When my daughter and I first experienced the colorful world of Elska we were taken by the intriguing story of a modern pioneer living on an arctic island containing a land of lost socks, an arctic fox and the Goobler. Elska is a magical character brought to life by Shelley Wollert and producer Allen Farmelo. In the performance of Elska’s first album, Middle of Nowhere, the audience is transported into Elska’s fantastical world in a theatrical way that taps into the most fantastic parts of a child’s imagination.
Recently, Elska received an amazing invitation to be a part of The New Victory Theater’s LabWorks artists’ residency program, guided by The New Victory Theater programming department under the leadership of Mary Rose Lloyd, the theater’s Director of Artistic Programming. Elska was one of just ten artistic teams to be offered expert support as well as the opportunity to use the theater’s state-of-the art facilities to develop a new performance piece as well as an accompanying album.
Jonathan Shmidt Chapman, Associate Director of Artistic Programming at the New Victory Theater noted, “We’re delighted to welcome Elska to the 2014-15 New Victory LabWorks Artist Residency Program. Elska is a unique and innovative artist, merging music and theatricality to provide a one-of-a-kind experience for family audiences. We are looking forward to providing space, support and feedback to Elska as the artists develop a totally new work, writing new content (music and narrative) and enhancing their musical stage show for a theater venue.”
I was so excited about this announcement that I wanted to catch up with Allen and Shelley for some Q&A about what their future plans are.
Kids Can Groove: Congratulations on your residency with The New Victory’s LabWorks program! What an incredible opportunity!
Shelley Wollert: This is truly an amazing opportunity for Elska to create a new piece and a new album with the mentorship at the New Victory Theater, which is cutting edge, so well respected and internationally known. It puts a tiny spotlight on Elska in that community which is really a nice introduction for us into the theater world. It’s just a great thing to be a part of and we’re super excited to get started.
Allen Farmelo: When I consider this opportunity in the broader context of how public funding for the arts has been consistently drying up in the US, I feel that what LabWorks is doing is not just visionary in the artistic sense but socio-economincally and politically ambitious and forward looking. I feel extremely honored to be a part of their mission to support performing arts for young audiences.
KCG: Can you explain what you will be doing during your residency? Will you be expanding upon Middle of Nowhere?
SW: What we’re doing at LabWorks is going to be creating an entirely new piece and a new album simultaneously.
AF: When we created Middle of Nowhere, we made an album and then created a live show to go with it. What we want to do now is create the music, the theatrical piece, the props, the production and the lighting
simultaneously. With LabWorks we have the opportunity to play and experiment in real-time with the added benefit of mentorship from directors, lighting techs, prop makers, set designers, producers, etc, who are very familiar with theatrical elements.
KCG: How did the transition to theater come about?
AF: The transition to theater grew out of our live show, Middle of Nowhere, which is based on our debut album of the same name. Over the past couple of years that we’ve been touring Middle of Nowhere we’ve had the opportunity to perform in clubs and in theaters, the latter of which provided a proper lighting setup, an expanded stage setup, and a seated audience. What we found is that the show really worked well in theaters. The children were transfixed and the parents were able to engage with the children more as true audience members, rather than as chaperones to what is often just a child-centric concert experience.
SW: To further underline what Allen is saying, instead of [Middle of Nowhere] being just purely a concert, our live performance is turning into something that is more of a story line, involving many theatrical elements that transports the audience to a setting that goes beyond a typical concert. When we heard about LabWorks we felt that was the perfect opportunity to allow us to grow in that area.
AF: We ended up showcasing at a booking conference called IPAY (International Performing Arts for Youth Conference) and while we were there we saw a broad range of international children’s performances. When we saw our musical act in that context and with a character and a script, we realized that we are more than just a musical act. What further solidified our thoughts was when we performed at the Alden Theater in Virginia because they billed our show as Elska performs “Middle of Nowhere” as if it was a theatrical piece rather than just a concert. That changed our paradigm up even more and we started really considering pursuing theater. The album title grew into a performance title and that changed our paradigm up. So when we heard about LabWorks it was the perfect fit for us.
KCG: Have either of you done theater before?
SW: I have a degree in performing arts and a background in acting. I was an apprentice at a really great theater called the Actor’s Theater of Louisville in Kentucky which had a really strong acting program. I also studied in London and in college, as well, so for me bringing Elska into the theater is such a return to my roots as a performer.
AF: Shelley is maybe being modest in this regard. She has a long history as an actress, and also played Joan of Arc in a solo show called The Passion Project which was reviewed positively in The NewYork Times. It was one of the most amazing deconstructed multimedia pieces I’ve ever seen. I saw Shelley perform there before I even knew her and it blew me away.
KCG: That must have been a very emotional performance I imagine.
SW: Very. The Joan of Arc show itself was physically intense as well which is something I’ve been drawn to as a performer. Just recently, I did an acting intensive at Brooklyn College in a technique that was created by a French master director named Jacques Lecoq. I threw myself into this class and it was physically and mentally demanding and so amazing. Right now, as an actor, and with the LabWorks opportunity, I’m ready to really push myself to grow and to really reach my own physical potential.
KCG: I’m curious what your approach to this production will be like in the theater because you will be developing a story and the music at the same time which is a different creative process than they way you approached the production of Middle of Nowhere.
AF: We have an interesting challenge ahead of us. We don’t want to make musical theater in the traditional sense of a broadway musical, we want to do something different. For our current live performance, Shelley performs as Elska based on a script she wrote which weaves the songs from the album together. During our residency with LabWorks, I see us going even further into the sounds of Elska’s life and the actual soundscape that she exists in, which is based on Iceland. I think young minds are very open to a sound based experience so we would like to blend sound design and actual songwriting into something that ignites their imagination rather than filling it entirely, as one might with songs that advance the plot in musical theater.
Instead, what we envision is that Elska makes music in her life and she’s going to create moments of that on stage where she would be out on the island, naturally, and then the children will fall into that moment with her. What is interesting about performing for young audiences is that they can’t hold a plot line for very long, so there’s this ratio of plot to ambience that you get to play with. I’m most interested in creating magical moments that are wonderful and memorable rather than a traditional theater piece with various scenes, acts and a whole narrative arc. The opportunity to create music that isn’t necessarily advancing a plot or a story but creating a feeling or a mood is a greater challenge that I’m looking forward to. In the last record, we did some of this with songs like “Arctic Fox” where we created sounds that imitated a fox’s whiskers moving around. We used bells for the “Elska Express” and you can hear the train in the background, too, so there is a bit of sound design there which we currently incorporate into the live performance of Middle of Nowhere.
KCG: I remember the video for “Arctic Fox” had sounds that were perfectly timed with Elska’s facial gestures. It really feels like a whole piece.
SW: Exactly. For me, movement and sound should not be separate from one another. There is an acting method called Viewpoints that was adapted for stage by a director named Anne Bogart. One of the Viewpoints, according to the method, is called kinesthetic response. Basically, when something happens it causes a reaction. If a door slams on stage, a person appears to sit down at the exact same moment, or when a bell rings, Elska’s head is compelled to move at the same time because of that kinetic force and that action and reaction that happens. When we create this piece, and I perform this piece, it’s really important that my full physical body is tuned into these sounds and the angles of the stage so that it can be completely aligned. This also relates back to something I learned from my acting class in the Jacques Lecoq method which was the theory of le jeu which means play. An actor who can play is an actor who is interesting to watch, and we know this with children as well. A child who is playing and is in that imaginary space is totally engaged in that moment. When Allen and I are at LabWorks, one of the cards I’m going to have on the wall will say le jeu. From play, from engagement, and from these actions and reactions that we’re creating, we’re going to be in this new world that will be exciting to watch.
KCG: It sounds really magical. I can just see the theater as being part of the scenery. The audience is going to be teleported to another place for the duration of the show.
AF: It’s funny because I’ve always been interested in making albums that were worlds unto themselves. My favorite records, from front to back, are the ones where you feel like you’re in one unified world, and that’s what we’ve tried to do with Elska. For the new piece, we want to make sure that our work continues to feel like one unified world.
KCG: How do you see LabWorks supporting you throughout the development process?
AF: With LabWorks we have the support of a community of really excellent and pretty experimental theater makers. When you see a lot of the work they present, domestically and internationally, some of it is very abstract, very avant-garde theater which is a really good fit for us because we want to push Elska further into abstraction. The question we want to explore is how to do that more elegantly and more imaginatively. We always think of Elska like Legos. It’s an open-ended toy and we’re expecting a child to take that toy and turn it into something. We want to present building blocks for the imagination. We’ve been really cognizant of that with the development of the plot in Middle of Nowhere. I’ve seen 2 and 3-year-olds completely engaged in Elska just absolutely dive in and start creating their own stories, their own plots, their own bits, and so we’re cognizant of not handing a closed-off narrative, but one that is open and leaves the child with possibilities and questions. Rather than pondering a completed plot, we are inviting them in and encouraging them to create that plot themselves to some degree.
SW: Exactly. Allen and I are both excited by things that are a bit absurd and not literal, so we’ll be pursuing those types of ideas. When I think about the song “Winter Bear,” or an actual polar bear, there are many ways you could create a polar bear on stage. I am excited to talk with the talented people at The New Victory Theater and discover how to bring an imaginary character like this onto the stage in new ways.
KCG: Since the debut of Middle of Nowhere, you have devoted a lot of time to developing Elska and Elska’s world. How will you maintain your vision while also incorporating feedback from the LabWorks panel of experts?
AF: That’s a good question, because when a creative team partners with a larger entity one wonders whether creative autonomy will be minimized at all. But, I have one-hundred percent confidence that working with The New Victory Theater is going to add integrity to what we do and help our next piece become more like Elska than it already is. It’s time for us to go further into our instincts and gut feelings about this vision we had, time to develop Elska into something even more unique. Their expertise and level of professionalism, knowledge, depth and dedication to theater for youth is a total gift for us. We’re the company creating the work and they’re the theater providing support for us to do our work and further realize our vision. The beauty of the LabWorks residency is that we have total creative autonomy over our work while being educated on techniques that will help us get closer to what we really want our next piece to be.
SW: It will be interesting to get The New Victory Theater’s input on that. Through LabWorks, we are going to be given professional development opportunities to meet with their technical team and education department to talk about those aspects of Elska. They have an incredibly robust and talented panel of experts that I am excited to learn from.
KCG: As you prepare to enter into a more theatrical space, do you feel a greater responsibility to deliver a compelling performance? Are the stakes higher now?
AF: With the new piece we are trying to create a lot of new things, so in that sense I feel a growing responsibility to the audience to provide excellence across a bunch of mediums. At the same time, I am also cautious about creating based on the audience’s reactions to our work. I always say the greatest enemy of creative work is the imagined audience because if you create based on an imagined response you aren’t listening to your own vision. I prefer to make sure that I have a responsibility to the work itself. As a producer, I am very interested in creating something that is functioning and beautiful on its own terms. While I do keep the audience in mind, I also want to come at the work without a set of expectations that I believe other people would have.
With Middle of Nowhere, we give the audience a sense of really being inside Elska’s world by creating an imaginary world and now we’re getting ready to make an imaginary world in three dimensions because theater does that amazing thing of putting a real person in front of you.
As the adventures of Elska advance into greater heights, fans will still be able to catch the current production of Middle of Nowhere as it continues to tour over the next year.
To find out more about the magic of Elska, visit her online where you can find her touring schedule, view videos and get to know some of the characters that also play an important role in bringing Elska’s story to life.
To find out more about the incredible LabWorks residency program visit New Victory LabWorks.