IOWA CITY — Cassette tapes full of favorite songs and exchanged between friends in the 1980s inspired Joe Osheroff, artistic director at Homunculus Mask Theater in New York, to create a theatrical work reflecting that experience.
Titled “Visual Mixtape,” the show will be performed this weekend in Theatre B of the University of Iowa Theatre Building, 200 N. Riverside Dr., Iowa City. It combines masked characters, rock music and stories to create a new form of theater.
Osheroff, the current Grant Wood Colony Fellow in Interdisciplinary Performance (Theatre) at the University of Iowa, explains the genesis of the project:
“My friends and I would record the songs off of vinyl or from other cassettes, and it was a meticulous exercise,” he said. “The flow of the tape, the pace of it, the order of the songs, the cover art, the themes — were all part of the process. Each tape was meant to create the perfect vibe, something that would resonate in that moment in time for whoever the tape was meant for.
“This show takes that notion of putting together a specific soundscape, adds about 40 of my original masks, and puts it on a stage,” Osheroff said. “It literally is a visual mixtape.”
Osheroff worked with “10 insanely talented students in the Department of Theatre Arts here at the university,” he said. “We have spent the last six weeks devising all of the imagery and material from scratch, so everything the audience sees will have been invented by the actors themselves.
“What the audience will experience is a pastiche of masked storylines — some straightforward and some a little more abstract — set to music, that flows seamlessly from one scenario into the next. I am throwing as much imagery as possible at the audience. In many ways, it is like a crazy, live music video. The masks and the characters that inhabit this special little world elevate the piece into a new form of theater,” he said.
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“Although the show is set to music and tightly choreographed, it is not a dance show. Rather, it focuses on these strange and wonderful characters who often move into the realm of dance when their emotional state is so heightened that they can’t express themselves in any other way.”
The performers will wear full-face masks, and the show contains no spoken dialogue.
“There is no written script, but everything on stage is meticulously rehearsed,” Osheroff explained. “Nothing is improvised. Mask work is a very specific form of performance and involves an incredible attention to detail. Because the entire show is set to music, there is a fair amount of choreography combined with a huge amount of character work,” he said.
“All of the masks cover the entire face, but just because the actors aren’t speaking, it doesn’t mean they aren’t communicating. In fact, with masks, the communication is actually elevated to the point that, in this case, language isn’t necessary. The show is full of storylines and relationships between the characters, but it presents those things in an alternative way.
“The impact of this type of performance is purely visceral. We have created a new world for the audience to peek into, and my hope is that they will find their emotional response to the material as heightened as the material itself.”
Osheroff has been exploring different forms of mask-making for more than 20 years. He creates masks that look very different from what audiences may expect to see.
“Many forms of Western mask theater are rooted in folk tales, Greek mythology, and Commedia Dell’arte,” he said. “I am interested in pushing the form in a new direction, in that I don’t use dialogue and most, if not all, of my material is set to music, usually rock ’n’ roll. I’m creating a hybrid of character based mask theater (with a wink and a nod to the old traditions, in which all mask theater derived) and a dance show.
“I just have no interest in creating masks in a style that has been done before,” Osheroff said. “I came out to Iowa on a Grant Wood Fellowship to teach acting at the University and create a new piece of theater. ‘Visual Mixtape’ is what we have come up with.”
WHAT: “Visual Mixtape”
WHERE: Theatre B, University of Iowa Theatre Building, 200 N. Riverside Dr., Iowa City
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday (4/6) and Saturday (4/7), and 2 p.m. Sunday (4/8)
TICKETS: $5 public, free for University of Iowa students