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BWW Interview: Rogue Artists' Sean Cawelti Blends All His Talents Into STORAGE RUN

Co-creator/writer, animator, puppeteer and Rogue Artists artistic director Sean Cawelti takes us through Rogue Artists' beginnings, memorable moments in Brazil, and more.

BWW Interview: Rogue Artists' Sean Cawelti Blends All His Talents Into STORAGE RUN

Building on their long tradition of subversive holiday programming, Rogue Artists Ensemble has created the specific-to-online interactive STORAGE RUN, in which you, the audience decide the ending. The first installment of three episodes premieres December 18, 2021. Co-creator/writer, animator, puppeteer and Rogue Artists artistic director Sean Cawelti takes us through Rogue Artists' beginnings, memorable moments in Brazil, his favorite puppet and dropping his middle 'T.'

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Sean. I've long admired your work, especially your puppets in WOOD BOY DOG FISH.

What was the light bulb moment this beyond-the-theater-stage idea of STORAGE RUN first come about?

Rogue Artists Ensemble has a long tradition of creating holiday happenings that often at their core hold a commitment to highlighting the breadth of diversity of artistry in our community. We knew that a community event would not be possible in a shared space with the Pandemic and early on the ensemble members who created STORAGE RUN started discussing other ways of creating interactive experiences that could break out of the limitation of more traditional zoom based streaming work. The breakthrough came when the ensemble landed on the notion of the audience playing a character at home which is more aligned with the way we approach our immersive and site specific work and will add a completely new dimension to the experience.

BWW Interview: Rogue Artists' Sean Cawelti Blends All His Talents Into STORAGE RUNWould you encapsulate the process the audience will go through with the three episodes of STORAGE RUN?

The experience spans a few different modalities of storytelling, all from the comfort and safety of your home via a computer or laptop. The first thing the audience will see is an onboarding tutorial that walks them through some of the things they'll need to know and goes over a few important tips. After that we launch the audience into a subliminal dream space inspired by Tom Hanks movies as they start to understand more about the character they are playing. Once they exit the dream space, they will find themselves trapped in Mori Storage where they now are able to control a robot and select from over 200 different combinations of experiences to create their own bespoke holiday story. For keen Rogue observers, Mori Storage is the same location as our 2017 KAIDAN PROJECT: WALLS GROW THIN and where we filmed some of the sequences for STORAGE RUN.

BWW Interview: Rogue Artists' Sean Cawelti Blends All His Talents Into STORAGE RUNHard enough to wrangle large cast and crews in pre-pandemic times. What was your management process to gather 50+ persons all around the country to work on STORAGE RUN?

We have a dedicated group of ensemble members and an incredible production manager leading organizing efforts to coordinate the various aspects of STORAGE RUN. Since early 2020, we've shifted to using SLACK for all our internal communications, and have a healthy dose of tracking documents to help manage information. We feel at home collaborating with artists under unique circumstances, which is typical of much of our work, so this in many ways has felt familiar. We have talked throughout how important is it to try to keep things easy and joyful and make sure this feels like a bit of positivity, for not only our audience but also the artists creating it. This project has been a labor of love and particularly exciting knowing we're pushing into uncharted territory in terms of how we're telling this story and engaging the audience.

Are a lot of these 50+, members of our Rogue Artists Ensemble?

BWW Interview: Rogue Artists' Sean Cawelti Blends All His Talents Into STORAGE RUNHalf of the artists working on the project are either members of the Ensemble or are Rogue Associate Artists. The remaining half are made up of a combination of artists from our expanded community local to Los Angeles and artists we've met through this project. We have a commitment to creating work that is inclusive and many of the artists creating STORAGE RUN are BIPOC artists or members of the LGBTQ community.

What inspired you to establish Rogue Artists Ensemble back in 2001?

In 2001 I was attending college at the University of California Irvine, and it is there the founding members of what would become Rogue first met. We started working together to create experimental highly theatrical physical theater partly in response to the more traditional work the university was doing. Rogue was officially founded as a not-for-profit in 2004, and we have a few founding members still involved to this day.

Any one Rogue Artist Ensemble project you're most proud of?

BWW Interview: Rogue Artists' Sean Cawelti Blends All His Talents Into STORAGE RUNEach Rogue project is incredibly personal and just like picking a favorite child, it's hard to say which one I'm most proud of. I've been thinking a lot about our production of THE TRAGICAL COMEDY OR COMICAL TRAGEDY OF MR. PUNCH lately which was based on a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. That production explored one man's inability to discern memories were real and what scenes from a Punch and Judy puppet show. That question of the tenacity of memory feels particularly relevant these days when I find myself often trying to parse out what is real and question if I'm sometimes dreaming.

You were selected by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department to study woodcarving and Candomblé in Brazil. Would you describe the highlights of your two months in 2011 there.

My time in Brazil was transformative and changed the way I think about community and story. Two memories that come to mind are getting a tattoo on the beach and attending a deeply secretive ceremony that lasted all night and prompted me to enter a fever dream state. Bahia, the part of Brazil I was living in, was the hub of the slave trade and has one of the highest concentrations of Afriacan's outside of Africa. Living there helped to break down some deep cultural barriers and has helped me to ask some really hard questions that continue at the core of my work today.

BWW Interview: Rogue Artists' Sean Cawelti Blends All His Talents Into STORAGE RUNYour parents bought you your first puppet from a swap meet when you were four. Who were your puppeteer idols?

Growing up in Huntington Beach, we would go the mall and see a marionette show that I was particular fascinated by. I'd often wander off and watch the show from the side or behind, and occasionally they'd let me backstage to play. Even as a kid, I loved the imaginative worlds that Jim Henson created as the deep commitment to world building was always felt strongly. I also remember going to see performances at Bob Baker's Marionette Theater, too.

Can you name your favorite puppet? Or is this a Sophie's Choice question?

This is another impossible question! One that comes to mind is the Abraham Lincoln I designed for Chicago Opera Theater's premiere of the Phillip Glass opera THE PERFECT AMERICAN about Walt Disney. This puppet was 12' tall and controlled by four opera singers and had elements of the primitive robotics, futurism and vintage prosthetic limbs; and was particularly moving to see on stage in context. Each puppet is special because they are always unique and never repeatable, no matter how hard you might try.

BWW Interview: Rogue Artists' Sean Cawelti Blends All His Talents Into STORAGE RUNCan we expect to see any of your wonderful puppetry in STORAGE RUN?

There are a few puppets and masks in the STORAGE RUN piece that I've had a hand in making or designing, so keep your eyes open.

How did you go from puppetry and mask design expertise to mastering the totally different medium of video design?

Video and media have been a part of the Rogue storytelling vocabulary since the early DVD player days, and I think I've always felt like a bit of a futurist with a deep love of the collision of old and new. I think the shift to video designer was more experimentation driven, but now more and more of the work I do is digital and based in the computer. Sometimes I get sad because I'll go months without drawing on paper, and I still love getting messy with clay and paper mache which are helpful reprieves from the video design world.

I've seen you credited as 'Sean T. Cawelti.' Your website address has no middle 'T.' When and why did you decide to drop the middle 'T' in your name?

I don't think I've broken up with my middle initial just yet. Sometimes it feels pretentious, and other times absolutely necessary. Luckily I don't think there are other Sean Cawelti's out there to get confused with.

BWW Interview: Rogue Artists' Sean Cawelti Blends All His Talents Into STORAGE RUNWhen live theatre resumes, hopefully sooner than later, do you plan to include more online interactive projects, such as STORAGE RUN?

Every project that Rogue creates starts with a question of what is the best way to tell this particular story. I love that now we get to expand our tool box and add interactive choose-your-own-path video, augmented reality apps and more. Nothing will ever replace the immediacy you feel when sharing a physical space with the story, but perhaps there will be moments of expanding experiences using these new methods.

Any immediate projects for Sean Cawelti you can share with us?

I'm deep into the creation of a new augmented reality app experience Rogue is developing called KAIDAN PROJECT: ALONE, that will bring puppets and theatrical storytelling into your home with a planned launch in March 2021. I'm working on an opera project with USC that is a digital performance with artists from around the world. I think that will be particularly beautiful and also not at all like anything I've done before. I'm also writing a play about my real life Grandmother dealing with blindness that illuminates a book she has written about an imagined alternate version of her life.

Thank you again, Sean! I look forward to being wowed by your creativity in STORAGE RUN.

For tickets for this three-episode interactive series (Part One on December 18, Part Two on December 25, and Part Three on January 1, 2021); log onto Pre-purchased tickets will receive a special emailed gift. All episodes will available through January 31, 2021.

Check out the STORAGE RUN promo trailer here.

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