, without words or props, feels simplified in palette but entirely complex in impact. Both shows are told with BKBX’s voice, loud and clear. You’ll see much of the same cast in both shows, and the work of brilliant lighting designer Annie Liu’s work filling both stages with vivid color.

Second, without being too flip or cheeky about it, both shows are about monsters and how we reckon with them. In A BKBX Frankenstein, there are playful riffs on this, like our sci-fi space opera "Starship Excelsior," which sets Frankenstein in a futuristic galaxy. But we also dive into more big-picture, human monsters: cult leaders, our society’s obsession with weaponry, and climate change. In Asks Why, we look at the monster of racism in our country. What we don’t get in Frankenstein that we do in Asks Why, however, is the journey of a single character navigating her relationship with this monster and exploring how to combat it.

Thinking Theater NYC: Speaking of that monster and that journey, Asks Why was inspired by a child's question in a Sesame Street Town Hall. Why do you think that arts and media don't often view or represent children as interested in or able to think and talk about issues such as racial justice? And how does this show act as a corrective to such a view of children?

Becky Baumwoll: Sean’s question on Sesame Street struck all of us, and we see Sesame as among a brilliant suite of arts and media creators that see children as the complex, sophisticated, honest, and engaged audience members that they are. Of course, what we expose our kids to varies from culture to culture and home to home, but yes, we found that, although there were many resources online about talking with your kids about race and books about antiracism, we didn’t find as many pieces of theater about the subject. We hope that Asks Why offers an entry point that is experiential, poetic, and entirely responsive to our society’s need to have these conversations frankly and in an intergenerational setting.

Thinking Theater NYC: Asks Why features a dance party and embodied poetry. Why is it important to engage the body, perhaps especially for this audience? And can you tell us more about the concept of embodied poetry?

Becky Baumwoll: Yes! To us, embodied poetry is all the great things about a poem, just put in physical form. The reader/audience fills in the blanks. Literal and metaphorical can be mixed. Many interpretations are valid. Creativity abounds. Rules can be followed or broken depending on the intention of the poet/mime. When a poem becomes embodied in mime, we get new references and shapes to riff on: the physical form of the body of the performer, the connection to the audience (we all have a body), the symbolism of gesture.

In Asks Why, Regan dives into her question, literally walking into it. The mimes create the landscapes inside of the question, e.g. a garden of stories, where she weeds the false stories of our nation’s history and plants seeds of true stories in their place. The garden is a simile, perhaps one of the most elemental versions of poetry.

The body is where we keep our trauma, our inheritance, our emotions, our big feelings, our joy, our stress, our health, our well-being, our love. When talking about difficult truths of racism, we want to model that the body must, BOTH literally and figuratively, move through the experience. Dances of resistance, celebration, and healing have led this example throughout the ages and around the world. We are trying to learn from these traditions.

Thinking Theater NYC: Talking about moving through experience, how was the reaction to Asks Why's two-week run in Seattle?

Becky Baumwoll: We honestly didn’t know what to expect! We were thrilled at the response. Parents were able to express to us afterwards that what we were doing was important, valuable, meaningful. The kids were engaged the whole time, which we found out when we hit the audience interaction moments!

Thinking Theater NYC: Shifting focus a bit, how did the idea come about to use Shelley's (very talky) novel as inspiration for the segments that make up A BKBX Frankenstein?

Becky Baumwoll: Monsters! Who doesn’t love a monster? Another example of poem and metaphor, the Frankenstein theme can be riffed on in so many ways, which BKBX loves. We are a collective of 19 members, and our joy in artmaking has always come from playing variously with a theme from our varying perspectives. Frankenstein is also so relevant to the period we are in presently, facing the monsters our society has borne at every election, front page reading, and COP conference.
 
Thinking Theater NYC: Can you talk a little bit about how the individual segments within A BKBX Frankenstein were chosen or developed?

Becky Baumwoll: Right now BKBX has a library of about 175 pieces of repertoire! For Frankenstein, we made a list of all the pieces that could be riffs on the theme of “monsters, technology, and the realities we create.” We then whittled down the setlist so that the show would run just under an hour, with no redundancies and with a “best of” lens on the whole thing. We think these are some of the best pieces in our body of work.

Thinking Theater NYC: Along similar lines, in what ways do you approach pop-up shows such as these differently, if at all, from shows that run in a traditional theater setting?

Becky Baumwoll: The concept of a one-weekend run is that we can check in with our NYC audiences in the spirit of a “happening,” like a not-to-be-missed event! We like to use pieces from our repertoire for these shows so that we can remix past works and restage them with new artists. There are always adjustments that happen, improvements, changes to be responsive to the present day. That process is an entire delight.

Thinking Theater NYC: What would you say to people who have never been to a mime performance or think that mime is not for them?

Becky Baumwoll: In our 11 years of performance, there has not been a single show that didn’t include an audience member saying in the lobby to us, “I honestly didn’t think I’d be into mime, but that was entirely different than I expected. I loved it.” It is a fantastic thing to be introduced to an artform that is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Try it!

Thinking Theater NYC: As we come to a close, is there anything else you would like to add?

Becky Baumwoll: This show was the result of a collaborative team of many brilliant artists, and we love them.

Thinking Theater NYC: Finally, what is next on the horizon for Broken Box Mime Theater?

Becky Baumwoll: The Black & White Ball! At the end of the year, we throw an annual party where everyone dresses up in black and white, drinks and eats, watches a BKBX performance, and dances the night away. Join us on December 12th at the Green Building in Gowanus. More details at brokenboxmime.com.

Many thanks to Becky Baumwoll for speaking to us about the wonderful work of Broken Box Mime Theater (you can read our review of their April 2022 show Take Shape here). BKBXKids! Asks Why will be performed on Fri. 11/18 at 3:30 pm, Sat. 11/19 at 2 pm, and Sun. 11/20 at 2 pm. It is intended for ages 0-100 (and over?), tickets are $15, and admission is free for anyone under 5. A BKBX Frankenstein, intended for adventurous ages 12 and up, will be performed on Thu. 11/17, Fri. 11/18, and Sat. 11/19, all at 7:30pm; and tickets are $25.

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