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The latest stage production from Philly’s Tribe of Fools is an exercise in love of both family, the bond it creates and the best thing to ever come out of Delaware County: Wawa. | Image: Terry Brennan

Picture this: Two siblings, Lee and Joey, take a long night’s journey across the Pennsylvania Turnpike to scatter their father's ashes in his favorite place — a Wawa parking lot.

Before it’s over, they’ll encounter a highly physical collective of acrobatic  “turnpike ghosts and soda cave trolls” and learn something about love, existence and computer-derived hoagies. 

Yes, that’s a Tribe of Fools show, if ever there was. It’ll feature a little controversy (a la “Heavy Metal Dance Fag”), lots of Philly (e.g. “Two Street,” “Fishtown: A Hipster Noir”) and scads of fast, complex motion, comedy, social import and deeply abiding poignancy.

Under the gaze of Tribe of Fools (ToF) founder/artistic director Terry Brennan, company members ​Joseph Ahmed (director), ​Caitlin Corkery (author) and Zachary Chiero (choreographer) — starting at separate junctures and for differing reasons along ToFs’ 16 year timeline — the group found zeal, laughs and pathos at their Wawa

PW spoke with the group’s company members for the lowdown on “Operation: Wawa Road Trip,” the show that will immortalize the beloved convenience store in Fringe’s pantheon.   

When, why and how did “Operation: Wawa Road Trip” come about? Who first uttered that title?

Caitlin Corkery: I worked box office for Fly Eagles Fly, when Joe mentioned he’d love to do something about Wawa for Fringe. No major storylines, he just felt like there was something there. Tribe of Fools’ embrace of Philly and Wawa lives at the center of any true 215-er’s heart. Earlier this year, Joe and I had a call where I pretty much asked him to just give me whatever was working in his brain — small details, any ideas for bits of movement, fragments, no matter how left field. One of my favorite parts of working with this group is finding ways to string things together or connect bits from other people into a larger story. It’s like working a fun problem-solving part of my brain and makes the work really collaborative. At a company meeting around that time, I threw out the idea of making it about a brother and sister scattering their father's ashes because I love the juxtaposition of something really heavy and emotional happening at a place that exists in a much lighter part of our brains.

Joseph Ahmed:  I’ve been fascinated by the undying love that folks from this area have for Wawa. Friends who moved from here to Chicago told me recently that sometimes when they're feeling homesick they look at each other and say "Wawaaaaa..." longingly. This grew into a conversation about how businesses like Wawa can be stand-ins or metaphors for home. And sometimes those stand-ins can actually get in the way of a more truthful experience of home. This ended up connecting with the theme of healing with grief — which is something I myself have been struggling with the last two years after a sudden and tragic family death. I have found that it is so easy, in the wake of loss, to grab on to anything that says FORWARD MOTION at the cost of actual healing. Caitlin began to spin our plot from these conversations, and Terry was the originator of the name. I appreciate that “Operation: Wawa Road Trip” gives us an immediate feeling of that urgency, of the characters’ need to keep moving forward to complete the quest no matter the cost. Or, you know, whether it's really the right quest

Zachary Chiero: Joe wanted something that had to do with Philly, the idea of home and places that we give meaning to. The perfect destination for our characters to be on an epic journey towards ended up being Wawa, and the plot, characters and the name of the show all came out of those original ideas.

We’ve witnessed ToF’s looks at Philly icons such as “Two Street’s” take on the Mummers. How is Wawa different, Philly-wise?

Caitlin Corkery: Wawa is the Oz of this show — it's the gleaming, promising destination that gives our audience a certain context. But as the show moves forward, it becomes less about the place and more about the people. I feel like this show has so many fun characters in it that we're not running a straight 70 minute piece of branded content; it's the final destination and an easy, understandable access point, but the show expands so much further from that origin.

200 | The number of total artists, actors and production companies involved in this year’s Fringe Festival across a variety of different mediums. 

Joseph Ahmed: A lot of what I have always liked about Tribe of Fools shows is that the Philly-specific aspects of the plays act as vehicles for themes. Like in this one, our goal is to take that almost ridiculous love that so many Philadelphians have for Wawa — myself included — and to connect to bigger ideas. How do we grieve? Is it different than those around us? How do you define home, family, tradition? Is Wawa really better than Sheetz?

Zachary Chiero: In terms of movement, it’s a specific kind-of challenge. This show has themes of avoidance, grief and family, but it also deals with Dungeons and Dragons-style characters, talking sandwich puppets and a giant moving car on stage. So bringing all of that together in the movement was incredibly fun. The idea of doing a roadtrip was new to us. Our characters usually spend time in our one or two places, so giving the impression that they were on a real journey, moving from one place to somewhere entirely different (with a raise in stakes for each step) made us think of new ways to use movement. Even though I’m the choreographer, I’ve worked with our director Joe and artistic director Terry Brennan very closely, and we all have put together sequences that push our actors and that we hope will take our audiences along on the road trip.

Terry Brennan promises new ways of watching Wawa than previous ToF shows, with a different brand of physicality. Was that an objective/challenge going into “Operation: Wawa Road Trip”? How did it change what you might normally do?  

Caitlin Corkery: I'm a words person, and Joe and Zach are the genius people/dance wizards who know how flips work. I still gasp every time I come into a rehearsal to watch. I've grabbed people's arms during shows because I'm so nervous about the stunts. I know it's not cool but like, maybe everyone should wear helmets? I keep throwing this suggestion out to the group but it has yet to gain traction. 

Joseph Ahmed: “Operation: Wawa Road Trip” has a few unique challenges for Tribe of Fools. The play features a road trip — a dynamic we've been teasing how to stage effectively since day one. We've come up with interesting stuff through a combination of physical elements and some really fabulous design elements from the production team. The other thing I've been excited to do with this show is feature a more flexible ensemble than many Tribe of Fools shows have. Though all our shows are very ensemble-focused, we have a three person team in this who do way more storytelling work than just playing a character or two. Kyle Yackoski, Tiffany Bacon and Janice Rowland are doing this heroic relay race of playing around a dozen characters, puppeteering sandwiches, playing the guitar, you name it.

Zachary Chiero: We definitely wanted to challenge ourselves with this show. Having our characters in transit all the time is a specific challenge. This show is different for me in that its structure demanded movement where we didn’t necessarily expect it. But the team and the cast came in ready and with plenty of ideas as always.

How much a part of that difference came from you/your thought process or motivation going in/through the process?

Caitlin Corkery: I just have a computer.

Joseph Ahmed: The idea of the show being a road trip, and that being connected to a flexible ensemble, was initially my idea in the devising process — partially inspired by “The 39 Steps” style physical storytelling. However, what we've come up with is a more nuanced thing that's been completed by Caitlin's amazing characters and the incredible design ideas of the team. Our set designer, Peter Smith, has made this amazing car skeleton that we Flintstones around the stage using the driver and passenger feet. It's not something I had ever conceived of, and it’s something I've never quite seen onstage before. 

Zachary Chiero: I came into rehearsal with fleshed out ideas based off of our preliminary discussions of movement sequences we wanted. The difference when those sequences were being created was really thinking about the themes we wanted to play with. Avoidance, grief, family — how complicated all of those could be, and how different. For me, this was the jumping off point for different characters in the opening sequence, the Wawa ballet and the finale.

You’ve got three actors set to play 15 different characters. Has it been a challenge for each of you to clearly delineate the differences between them?

Caitlin Corkery: The characters our three actors cycle through are all big. They're surreal, draw on fantasy tropes, and each has a specific agenda they're pushing. Because we're playing big and extra weird, the characters are easily distinguishable from one another.

Joseph Ahmed: This was honestly one of the easier parts of the show because there are so many elements at work to make these characters feel different. First, Caitlin's writing lends them such compelling comedic voices, and then these are fleshed out by the cast's choices and the costume and design elements around them. Occasionally, we have to be careful about little decisions to keep them distinct — [kind of like saying] ‘Oh wait, those two shirts should be more different in color’ or ‘Can the voice for the Jaded-Ass Cop be a little more different than the highway ghost?’ but these are easy hurdles.

Zachary Chiero: We’re working with five of the most talented performers in Philly. And our three ensemble members, Tiffany, Janice and Kyle…you don’t get better than them. The lovely thing about them is that they’re all so different, so telling them apart won’t be difficult at the onset. But the way all three of them masterfully (and hilariously) disappear into the million characters they play is so seamless, you’ll start forgetting about ‘which is which’ quickly and just start being excited for each new ridiculous person our leads meet along this journey. 

What was your greatest challenge during its start…rehearsal process? Did much change — especially the script — from its start?

Caitlin Corkery: A huge challenge is balancing all the weird and funny that we love to include in our shows while still protecting the heart. We're always checking in to see if we still care about these characters, if these characters still care about each other, if we're still invested in their journey. Comedic bits are important, but I think those are secondary to the emotional through line of the show. We need equal measures of flips and feelings. Flips 'n' Feelings, Tribe of Fools Trademark, 2019. Patent Masters, please make it so.

Joseph Ahmed: The joys and challenges of telling a new story is that things are always in flux. We don't have the comfort of an unassailable script, which means there are often too many cooks in the kitchen and many bad ideas among the good ones. The script has definitely changed from its first version, but this has been a slow process, like a snake shedding skins. As we learn about the characters and plot in the rehearsal process, we cut, clarify and re-interpret. I'm actually about to go into tech where I'm sure even more little sprouts of ideas will grow to maturity when we start to see all the design elements in place. Who knows? It's exciting, and a little terrifying.

Zachary Chiero: Tribe of Fools’ process is always very collaborative. Many, many things [have changed since] day one, and I am incredibly proud to be a part of a company that works so hard to make our original shows the absolute best they can be — even up until the very last day. Big changes often happen in our shows, from script, to movement, to characters. But I like to think we all have the show in our head, and each change we make gets us closer to the shared vision we all have. And luckily, we have a cast and crew that believes in that kind of collaboration.

What would you say is your favorite or most show-defining scene? Why?

Caitlin Corkery: There's a monologue a cop gives midway that made it from the audition sides all the way into the final script. Janice just nails it and makes me laugh every time. There's a scene with one of the main characters and a resurrected imaginary friend that does some pretty heavy lifting emotionally while being by far the goofiest physical scene in the show. 

Joseph Ahmed: Oof, this is hard. I'm going to answer it two ways. In many ways, the most defining scene is a wild west-style brawl that happens when our two Wawa-loyal heroes wind up in a Sheetz late at night. I think it's a lovely explosion of this rivalry that is so deeply embedded in people from this area (like really — Wawa's where it's at). But to me, especially as someone who connects personally with the themes of grief and denial in the show, I'm struck by a moment between the siblings when they start to dive into how differently they knew the deceased person. It's really easy to think of grief as this monolithic, universal thing — but at least in my experience, it is so much more bizarre and varied, especially when you really get into what those relationships were like in life. How any two people in my family have been grieving these last two years is so different and personal that in some ways it's hard to even compare. It can be tough to find understanding through that when everyone's hurting.

Zachary Chiero: The scene where our leads Joey and Lee argue for the first time. They bicker hilariously throughout the show, but the first time they really have it out speaks volumes to me, and our performers Taiwo and Jahzeer act it beautifully. I won’t give any more away here, but I will say that it brings home some very complicated and real issues that I think we all deal with in terms of family.

Have you guys heard from Wawa yet? They seem pretty protective of the brand.

Caitlin Corkery: We haven't heard from Wawa, but we're big fans of the Wa and all the hoagies they sling. This show talks a lot about how a specific place can take on a huge role in your shared memories with people. Wawa looms large in the Philadelphia imagination and our collective cultural scrapbook. In that sense, maybe Wawa really belongs to the people? Does this make me sound like a stoned freshman in philosophy class?

Joseph Ahmed: I've had my head so deep in rehearsal that anything outside of it is frankly a mystery to me. 

Zachary Chiero: Not yet. We’re hoping they’ll think of it as free advertising. The Center City Wawa is only a few blocks from the theater. Everyone should go.

What do you think Fools fans will glean from this show that they might not have felt from previous ToF shows?

Caitlin Corkery: Tribe of Fools tries to be very thoughtful and intentional about stretching ourselves every year. We’re showcasing different relationships, pulling from different genres and hoping to build a show that’s not just entertaining in the moment but that sticks with you after. We want you at the Wawa counter waiting for your chicken salad with banana peppers on a Shorti weeks later, still thinking about a moment from the show or feeling some kind of something twinge in your heart.

Joseph Ahmed: All of Tribe of Fools shows dig into a social topic, and “Operation: Wawa Road Trip” is no exception. But in this show, we really are looking more deeply into the nuances of how people deal with these big life things — family, tradition, grief. I think it's both a wonderfully wacky show and also one founded in really personal questions. I hope that we explode them in a way that will connect with people and their own families and loves. Also, there are just so many delightful bits in this wacky show that I'm tremendously excited to share with people. Dorito throwing star. Mario Kart blue shells.  A singing radio cowboy who calls out your awkwardness. That middle school magic trick where you pretend to take off your thumb and put it back on. 

Zachary Chiero: Our hope is that at the end of this show, you’ll pick up the phone and finally call that person you’ve been meaning to talk to.

Operation: Wawa Roadtrip | Sept. 5–9, 12–16, 19–21. Times vary. $15. Proscenium Theatre at The Drake, 302 South Hicks St. fringearts.com/event/operation-wawa-road-trip/ 

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