Richardson — If you are looking for something out of the ordinary to do this weekend, then check out Sossy Mechanics‘ Trick Boxing: Swingin’ in the Ring, Feb. 11-14, at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson. In this 80-minute show, husband and wife team Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan bring the aesthetic of classic 1930’s movie musicals to the stage with four puppets playing 16 different characters, rapid-fire dialogue, physical comedy and beautiful ballroom dance sequences reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Sossy Mechanics is a dance theater company based out of Minneapolis that combines the vast performance talent and wild imaginations of Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan. Since forming the company in 2000, Sossy Mechanics has developed a devoted public following and their show Trick Boxing has garnered critical acclaim in various cities across the U.S. and abroad, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Edinburgh, Prague, London, Vancouver, Seattle and New York City. Sossy Mechanics made its Dallas debut at WaterTower Theatre’s 2014 Out of the Loop Fringe Festival where Trick Boxing was well received by both audiences and critics.
Sostek and McClellan met while performing with the percussive dance theater company Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum in Minneapolis. Over the years Sostek has parlayed his background in various dance forms, his life long experience with comedy and fascination with verbal and physical into a successful career in the arts as a writer, director, choreographer, performer and teacher. He is a recipient of a 2014 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, a 2005 Sage Award for performance and the 2010 MN Bride Magazine award for Best Dance Instructor.
McClellan’s first professional dance job had her portraying a water molecule at a sewage treatment facility for a site-specific choreographer in Minneapolis. Her other performance credits include Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum, Shapiro & Smith Dance and Black Label Movement. Since joining forces with Sostek in 2000 she had added writing, acting and choreography to her repertoire. In 2003 McClellan was awarded a McKnight Artist Fellowship in Dance and was named Artist of the Year in 2012 by City Pages (Minneapolis).
TheaterJones askes Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan about combining their backgrounds in dance, theater, acting, writing and puppetry to produce Trick Boxing, the challenges of putting together a show as unique as this one and the different styles of puppetry.
TheaterJones: How were you two introduced to the performing arts?
Megan McClellan: Our backgrounds are vast. Brian was brought into the arts at a young age through his parents. His mother was a talented dancer and his father was a talented actor, director and stage manager in New York. He was always interested in acting and theater, but it wasn’t until college when he started taking dance much more seriously, which then lead him to becoming a ballroom dance instructor and getting into tap dance.
Brian Sostek: I graduated from college with a degree in English, and afterward I moved to Minneapolis where I started auditioning for different things. I quickly found that I didn’t really like the audition pieces so, I started writing my own audition pieces and getting work based on those. And one thing lead to another and I started writing longer, more involved character pieces and started performing them around town. So, long before I was working as a legitimate actor I was sort of working in the fringe of what was then called the performance art world.
McClellan: My backstory is that I am one of four girls and a brother, and all the girls were put into dance at a very early age. I strictly danced up until the first time we put this show together. I consider myself the type of dancer who always believed that I am an actor while on stage. I was more a strict tap, jazz and ballet dancer who then got her modern dance education from the University of Minnesota. I later ended up in a tap and percussive dance company, and that is where Brian and I met. I have also choreographed for a lot of musical theater, but I do not have a strong singing voice so I was never really pulled into the theatrical side until Brian took me there.
Is this showing of Trick Boxing the same one you presented at the Out of The Loop Fringe Festival at WaterTower Theatre in 2014?
Sostek: The full production has changed since 2014. We rewrote the show and changed the beginning for a premiere in St. Paul, Minnesota at the beginning of 2015. We have revised the show various times over its lifetime. The history of the show starts back in 2002 when we premiered a 50-minute version at a local fringe festival. It was very successful so the following year we took it on the road and did the Canadian circuit and the Edinburgh Fringe for a month, and by that point we had rewritten it a little bit. We periodically make adjustments and because it’s our show and it’s just the two of us sometimes we make adjustments minutes before going on stage. We put the show on the shelf for about five years while we were having kids and working with other companies in Minneapolis.
In 2010 we decided to get back to doing our own work and got into the New York International Fringe Festival and got some really nice press from the New York Times. From there we did another major rewrite to take Trick Boxingfrom an hour long show to an hour and a half with an intermission. The main reason we do rewrites is to improve the story and include choreography that we felt was missing from the show. The beginning of last year we still felt there was something lacking in the story structure and the choreography so, we added a new beginning and a couple other changes within the show that really flushed out some of the characters.
Was it hard coming up with choreography that you could perform while delivering dialogue through multiple characters?
Sostek: What we do is actually a lot easier than performing in musicals because in musicals the singing takes a lot more vocal control. We sometimes call our show a dance-ical because instead of bursting into song we burst into dance, and then most of the dialogue happens between dances. We also do a lot of movement sequences that are more text-based.
McClellan: One of the elements in the story is that my character Bella teaches two different characters in the show how to be better boxers by teaching them how to swing dance, and she does all this through a simple, reinventing of the Patty Cake nursey rhythm. There are all sorts of speaking and dancing elements in the story, but when it comes to the dance sequences these are more silent movie moments.
Sostek: And all the dances in the show are organic to the show’s cosmology. In other words it’s not like we go off on a tangent and say “OK, now these two characters are going to dance.” They’re dancing either because they are moving in a stylized way as in boxing or training to box or because one of the characters is a dancer and she is dancing with the other characters. In that way we really tried to make every movement piece real to the world of the story.
Does Trick Boxing personify the type of work you both envisioned of doing when you started Sossy Mechanics?
McClellan: The message within the show really personifies who we are as artists. We like to make work with positive elements. We spent a lot of time working in the concert dance world and Brian also spent a lot of writing for dance and so, we walk the line between theater and dance a lot. One of the main things we consider ourselves to be is storytellers. And we use dance, theater and puppetry to tell a story. We are not likely to make our pieces abstract. Working in the concert world the choreographers who have touched us the most are the ones who create work from their hearts instead of their heads and personal demons. We like to create positive work. We also make work about love and that is the other most important component about our work.
Brian, how did you get into puppetry and where does one go to learn these skills?
Sostek: When we started this show I had done rudimentary puppetry on my own because I have always been fascinated with it. Since the first time we created the show I have worked quite a bit at the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis which has fantastic puppetry. They bring in puppet artists from around the world to create, design, build and teach the different styles of puppetry. Everything from giant five-person operated puppets like we see in Alice in Wonderland to the shadow puppets in Peter Pan. Minneapolis and St. Paul have a really great driving puppetry design, performance and education environment. There are also more puppet theaters that are offering puppetry classes. There’s a company out of Chicago called Manual Cinema which has a developed a whole new style of puppetry that uses overhead projectors and drawing and shadows. If people are looking for training I think they need to start with the puppet theaters. Just like dance has many different styles such as postmodern, modern, tap or jazz, it is the same with puppetry. There are many different styles of puppetry so is it hard to say how do you study puppetry. You kind of have to just immerse yourself in the culture and go from there.
What style of puppetry do you use in the show?
Sostek: The style of the show is very simple. It’s called ludicrous puppetry because without giving much away it involved some silly prop objects that we threw together including a beanie baby. And the power of it does not so much come from the technique of puppetry. I have become a much better puppeteer since creating the show, but we haven’t changed the puppetry in the show to match my skills so, the magic is really about how the audience’s imagination is being engaged. One of the things we set out to do was rely on the audience’s imagination. We have no set other than some scrims in the background and our props consist of an old steamer trunk. It’s really minimal in terms of script. We use our bodies, light design and sound design to tell the story. By the time we get to the puppetry in the show the idea is that people are along for the ride and they’re playing the game so, we have people cheering for these absurd looking puppets. It’s crazy!
This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.