Ariel Estrada on MADE IN CHINA, TITLE VII at HBFF 2017 and Leviathan Lab

Ariel Estrada
Ariel Estrada

Ariel Estrada is currently starring as “Eddie” in the critically-acclaimed US premiere of Made in China, written by Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage (with help from the Made in China ensemble), featuring music and lyrics by Yan Li, puppets by Mr. Waage, and directed by Ms. Warnock and Mr. Waage.

In addition to Estrada, the Made in China puppeteers include Lei Lei Bavoil, Dorothy James, Wei-Yi Lin, Andrew Manjuck, Stephen J. Mark, Charles Pang, Peter Russo.

Produced by Wakka Wakka at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues), in co-production with Nordland Visual Theatre, MiNEnsemblet, and The HOP at Dartmouth, Made in China ends its limited engagement on Sunday, February 19th at 3:00PM.  Tickets are $25 – $60 ($25 – $49 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.

I caught up with Estrada over cocktails in the lounge at 59E59 Theaters after a performance of Made in China, an Off-Broadway puppet musical about love and human rights.

Eddie (Ariel Estrada) rides Mary (Peter Russo) to China in Made in China. (© Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Eddie (Ariel Estrada) rides Mary (Peter Russo) to China in Made in China. (© Heidi Bohnenkamp)

Chang: Describe the process of working on Made in China.
Estrada: Right now, I’m doing Made in China, which is a wonderful puppet musical, written by Gwendolyn Warnock and featuring music by Yan Li. Kirjan Waage built the puppets and co-wrote the piece along with the ensemble. A lot of the things you saw tonight were created through improv with the puppets. I don’t know if you know anything about the puppetry world, but it has a lot of improv. You improv almost anything and everything. The script was devised with the cast, and then honed by Gwen and Kirjan, using Kirjan’s puppets. Kirjan’s from Norway and apparently they have a huge puppet tradition there. They created this musical through their own visits -the company members -to China. Thinking about the intersection between America and China and how much we really do rely on them and visa versa. There are some wonderful things in the musical that I am so happy to be getting out there into the world.

Ariel Estrada and company in ALL WE HAVE LEFT. Photo by A. Vincent Scarano

Chang: Have you ever worked with puppets?
Estrada: I have. I had some puppetry training with Brooklyn Puppet Conspiracy‘s David Fino and Paul McGuiness. Two years ago, I worked on All We Have Left, written by Elizabeth Hara, an Emmy Award winning costumer, a puppet enthusiast and TV director on Sesame Street, who was the recipient of the first Jim Henson Foundation Puppetry Residency at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

She and Spencer Lott were co-creators of All We Have Left and when Jon Hoche wasn’t available to do AWHL due to Vietgone,  I performed with Marty Robinson (who plays Snuffleupagus on “Sesame Street” ), and Jennifer Barnhart from the original cast of Avenue Q.

Pictured: Martin P. Robinson, Jen Barnhart, Ariel Estrada, Sam Jay Gold. Photo by A. Vincent Scarano
Pictured: Martin P. Robinson, Jen Barnhart, Ariel Estrada, Sam Jay Gold in ALL WE HAVE LEFT. Photo by A. Vincent Scarano
Yo-Yo and his owner Eddie (Ariel Estrada).
Yo-Yo and his owner Eddie (Ariel Estrada).

Fast forward to this past December, when Hansel Tan, who was supposed to play my role Eddie, had to drop out of the show. I took the role over. At that point, Hansel had been working on the show for nearly a year and a half. I felt really bad but they needed somebody to jump in. I found out about the show in December. I had to cram a year and half of work into a month. Flash forward to now and we’ve garnered wonderful reviews.

NYT CRITICS PICK:  “As in the best puppet theater, the performers who give voice to their characters and manipulate the puppets do so with such seamless grace that we absorb the story with minimal distraction…objects are brought to life with a magical vividness that enchants…the show’s visual allure never ceases.”

“Mr. Estrada bring(s) fine emotional shadings to Eddie, whose chilly frustration with the woman whose life he becomes entangled in melts into something warmer.” – Charles Isherwood, The New York Times

“…a farcical, musical, phantasmagorical odyssey that, while hitting various political marks, remains delightfully engaging…Russo and Estrada are terrific.” – Samuel L. Leiter for Theater Pizzazz (Review Two)

Mary (Peter Russo) and Eddie (Ariel Estrada) confront a dragon in Wakka Wakka's Made in China, directed by Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage, at 59E59.
Mary (Peter Russo) and Eddie (Ariel Estrada) confront a dragon in Wakka Wakka’s Made in China, directed by Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage, at 59E59. (© Heidi Bohnenkamp)

Fascinating to watch…an inventive tale of discovery and awakening… the odyssey into activism and awareness is surreal and engaging. It’s a fantastical parallel dimension; part Muppets and Avenue Q, part middle-aged love story, part human rights documentary. All together, they create an adult-aimed puppet show that is captivating and full of surprise and laughs. (Ariel Estrada is) engaging and nuanced.” – Times Square Chronicles / FrontMezzJunkies

Yan Li‘s lyrics hit the bullseye every time. (Russo and Estrada) – prove skilled at giving Mary and Eddie a charming humanity through their precise gestures, which allows their story to succeed as the show’s emotional center.” – Exuent Magazine

“Peter Russo and Ariel Estrada found a real voice for Mary and Eddie respectively. The played off one another quite well…perfectly refreshing.” – Theater in the Now

Multimedia: Wakka Wakka’s New Puppet Musical MADE IN CHINA at 59E59 Theaters through Feb. 19 

Estrada: Prior to Made in China, I did a workshop of Leah Nanako Winkler’s new play – Adventures of Minami, Part 1, which dealt with the role of robotics in modern life.

We’re finding that a lot of Asian American plays right now are addressing the impact of globalism on society. In many ways, it’s been wonderful for Asian culture and Asian American culture and at the same time, there’s erasure.

Mary (Peter Russo) goes on a shopping spree in Made in China. (© Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Mary (Peter Russo) goes on a shopping spree in Made in China. (© Heidi Bohnenkamp)

We actually talked a little about this in rehearsal with Made in China. It’s funny. It’s a mixed race cast and mixed race creators. They wanted to be very sensitive. But ultimately, you are going to reflect the culture that you are from, no matter how hard you try.

For example, with this story, it’s very clear it is coming from the perspective of Mary, who is a white 50-something puppet/woman. It colors the perspective of the play. By necessity it has to because she can’t really be talking about anybody else’s perspective but her own. Wakka Wakka’s work has a very political bent. One of their shows was called SAGA; it was about the Norwegian financial crisis a couple of years ago and how it completely changed the face of that culture. And how it was a microcosm for what was happening in the world culture. Same thing with this. It starts small and goes big seeing what the impact of globalism is, specifically China, and America’s relation to it. And how it affect her on a personal level, whether she realizes it or not. And that maybe her consumerism and her desire to buy placate her own sorrow and feed the hole of her soul.

Chang: What was the most challenging about working on Made in China?
Estrada: The hardest part of the show was learning this puppetry style quickly. I’ve done hard palate, TV puppetry, and shadow puppetry, but I’ve never done full body Bunraku or soft palate puppetry. Hard palate is what you see on “Sesame Street,” the hand movements are a little grosser, but the body movements are subtler because it is TV. Whereas, this is a live performance. The movements have to be both bigger and more chosen and more selective. In TV puppetry, you can be a little more naturalistic. This style you have to be bigger and more specific. Because it is soft palate, the mouths of the puppets are soft, you can actually manipulate for emotion. There’s a lot more ability to show subtlety of how someone is reacting. For example, because you don’t have eyebrows, and your eyes don’t move, I can easily express anger in his lips, but the rest of his face doesn’t follow. I have to put it into the body. If he is doing an angry pout, you have to do something weird.

Chang: With Made in China, you are working as an actor, singer, puppeteer, improv artist and dancer. Break it down for me.
Estrada: Puppeteering is a lot like dance in that it is very exacting. You also have to work as an improv artist because we devised so much of this play from improv. And you still have to manipulate the puppet at the same time. So you are working very technically and from your gut at the same time. For example, with a thoroughly experienced puppeteer like Peter Russo who plays Mary, he doesn’t have to think about it because he’s done it so much. I’m constantly looking at Peter and stealing stuff like little subtle movements that he does with the head to make Mary more alive. Over the course of the run, I wish that I could see a video of Eddie from the beginning of the run, to where we are now, to where he’ll be by the end of the run, because I’m sure it will change. I’m adding more. I’m more comfortable with moving his mouth and moving him.

Chang: What do you want audiences to take away from this?
Estrada: I would like people to, particularly if they are White American and of a certain economic class, to look at their own complicity of their own consumerism. There’s this wonderful documentary called Xmas Without China that tells the story of how there would be no Christmas, or what we would think about Christmas, without China. Many of the places that we’ve outsourced manufacturing in China- there wouldn’t be toys, Christmas decorations. And of course, as Americans, we’re like, “Oh great, it’s at our fingertips.” But we don’t factor in the human cost of what that means. We don’t see that they are made by children, or political prisoners or convicts – people that are undesirables. It’s important because our own society is moving towards that with our “America First” policies, in Trump’s attempt to get manufacturing back to the United States. What that all means, how we’re going to be treated in the future, it is past it’s prologue. Of course there will be a lot of resistance to that. The personal is political. You can’t disassociate your everyday actions from how it affects everything else. It’s The Butterfly Effect.

Nicole Franklin's TITLE VII
Nicole Franklin’s TITLE VII

Chang: What is your latest film project?
Estrada: Last July I shot TITLE VII, a screenplay adaptation of the novel Within The Walls by author Daisy M. Jenkins. Nicole Franklin, who co-wrote the screenplay of TITLE VII with Craig T. Williams, and directed the film, is wonderful. They created this wonderful film about same-race discrimination in the African American community.  She was very cognisant about doing multi –racial casting.

My character is named Sam Griffin, and he is a smarmy, sexually harassing IT professional in a very dysfunctional company, that is run by an African American CEO who is a woman. It’s so nice to play this funny character who is over the top. You’ll have to see the movie, but I get to say some pretty disgusting things.

hbff-yellow-on-black-laurel-2017On Friday,  February 24th at 6:45PM, TITLE VII will screen as an official entry of the Hollywood Black Film Festival 2017 (HBFF 2017) in Marina del Rey. The festival is considered the African American Sundance. I’m very excited.

wim-nOn Thursday, April 6th at 5:00 PM, TITLE VII will have its New Jersey premiere as the closing film at The Women In Media-Newark Women’s History Month Film Festival. (Rutgers’ Express Newark)

For more on the film, click here.

Chang: Who have you worked with as an arts administrator and grant writer?
Estrada: I’ve written grants for Leviathan Lab and a couple of other professional theater companies. I’ve won a significant multi-year award from NYSCA for the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble‘s education program.

With Leviathan Lab, I’m working with our fabulous new artistic director, Flordelino Lagundino. We have some wonderful ideas that we’d like to promote with Leviathan. In our ongoing program, The Living Room, we work with Asian American playwrights. We commission very timely works based on timely issues. Liz Hara and Chay Hew are some of the writers we commissioned to write short pieces based on crushing issues facing our community. The very first one we did was called Immigrant. The second one was called Glass Ceiling and was originally supposed to be in celebration of our first woman president, but because the election was most likely stolen by the Russians, instead the plays were still about glass ceiling but a very different way of approaching a glass ceiling.

We have a lot of plans for 2017, and a lot of fundraising for those grants. We’re working with some wonderful new playwrights, a new solo show that I think is going to be fantastic and some short musicals. And also fitting with Leviathan Lab‘s mission- working with Asian American artists to develop their work.

It’s a lab, Leviathan Lab. We really want to do a lot of experimenting and make it a safe place for people to fail, to experiment wildly and do cool stuff. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t.

We do not get that chance in American theater to try different things. It’s so necessary for all creatives- actors, directors, and writers- to have the freedom to fail. Right now that doesn’t happen in most of our producing and even our major non-profit entities. You can’t produce a show now without enhancement money. Particularly in this political climate where we are about to have governmental funding most likely pulled by the current administration, we’re going to be in trouble in terms of what we can do as far as experimentation, trying new things.

I think Leviathan is more relevant now more than ever because we provide that place for things to develop in a low stress and low financial risk way, not only for the artists, but also for the donors. And to have fun while we are at it.

One thing I’ve found over the last couple of years working on Leviathan is that people do love to see the process. That audiences do like to see something in its nascent and follow it as it goes along. All you have to do is look at the development of Vietgone. People really followed Vietgone, from its earlier drafts on up. And boy it really paid off. It’s a great American play. Kudos to Qui and everybody who was involved in that.

Lia Chang and Ariel Estrada at 59E59 Theaters after a performance of MADE IN CHINA on February 2, 2017. Photo by Garth Kravits
Lia Chang and Ariel Estrada at 59E59 Theaters after a performance of MADE IN CHINA on February 2, 2017. Photo by Garth Kravits

Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers,  musicians and corporations. Lia is also an internationally published and exhibited photographer, a multi-platform journalist, and a publicist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.

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