Life Imitates Art for THE CULT PLAY’s Ariel Estrada

Ariel Estrada on the set of THE CULT PLAY. Photo by Lia Chang

Life imitates art for Ariel Estrada, who is currently starring as Charlie Bear in Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s world premiere of Topher Cusumano’s The Cult Play, currently playing at The Paradise Factory Theatre at 64 East 4th Street (next door to La Mama) in NYC through February 17th.

Ariel Estrada and Lori Parquet. Photo by Gerry Goodstein
Ariel Estrada and Lori Parquet. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

The Cult Play follows Mama Pearl, an enigmatic woman with alleged powers and leader of a secretive Goddess worshiping religious group, The Soul Scouts. As Mama attempts to retain control of her followers after the defection of a longtime member, the Scouts each find themselves exploring the boundaries of their faith. When Mae, a rebellious new recruit, introduces The Soul Scouts to social media, she inadvertently triggers a series of events that could end Mama Pearl’s great vision of the future.

Elise Stone and Ariel Estrada. Photo by Gerry Goodstein
Elise Stone and Ariel Estrada. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Irene Lazaridis directs the 8-member cast headed by Lori Parquet as Mama Pearl with Layan Elwazaini, Ariel Estrada, Oscar Klausner, John Lenartz, Josh Moser, Stacey Raymond, and Elise Stone. The directing and design team includes Aiden Dreskin, sound design, Attilio Rigotti, projection and video design, Debbi Hobson, costume design, JB Douglas, environmental design, Kevin McGuire, fight director, Madelyn Sher, choreography, Mason Delman, light design, Yeritza Madera, Production intern, and Meghan McVann is production stage manager.

Lori Parquet, Ariel Estrada, Layan Elwazaini, Oscar Klausner, John Lenartz, Josh Moser, Stacey Raymond, and Elise Stone in Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s world premiere of Topher Cusumano’s The Cult Play through February 17 

After the show, Estrada revealed that he was 20 + years cult survivor. Naturally I had a few questions.

Ariel Estrada on the set of THE CULT PLAY. Photo by Lia Chang
Ariel Estrada on the set of THE CULT PLAY. Photo by Lia Chang

Lia: What drew you to being in a cult?
Ariel: I was a young gay kid from an extremely rural town in Alaska, in my second year of college in Portland, OR in 1988. I was just coming out at the height of the AIDS crisis, and I was longing for a place where I could be welcomed, feel safe, and be part of a family. I had always too, thanks to my own internalized homophobia and anti-Asian racism, wanted to train martial arts because I thought I needed to toughen myself up. A women-owned martial arts school had classes in both co-ed martial arts and women’s self defense on my campus, and I decided to check it out.

The very first day I walked into the school, they had a picture up of a handsome man, one of their black belts, with a candle next to it. When I asked who it was, they said he was dying of AIDS and they didn’t think he’d make it through the week. I found out more about the man later – that he was openly gay in a time when it was dangerous to be so, and that he was instrumental in getting martial arts included as a competition in the International Gay Games. I knew when I saw that picture, I was hooked. When I wasn’t doing shows, I would travel the hour and half bus ride to Portland from my college campus to train. When I went to grad school in Seattle, I would travel down every 3 or 4 months to take classes and private lessons, much to the chagrin of my movement teachers in my acting program. When I moved to NYC, I helped to open up a branch of the school here, even giving up acting for a while. I was in it for 20 years before I realized it was a harmful and dangerous cult that capitalized on the worst excesses of my trauma as a gay, Asian American man struggling against violent and hostile world.

Lia: What did it provide for you?
Ariel: Like most cults, it sounded good on paper: a LGBT-owned martial arts and self-defense system dedicated to empowering women, children, and men. Many of the students were survivors of rape and abuse. There was some decent self defense training, and it was a place where I could be an openly gay man while doing something decidedly not seen as something gay people do. As you got deeper in (and paid more and more money as part of its pyramid scheme), you got to feel special, like you were learning something magical that no one else knew or could do. And by magical, I really do mean magical – it was some wacky, ridiculous, clearly-not-true crap, like mind control, speaking to the dead, or the belief that illness is all in your head. It seems like such an obvious scam when you’re outside of it – but when you’ve drank the metaphorical Kool-Aid, you believe – or at least, convince yourself that you believe – every word.

Lia: How did being in a cult inform your work in the play?
Ariel: I’ve been involved in the play since its early development process two years ago, with Topher interviewing me about my experiences, as well as being involved in developmental readings. When my character Charlie Bear, who is a dissenting voice against Mama Pearl, the play’s cult leader, fights against the excesses of the play’s cult, I am definitely drawing from my own feelings and experiences about my time in a real world cult and its consequences. My body is a mess because of all that hard-core fighting, with a hip replacement, and reconstructions of both knees and both shoulders, to say nothing of my mind and its 20-years of memories of my time in the cult. It’s not hard to draw from those painful experiences and have it inform my work in the play.

There were times in the rehearsal process when I would walk into the room and see something that we used to do in my real world cult – trance dancing – and I would be floored, completely triggered with flashbacks. Being a pro, I used it, but man, those were not easy memories to re-experience. One of the movement pieces in the show, beautifully choreographed by Butoh dancer Madelyn Sher, is backed by an Enya song. During the segment the other night I started to weep: we used to do full-contact fights to Enya (a strange juxtaposition I know, but this cult was totally insane), and I was unexpectedly taken back to not just horrible memories, but good ones too: like feeling I truly belonged to something bigger than myself. The rehearsal process was at times painful and disturbing, yet cathartic and ultimately positive. The director, Irene Lazardis, is a genius who juggled just a monster of a complex play, making a beautiful, entertaining audience experience

Lia: What do you hope audiences will take away from the experience?
Ariel: Our producer, Craig Smith, Producing Artistic Director of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble said that the play was like Jacobean tragedy, cleverly disguised as an episodic dramedy for Netflix binge-watchers. Like any Jacobean tragedy, it has some crazy, over-the-top shit happening – things that almost strain the suspension of disbelief. However, speaking as someone who has lived through a real-world cult experience? The things we were asked to do in the cult I was in were COMPLETELY INSANE. For example, one of my black belt tests was 64 hours long with no sleep and a small handful of rice and a little rubbery steamed chicken once a day for food; or, being taught that energy healing could cure addiction, depression, or disease (it most decidedly doesn’t) – but when you’re in a cult, you do any crazy thing the leader asks. Worse, you actually believe, or pretend to believe what you’re told for fear of being thrown out of your surrogate family. These were not dumb people in the cult I was in – yet the members who were really deep in it? They all were extremely damaged on some level, which was roundly taken advantage of, physically, mentally, and financially, by the cult’s leader.

This is all to say, I hope that people will explore this question from seeing THE CULT PLAY, as part of PTE’s season about the nature of “The Charismatics”: Why do seemingly sensible people end up buying into cult leaders who tell them what they want to hear, and do not have their best interests in mind? I’m sure that many of those in the 70% majority of people in the country who disapprove of our current U.S. leadership are asking themselves this question. Get your tickets for THE CULT PLAY here!
Standing: Laurie Kilmartin, Morgan Rosse, John Lenartz, Josh Tyson, Elise Stone, Director Craig Smith, Ariel Estrada, Eileen Glenn, Alicia Marie Beatty, Wesli Spencer; Reclining: Matt Baguth. Photo by Lia Chang
The cast of TARTUFFE – Standing: Laurie Kilmartin, Morgan Rosse, John Lenartz, Josh Tyson, Elise Stone, Director Craig Smith, Ariel Estrada, Eileen Glenn, Alicia Marie Beatty, Wesli Spencer; Reclining: Matt Baguth. Photo by Lia Chang

Lia: How long have your worked with Theatre Ensemble?
Ariel: I love PTE. I’ve worked as one of their ensemble of artists for 10 years, and I also work as their grant writer and occasional graphic designer. One of my favorite projects with them was a reading of a non-traditionally cast THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, directed by Asian American director Jesse Jou, with Cecily and Gwendolyn cast African American, and Algy and Jack cast Asian American. So fun, and it added a fascinating dimension to the play that was distinctly American. In their first show of PTE’s “The Charismatics” season, TARTUFFE, I got to play Cleante. These are characters I would rarely get to play in any other professional setting. They are really committed to doing intersectional work and it shows. Plus, the artistic leadership, Craig, with Co-Artistic Director Elise Stone, are just fantastic people – terrific friends and artistic collaborators.

Broadwayworld.com: Freeze Frame: Ariel Estrada, Josh Tyson, Morgan Rosse, and More in Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s TARTUFFE At The Wild Project

Elise Stone, Lori Parquet, Ariel Estrada and Craig Smith, Producing Artistic Director of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. Photo by Lia Chang
Elise Stone, Lori Parquet, Ariel Estrada and Craig Smith, Producing Artistic Director of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. Photo by Lia Chang

Lia: What’s next for you?
Ariel: I’ll be producing the next show in the same space, Leviathan Lab’s production of TRIGGER by Sam Chanse, directed by Flordelino Lagundino at IATI Theater, running February 23 through March 11. After that, I’ll be acting for PTE again in the last show of their “The Charismatics” season in a show featuring someone who is arguably the world’s most significant charismatic, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and his disciple, the titular JUDAS by Robert Patrick. I’ll also be continuing my work in arts advocacy at the Asian American Arts Alliance – come to our Lunar New Year Town Hall on February 22nd and wish our outgoing Executive Director Andrea Louie well! Finally, you can always keep up on my latest goings on at my website, www.arielestrada.com.

Executive Director Andrea Louie to Step Down From Asian American Arts Alliance

The performance schedule is Wednesday – Saturday at 7pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $25.00; Call 212-352-3101 or visit www.PhoenixTheatreEnsemble.org. The Paradise Factory @ 64 East 4th Street Street (Bowery & 2nd Avenue).

Transportation: By Subway: 4,5,6 Train to Astor Place; F train to 2nd Avenue; N & R Train at Broadway & 8th Street. Bus 3rd Ave M103 to 4th Street; 2nd Ave M15 to 4th Street.

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is a non-profit theatre company now in its 14th season of presenting new and classical works. The 2017-18 season includes American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb (July/August @ Boston Center for the Arts); Tartuffe by Moliere (October/November in NYC), The Cult Play, world premiere of a serialized drama by Topher Cusumano (January/February in NYC); and a play to be announced (April/May in NYC). The reading series for 2017-18 will be rarely performed plays by Pirandello. www.PhoenixTheatreEnsemble.org

Click here for the Lia Chang Articles Archive and here for the Lia Chang Photography Website.

Lia Chang. Photo by Lori Tan Chinn
Lia Chang. Photo by Lori Tan Chinn

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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Lori Parquet, Ariel Estrada, Layan Elwazaini, Oscar Klausner, John Lenartz, Josh Moser, Stacey Raymond, and Elise Stone in Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s world premiere of Topher Cusumano’s The Cult Play through February 17

Ariel Estrada and Lori Parquet. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is presenting the world premiere of Topher Cusumano’s The Cult Play  through February 17 at The Paradise Factory Theatre at 64 East 4th Street (next door to La Mama) in NYC.

Lori Parquet as Mama Pearl. Photo by Gerry Goodstein
Lori Parquet as Mama Pearl. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

The Cult Play follows Mama Pearl, an enigmatic woman with alleged powers and leader of a secretive Goddess worshiping religious group, The Soul Scouts. As Mama attempts to retain control of her followers after the defection of a longtime member, the Scouts each find themselves exploring the boundaries of their faith. When Mae, a rebellious new recruit, introduces The Soul Scouts to social media, she inadvertently triggers a series of events that could end Mama Pearl’s great vision of the future.

Ariel Estrada and Lori Parquet. Photo by Gerry Goodstein
Ariel Estrada and Lori Parquet. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Irene Lazaridis directs the 8-member cast headed by Lori Parquet as Mama Pearl with Layan Elwazaini, Ariel Estrada, Oscar Klausner, John Lenartz, Josh Moser, Stacey Raymond, and Elise Stone. The directing and design team includes Aiden Dreskin, sound design, Attilio Rigotti, projection and video design, Debbi Hobson, costume design, JB Douglas, environmental design, Kevin McGuire, fight director, Madelyn Sher, choreography, Mason Delman, light design, Yeritza Madera, Production intern, and Meghan McVann is production stage manager.

Stacey Raymond and Layan Elwazani. Photo by Gerry Goodstein
Stacey Raymond and Layan Elwazani. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

The performance schedule is Wednesday – Saturday at 7pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $25.00; Call 212-352-3101 or visit www.PhoenixTheatreEnsemble.org. The Paradise Factory @ 64 East 4th Street Street (Bowery & 2nd Avenue)

Transportation: By Subway: 4,5,6 Train to Astor Place; F train to 2nd Avenue; N & R Train at Broadway & 8th Street. Bus 3rd Ave M103 to 4th Street; 2nd Ave M15 to 4th Street

Elise Stone, Oscar Klausner and John Lenartz. Photo by Gerry Goodstein
Elise Stone, Oscar Klausner and John Lenartz. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is a non-profit theatre company now in its 14th season of presenting new and classical works. The 2017-18 season includes American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb (July/August @ Boston Center for the Arts); Tartuffe by Moliere (October/November in NYC), The Cult Play, world premiere of a serialized drama by Topher Cusumano (January/February in NYC); and a play to be announced (April/May in NYC). The reading series for 2017-18 will be rarely performed plays by Pirandello. www.PhoenixTheatreEnsemble.org

Elise Stone and Ariel Estrada. Photo by Gerry Goodstein
Elise Stone and Ariel Estrada. Photo by Gerry Goodstein
Lori Parquet and Elise Stone. Gerry Goodstein
Lori Parquet and Elise Stone. Gerry Goodstein

Click here for the Lia Chang Articles Archive and here for the Lia Chang Photography Website.

Lia Chang. Photo by Lori Tan Chinn
Lia Chang. Photo by Lori Tan Chinn

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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Lori Parquet, Ariel Estrada and More Set for Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s World Premiere of THE CULT PLAY by Topher Cusumano at The Paradise Factory Theatre, January 27-February 17

Ariel Estrada
Ariel Estrada
Ariel Estrada

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is presenting the world premiere of Topher Cusumano’s The Cult Play, January 27 –  February 17 at The Paradise Factory Theatre at 64 East 4th Street (next door to La Mama) in NYC.

The Cult Play follows Mama Pearl, an enigmatic woman with alleged powers and leader of a secretive Goddess worshiping religious group, The Soul Scouts. As Mama attempts to retain control of her followers after the defection of a longtime member, the Scouts each find themselves exploring the boundaries of their faith. When Mae, a rebellious new recruit, introduces The Soul Scouts to social media, she inadvertently triggers a series of events that could end Mama Pearl’s great vision of the future.

Irene Lazaridis directs the 8-member cast headed by Lori Parquet as Mama Pearl with Layan Elwazaini, Ariel Estrada, Oscar Klausner, John Lenartz, Josh Moser, Stacey Raymond, and Elise Stone. The directing and design team includes Aiden Dreskin, sound design, Attilio Rigotti, projection and video design, Debbi Hobson, costume design, JB Douglas, environmental design, Kevin McGuire, fight director, Madelyn Sher, choreography, Mason Delman, light design, Yeritza Madera, Production intern, and Meghan McVann is production stage manager.

Tickets are $25.00; Call 212-352-3101 or visit www.PhoenixTheatreEnsemble.org. The Paradise Factory @ 64 East 4th Street Street (Bowery & 2nd Avenue)

Transportation: By Subway: 4,5,6 Train to Astor Place; F train to 2nd Avenue; N & R Train at Broadway & 8th Street. Bus 3rd Ave M103 to 4th Street; 2nd Ave M15 to 4th Street

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is a non-profit theatre company now in its 14th season of presenting new and classical works. The 2017-18 season includes American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb (July/August @ Boston Center for the Arts); Tartuffe by Moliere (October/November in NYC), The Cult Play, world premiere of a serialized drama by Topher Cusumano (January/February in NYC); and a play to be announced (April/May in NYC). The reading series for 2017-18 will be rarely performed plays by Pirandello. www.PhoenixTheatreEnsemble.org

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Ariel Estrada set as Cleante in Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s David Ball Adaptation of TARTUFFE at The Wild Project, October 21 – November 12

Ariel Estrada. Photo by Peter Konerko Photography
Ariel Estrada. Photo by Peter Konerko Photography
Ariel Estrada. Photo by Peter Konerko Photography

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is presenting Moliere’s great comedy Tartuffe in the New York premiere of a sizzling adaptation by David Ball. Tartuffe will begin previews on October 21st and open on Friday, October 27st and will run for 22 performances only through November 12th at The Wild Project in NYC.

PTE Producing Artistic Director Craig Smith directs the Ball adaptation, which was developed originally for Theatre de la Jeune Lune. The production cast will feature Phoenix Theatre Ensemble resident actors, Josh Tyson as Tartuffe, Ariel Estrada as Cleante, Matt Baguth as Damis, Alicia Marie Beaty as Mariane, Eileen Glenn as Madame Pernelle, Oscar Klausner as Laurant/Loyal, John Lenartz as Orgon, Morgan Rosse as Dorine, Wes Spencer as Valere, and Elise Stone as Elmire.

The design team for Tartuffe includes Debbi Hobson for period costumes, Ellen Mandel for original music and sound, Attilio Rigotti for projection and video design, Tsubasa Kamei for Lights. Karen Case Cook is assistant director, Carrigan O’Brien is dramaturg, and Meghan McVann is production stage manager.

The story of Tartuffe concerns a wealthy man, Orgon, who brings home a religious con-man, Tartuffe, who systematically arranges a wedding with Orgon’s daughter, seduces Orgon’s wife, convinces Orgon to sign over to him Orgon’s house and fortune. It is a comedy about religious hypocrisy. Smith states “PTE’s Season 2017-18 is ‘the year of the charismatic’ – we’re asking why seemingly smart people often lose their way, their moral center, and blindly follow bad people or dogmas. Orgon thinks he has found a charismatic messiah in Tartuffe and brings him home, an action that disrupts the entire household and chaos ensues. But in our production, we see Tartuffe through the eyes of Orgon, and perhaps, just perhaps Tartuffe might be miraculous.”

For more information, click here. Tickets are $18.50 for previews and $30 each regular performances; call 212-352-3101 or visit www.PhoenixTheatreEnsemble.org.

Click here  for the Lia Chang Articles Archive and here for the Lia Chang Photography Website.

Lia Chang, Photo by Garth Kravits
Lia Chang, 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.

All text, graphics, articles & photographs: © 2000-2017 Lia Chang Multimedia. All rights reserved. All materials contained on this site are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Lia Chang. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content. For permission, please contact Lia at liachangpr@gmail.com

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Ariel Estrada Set for David Ball Adaptation of TARTUFFE at Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, October 21 – November 12

Ariel Estrada
Ariel Estrada
Ariel Estrada

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is presenting Moliere’s great comedy Tartuffe in an adaptation by David Ball. Tartuffe will begin previews on October 21st and open on Friday, October 27st and will run for 22 performances only through November 12th at The Wild Project in NYC.

PTE Producing Artistic Director Craig Smith directs a new staging of Tartuffe in David Ball’s dynamic adaptation, which was developed originally for Theatre de la Jeune Lune. The production will feature Phoenix Theatre Ensemble resident actors, Alicia Marie Beatty, Matt Baguth, Ariel Estrada, Eileen Glenn, Oscar Klausner, John Lenartz, Morgan Rosse, Wes Spencer, Elise Stone, and Josh Tyson.

The design team for Tartuffe includes Debbi Hobson for costumes, Ellen Mandel for original music and sound, Attilio Rigotti for projection and video design, Tsubasa Kamei for Lights. Karen Case Cook is assistant director, Carrigan O’Brien is dramaturg, and Meghan McVann is production stage manager.

Smith states “PTE’s Season 2017-18 is ‘the year of the charismatic’ – we’re asking why seemingly smart people often lose their way, their moral center, and blindly follow bad people or dogmas. The season starts off with the great classic comedy Tartuffe in which a religious con-man dupes a once reasonable man out of his house, home and even his wife. But our approach to the play is not conventional-we want to see Tartuffe through the eyes of the victim. Our Tartuffe is handsome, charismatic and sexy. He channels the Divine and is miraculous.”

Previews: October 21-26; Opening October 27 and playing through November 12; performances Tues-Sat @8:00 PM; Sunday matinees at 3:00 pm; and special Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2:00 pm Oct 25, Nov 4 & 8.

Full Schedule: Sat 10/21 8pm; Sun 10/22 3pm; 10/24-28 8pm; Sun 10/29 3pm; Nov 1-4 8pm; Nov 5 3pm; Nov 7-11 8pm; Sun Nov 12 3pm; Wed matinee 10/25 & 11/8 2pm; Sat matinee 11/4 2pm.

For more information visit http://www.phoenixtheatreensemble.org/.

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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.

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

Yo-Yo and his owner Eddie (Ariel Estrada).
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)

I’m celebrating the Year of the Rooster at the wildly successful 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.

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

Produced by Wakka Wakka at 59E59 Theaters, in co-production with Nordland Visual Theatre, MiNEnsemblet, and The HOP at Dartmouth, MADE IN CHINA is currently playing a limited engagement through Sunday, February 19.

Yo-Yo and his owner Eddie (Ariel Estrada).
Yo-Yo and his owner Eddie (Ariel Estrada).

The performance schedule is Tuesday – Thursday at 7 PM; Friday at 8 PM; Saturday at 2 PM & 8 PM; and Sunday at 3 PM. Performances are at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). Tickets are $25 – $60 ($25 – $49 for 59E59 Members). Use the code ROOSTERTKT for $45 tickets to catch Yo-Yo and his owner Eddie. To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.

Wei Wei (Stephen J. Mark) does a cartwheel in Made in China.
Wei Wei (Stephen J. Mark) does a cartwheel in Made in China. (© Heidi Bohnenkamp)

What the critics are saying: 

THE SHOW’S VISUAL ALLURE NEVER CEASES”
– Charles Isherwood, The New York Times Critics’ Pick!

“FOUR STARS! MADLY AUDACIOUS…PACKED WITH HAPPY SURPRISES”
– Time Out New York

“DELIGHTFULLY ENGAGING”
– Theater Pizzazz

“WACKY AND THOUGHTFUL…WITH A GOOD HEART”
– StageBuddy

“BRIGHTLY GRIPPING…IT’S REPLETE WITH INNOVATIVE MARVELS OF ILLUSION”
– Blog Critics

The MADE IN CHINA puppeteers include Lei Lei Bavoil, Ariel Estrada, Dorothy James, Wei-Yi Lin, Andrew Manjuck, Stephen J. Mark, Charles Pang, Peter Russo. Music performed by Yan Li and Max Mamon.

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)

An isolated woman finds solace in shopping. After one of her big-box sprees, she finds a cry-for-help note, written by a woman in a Chinese labor camp, stuffed in a box of Halloween lights. Inspired into activism, she embarks on an odyssey of global proportions.

Inspired by true events, MADE IN CHINA dives into issues of human rights, consumerism and American-Chinese relations as told through the unlikely love story between this shopping-obsessed middle-aged American woman and her Chinese ex-pat neighbor.

Baby pandas, dancing appliances and romping middle-aged lovers populate Wakka Wakka’s fantastical universe. MADE IN CHINA features 30 puppets, seven puppeteers, music inspired by both American and Chinese traditions, as well as animated video to spin a contemporary issue of global relations into an entertaining tale of surreal dimensions with powerful take-aways and plenty of laughs.

The design team includes Yu Ting Lin (set design); Alex Goldberg (lighting design); and Tiger Cai (video animation). The Production Stage Manager is Mackenzie Blade. From the Obie and Drama Desk Award-winning talents behind the acclaimed Baby Universe: A Puppet Odyssey comes a new puppet musical.

Wakka Wakka Productions, Inc. is a non-profit visual theater company based in NYC, whose mission is to push the boundaries of the imagination by creating works that are bold, unique and unpredictable.

Since 2001, Wakka Wakka has created and produced eight original works of theater which have toured extensively throughout the US and abroad. All of Wakka Wakka’s productions have been highly physical, overlapping in a wide range of styles, including grotesque, absurd and clown; and incorporating elements such as object manipulation, puppetry, masks and original music.

Wakka Wakka was honored with a 2013 Special Drama Desk Award for Sophisticated Puppetry and a 2011 Obie Award Grant. In 2008, Wakka Wakka Productions was awarded a UNIMA Citation of Excellence for Fabrik: The Legend of M. Rabinowitz. In addition, the company’s work has been nominated for four Drama Desk Awards (Fabrik for Unique Theatrical Experience and Baby Universe for Outstanding Direction of a Play, Outstanding Music in a Play, Outstanding Sound Design in a Play), a Helen Hayes Award (Outstanding Visiting Production, Baby Universe) and a Hawes Design Award (Kirjan Waage, Fabrik).

The company is led by Gabrielle Brechner, Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock and supported by company members Andrew Manjuck and Peter Russo.

Lia Chang_photo by Garth Kravits
Lia Chang_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.