I sit down for a talk with the puppet people. Not the only puppet people in town, mind you, but Pointless Theatre are the heirs apparent. The company started up in the summer of 2009, and now in the midst of their current show, Mark Twain’s Riverboat Extravaganza — their fourth Fringe show and seventh production overall — the young ensemble has never seemed more exuberant.
We grab a few minutes in the lobby of Studio Theatre before Mark Twain begins upstairs (for tonight, then, the “tent” in Tent Talk is figurative). The troupe, still in the early adolescence of its growth, has a reputation for ragtag charm, so it’s little surprise that all three boys are grinning from beginning to end.
“I think that this is the most charming show that Pointless has done to date,” says Whalen. “I think when you see it, you’ll understand why. It’s not specifically a children’s show, but it’s definitely a family-friendly show. Everyone can enjoy it.”
Whalen assistant-directed Mark Twain, and he’s also Pointless’s Director of Media Relations and Marketing. He typically performs with the group as well. To say that everyone wears a lot of hats at Pointless is to miss the… well, the point. The group is so cohesive, both artistically and socially, that the vibe around these folks isn’t so much the art of juggling responsibilities as it is the joy of sharing.
Such ties didn’t come out of thin air — all fourteen Pointless company members are either students or alumni at the University of Maryland. But the degree of ongoing teamwork still seems a minor miracle.
“We’re all family at the end of the day,” explains Whalen. “People take pride in it. Not only in their roles as actors, but in showing up to help build puppets, design and build the sets, or do front of house work. We’re building this theatre company together.”
In this atmosphere, company member John Hamilton stepped up in 2010 and expressed interest in writing a show about American folktales. He got the green light right away, and he worked on the show during several proceeding Pointless projects. Now, three summers later, here’s Mark Twain’s Riverboat Extravaganza.
Director Mahoney knew from the get-go that this was to be a vaudeville show — a decision which greatly informed the choices in acting and staging. “We talked in rehearsals about vaudeville being a push-and-pull conversation with the audience,” he says. “So now that we actually have an audience, the show has opened up incredibly.”
Vaudeville, he adds, is a fitting style for the play’s setting: a pop-up theatre on a river boat at the turn of the 20th century. “We’re all in this space together to have a good time, so vaudeville seemed to work really well.”
Mark Twain’s Riverboat Extravaganza!
by John Hamilton
at Studio Theatre – Stage 4
1501 14th Street NW
Washington, DC, 20005
Details and tickets
Any prior experience with vaudeville? Nope, says Whalen, not really. “But I think that as a company we already work in a similar style. We’re very high-energy. We have a lot of fun onstage creating a show. And we take inspiration a lot from past art movements and performance styles. Doing this show about American folktales that takes place at the turn of the century felt like a style we could find and embrace.”
Everyone helps out in building the world of the show, explains Reckeweg. “The more actors help with design, and the more that the designers are in rehearsals, boundaries between jobs start to wash away. The more we continue, the more we realize that ensemble doesn’t just apply to performers. It applies to the whole creative team.”
For the first week of rehearsals, the cast didn’t touch the script. Instead they used that time to develop mini vaudeville acts together. It’ll go over well with Fringe audiences, they predict, since folks who come out for Fringe are already prepped to be lively and participatory.
In addition to being one of the art directors on Mark Twain, Reckeweg is a co-founder of Pointless. So I ask him where he sees the company going next. Whalen and Mahoney are a bit hesitant to detail future plans, although they make mention of at least five or six completely original pieces in various stage of development. But Reckeweg offers a tidbit: The troupe will be re-imagining their very first production, The Sleeping Beauty, as part of Cultural DC’s Mead Theatre Lab program next May.
“The first time we did that show, we were a new company trying to figure out what we wanted to do,” says Reckeweg. “And as we’ve kept creating together as a group, we’ve started to clarify what really makes our style of puppetry work. So we’ll be able to apply everything we’ve learned over the past seven shows to our first show.”
And after that?
Everyone’s optimistic. “We’re creating a rep company, so we’ll continue to produce original works generated by the group,” says Reckeweg. “We’d love to branch out and do some collaborations with other groups in DC. We’d love to eventually have our own space. We always want to approach people, and to be approachable.”
Mahoney nods, and sums it up. “From one show to the next, you just keep on building.”
[photo, from left: Matt Reckeweg, Devin Mahoney, and Scott Whalen]