1 Way to Complement Your Acting Skills

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Photo Source: Hunter Canning

“The Woodsman” is set in a corner of Oz where words have consequences. For the actors in this land, this has become an exercise in shifting not the root, but a figurative branch of performance. Entrenched in visceral storytelling, the cast of “The Woodsman” move character building away from memorizing and reciting lines and towards the physical, using bodies and breath to tell a familiar tale in a novel way.

The entire essence of “The Woodsman” lies in one paragraph of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” As imagined by actor-director-creator James Ortiz, the production’s deconstructed narrative focuses solely on the plight of the Tin Man.

The story follows a woodsman as he falls in love with a slave girl belonging to the Wicked Witch of the East. When she becomes rebellious and the witch discovers why, she curses the woodman’s axe to chop off a piece of him every time he wields it. Determined to build his love a house, like his father did for his mother, he and the axe chop away until there’s nothing left of the man and a group of eccentric metalworkers must rebuild him.

“There was never a version in my head where there weren’t puppets,” says Ortiz about his movement piece. “This story is about a guy that ultimately loses his humanity. I thought, What’s the best way to represent that than for an actor to be removed entirely until there’s nothing left of him? And [puppetry] says it better than an actor with silver paint on his face.”

Instead of relying on silver paint or dialogue (there are less than 650 spoken words in the entire 14-page script),“The Woodsman” incorporates not only puppets of the Tin Man, the witch, a half-bear, half-lion monstrosity that requires three actors to operate, and rustling crows that together strip down the other-worldliness of Oz, but also a live soundscape that adds another dimension to the small 59E59 theater. Ortiz has integrated a live violinist—who plays throughout the entire play—actors’ sharp exhales and gasps, clapping hands, clucking tongues, and whistles, in a handmade demonstration of aural and theatrical synergy.

“[Our cast] is all actors or movement people or movement artists who were fascinated and interested in puppetry,” says Ortiz. “It became a fun challenge to begin that conversation of, ‘How do we communicate with each other when we can’t talk to each other?’ When puppeteering, all you have is your breath.” Ortiz says he drew much from the French mime tradition of Lecoq, a practice that he says “makes the abstract specific in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re limiting it.”

In addition to writing, directing, and starring in the play, Ortiz also made the puppets himself, building a character, quite literally, from the ground up. “You get to have conversations with yourself about what their fingernails look like,” he says, chuckling. The SUNY Purchase-trained actor learned how to rivet and fashioned the Tin Man mostly out of aluminum in a matter of three weeks—while also working a day job.

It’s clear using marionettes on stage is a different theatrical experience for both actors and theatergoers. “At the end of the day, the audience will watch an actor play a role, but they know that person’s going to go home and take off their wig and not really be that person,” says Ortiz. “Fundamentally, in some strange way, audiences know that this puppet creation was built to only be that; there’s a different sort of truth there and a different sort of commitment from the audience into it. It’s like believing in your dolls when you’re a child, is sort of the best way I can explain it; it’s a reconnection to magic or something, and because of that it can sort of haunt you in really interesting ways.”

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Briana Rodriguez
Briana is the Editor-in-Chief at Backstage. She oversees editorial operations and covers all things film and television. She's interested in stories about the creative process as experienced by women, people of color, and other marginalized communities. You can find her on Twitter @brirodriguez and on Instagram @thebrianarodriguez
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