Creative artists retire creatures in quest for next show

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad, Imago Theatre co-founders, have spent more than 30 years perfecting mask theater, but the characters of 'ZooZoo,' including popular polar bears, will be retired after local shows starting Dec. 7 and an international tour.Human faces and bodies are part of Imago Theatre’s future.

The masks of “ZooZoo” will be put away, ending an era of creativity that has drawn fans across the country. Co-founders Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle started with ideas for physical theater back in 1979, giving birth to “FROGZ,” followed by “Biglittlethings” in 2002 and “Cats” in recent years.

All of the costumes — the hippos, the polar bears, the frogs, the penguins, the anteaters, the fireflies, the acrobatic larvae, the cats, the giant windbag — will be shelved. Or, displayed somewhere. Mouawad doesn’t know for sure their fate.

What he does know is the “ZooZoo” show, a collection of all the Imago characters, will go out with one last hurrah — four weeks of shows, Dec. 7 to Jan. 1, at Imago Theatre, 17 S.E. Eighth Ave. (tickets: $31 adults, $27 youth/senior, $16 kids, available through or 503-231-9581). Then, it’s off on a final international tour through June.

Imago plans to go in a “new direction” after that, exploring dance, movement and comedy.

Mouawad says sentimentality hasn’t hit, yet, mostly because the show goes on.

“We have so much to do,” Mouawad says. “It’s hard to be sentimental.”

With “ZooZoo,” Mouawad and Triffle have certainly made an impact on the Portland theater scene, and expanded beyond the Rose City. Mouawad figures, totaling all the tours in the past 30 years or so, “ZooZoo has played in maybe 3,000 theaters internationally.

Highlights were showing “FROGZ” at the New Victory Theater on Broadway in 2000 and 2002 and “ZooZoo” in 2010.

by: COURTESY OF IMAGO THEATRE - 'Cats' are the newest addition to Imago Theatre's 'ZooZoo‚' Imago Theatre has put on mask theater shows in about 3,000 theaters, and now plans to focus on physical theater with human faces and bodies.“I think Imago has made an impact — thinking outside the box, using different forms, exploring physical theater,” Mouawad says. “Things that don’t have an A, B and C, one thing leads to another. It changes our perspective of how we look at life. I think we’ve had an influence.”

The interesting thing about “ZooZoo” is that many creature characters never found the stage, he says, or had short stays on stage.

Mouawad says Imago developed a giant caterpillar that performed about 12 times, and cost more than $15,000 to develop. There were two evolutions of it, before Mouawad and Triffle decided it didn’t work.

“I sound like a marketing director, but every one of the pieces are of the highest standards,” he says. “They’ve been instilled. All of the work of 30 years has come down to 11 pieces, where one should be able to compete with the other ones.

“If you asked me before closing what my favorite piece is, I’d say it’s the one we haven’t created yet. The polar bears, for example, were created in 2002, but we really went through five or six years of revisions until we found their home on stage.

“We create these creatures, and if they’re not bringing a high level of intrigue and reflection of the human condition and sense of physical theater and folly, we continue to work on them.”

Imago held auditions in August for its new show.

“We have created numerous creatures and inanimate objects and have been very fortunate to build Imago on this work,” Triffle says. “It has enabled us to establish a Portland facility for the arts, train hundreds of artists and share our work with hundreds of thousands on several continents. With dance, clown theater and more tricks up our sleeves, the new company should surprise.”

Imago takes influences from Alwin Nikolais and other movement choreographers for its new show, which will fuse stage animation, movement and dance. There will up to 10 performers.

“We’ll incorporate some Imago flair in it, in terms of using illusions and different ways to transform the stage,” Mouawad says. “Our intent is not to cover up the performers.

“The inspiration is what’s possible for popular audiences that is not mask theater. The challenge is going to be compared to ourselves. Every time we create something in this genre (of mask theater), we’re really not competing with other artists and other companies, but with ourselves. Our audiences are accustomed to a certain level of entertainment.”

Mouawad figures the new show will take two years to develop.

For “ZooZoo,” even five- to eight-minute skits took six months to four years to make, given the creation of costumes, training performers and perfecting the nuances of physical theater.

“We’re trying to create work that appeals to our audiences nationwide,” Mouawad says. “That’s a mass appeal. When you create for more selective audiences, it’s challenging, but not as challenging if you’re trying to appeal to 99 percent of people.”

Mouawad says that throughout its evolution, “ZooZoo” characters have played about 200 shows per year. That totals about 6,000 shows.

He can’t honestly say it hasn’t gotten old.

But, “when we worked on it,” he says, “we bring new elements to it, and it’s new again.”

The upcoming international tour, starting Jan. 18, will take “ZooZoo” to several states and Canada.

Then, it’s retirement for the creatures.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do with them,” Mouawad says. “I’m not sure I want to see it (displayed). When you live with it every day ... it should stay at Imago. But, they don’t display so well, they’re meant to be performed. Some masks are made for a museum or display, ours are made to move.

“When they’re not moving, they’re not coming to life.”

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