The Menacing Cat in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”

I live in South Philadelphia, near East Passyunk, within a community of creatives ranging from sculptors, musicians and actors to pastry chefs, web designers and filmmakers. Living here has not only given me the opportunity to take up some freelance video work, an intensive in both physical theatre and the visual arts, but also the experience of feeling Philadelphian—smelling the trash on the edge of sidewalks, hearing absurdities from screaming neighbors, tasting some of the most decadent chocolate and pistachio croissants during early mornings, wearing a thick winter jacket as one walks underneath a sunny, clear blue sky, using tokens for an archaic subway system, and of course appreciating, or rather expecting, a direct, down-to-earth and no-bullshit attitude from fellow strangers.

So it comes to no surprise that I’ll be working with an artist down the block, notably one with knee-high black boots, a tough exterior and explosive imagination.

I met Sebastienne Mundheim during a show she was directing called “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas while interning at the Lantern Theatre Company this past fall. Though I initially helped her with the research of the show, exploring the ties between memory formation and narrative as well as the role neurotransmitters play in the interaction between such things, I bought my first DSLR camera and began filming her visually stunning work and process during rehearsals. With an English and fine arts background from UPenn as well as a masters in education from Harvard, Mundheim has a passion for putting on installations, parades and art education programs in museums, which focuses on telling the story of a historical or literary figure through the medium of performance and the visual arts. She is both a puppeteer and a storyteller, a painter and educator, a writer and choreographer. Essentially, she designs unique experiences for her audiences, using words, cardboard, paints, moving bodies, whatever it takes in order to engage with them a facet of a real person’s story, to have them interested in a specific time period not immediately similar to their own, but universally so in terms of the struggles and challenges, combined with the dreams, desires and hopes of any individual making sense of this world.

The Toy Truck in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”
Boy Puppet in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”

In “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” for instance, Mundheim uses a boy puppet to illustrate the childhood nostalgia of Dylan Thomas, a Welsh poet predominantly known for indulging in the sound and imagery words create. Consequently, Mundheim creates puppets for any major image or sensation in Thomas’ poem. She creates the menacing cat by making it oversized and constructing each body part individually so the performers could work and move together. She also creates fish made of cardboard and colorful, cool-toned fabrics in conjunction with transparent, plastic blankets in order to mimic the rhythm of the ocean as well as the curiosity of a child staring out into the ocean. Mundheim even recycles similar fabrics to create smoke, a letter carrier, scarves and mittens and utilizes both toy blocks, cardboard houses and fragile snow globes to build towns from a child’s point of view. After she has created all the props needed for the show, Mundheim then trains her performers to interact and move the props specifically, often meticulously, in order to emphasize a particular prop or an important turning point in the story, such as a house burning or an elder giving a hearty laugh at the sight of abundance—ranging from food to toys to children playing outside—as characteristic of Christmas. Ultimately, Mundheim utilizes her visual creations as cues and markers for the overall structure of Thomas’ poem and incorporates her performers’ movements and characterizations to bring the storytelling forward.

As I work with her on other projects, such as arts education programs highlighting Navajo weaving at the Barnes Foundation and William Johnson’s life and works of art at the Arthur Ross Gallery in UPenn, I am learning the importance of both interactivity and the use of different mediums to create engaging storytelling. As long as human sensations exist—sound, sight, touch, taste and smell—than anything—a prop, a performer, a venue, essentially any resource one could think of—that invokes those very sensations, more effectively a combination of those sensations, will always be relevant in bringing the audience members into another or larger-than-life world while simultaneously (and hopefully) leaving them with the impressions created by these art pieces as they continue on with their daily lives.

Arthur Ross Gallery, UPenn