Go Deeper

Getting to the Mushroom Village: The Persistence of a Tribe of Fools

Posted September 3rd, 2009

It hasn’t always been an easy road for the theater company Tribe of Fools, who bring destruction on a Smurf-like village in Armageddon at the Mushroom Village at this year’s Philly Fringe. Terry Brennan moved to Philadelphia in January, 2003, catching that year’s rain-delayed Mummers Parade the day he arrived, to start the company with six friends and colleagues who had just completed training at Dell’Arte, which specializes in movement-based theater forms in Northern California. They all lived in a house in Germantown at Chelten and Chew, including one member who pitched a tent in the basement. They put together a show called Bedlam, a “slaptick comedy about a boy who has no friends so he puts his bed up for sale and then when people come to buy it, he won’t let them leave.” The show went up at the Arts Parlour and then for a couple nights at the Vital Theatre in New York.

Then came the aftermath.

“We had this big meeting at the end,” Terry explains. “I knew one or two people weren’t happy, but I didn’t think five people would quit.”

After the jump: disillusion, recovery, and weaponized cupcakes.

It’s not an unfamiliar story—a group of aspiring thespians, brought together in the confines of a school and bursting with creativity and enthusiasm, come to the big city ready to explode on the scene, only to find themselves in a soup of disillusionment, petty infighting, poverty, leading to their company dissolving within a year. But in being “pushed into making a decision about where I was going to go,” Terry, along with Jay Wojnarowski, the other remaining cofounder, pressed on with the company, and with continued determination to challenge their own creative boundaries.

Their next show was Echo, based on the story of Echo and Narcissus. “It was heavy—we wanted to do a tragedy.” And they wrote it in heightened language, with music and puppets, which they manipulated while in monk-like garb. The positive reaction to the work, which they performed at Allen’s Lane Art Center and later that year at the 2004 Philly Fringe, helped Terry feel that what he was doing was right. “That we deserve to make theater—a big jump from ‘I hope people like it.'”

Then came more shows, and more setbacks—new members quit, circuits blew out on opening night, a lot of financial worry, and a lot of waiting tables, and they “decided to lay low for a while.” But having signed up for a Spark showcase, produced by the Theater Alliance, they were obligated to create a new work. They came up with a short piece called Heavy Metal Dance Fag. “It’s essentially a tap dance to Lita Ford,” says Terry. “The idea is a tough South Philly dock worker who—when no one was looking—danced.” The piece was enthusiastically received and put a lot of the love back into creating for Terry. It had been a fun process. “It was the first time in a long time we were just playing.” And they enjoyed “staying away from tasteful.”

Now they have imagined what would happen to a perfect little Smurf-like village if all hell broke loose. “How do they do war? How do they do political schism?” The catalyst for all the village fuss? A thrown cupcake. “They can’t imagine that someone would throw a cupcake and they build a big weapon disguised as a present.” The performance is a musical, and involves stop animation on a large screen that the actors in the live performance must be in complete sync with as the action often flows from one to the other.

When Terry, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, graduated high school, he was drawn to two paths—either he would be a cop or it was a life in theater. At 33, it’s still not too late to join the force. Surely Philadelphia could use him, but after six years of dues paying, and the sense that he’s just hitting his stride, Terry Brennan is not about to stop making theater now.

Armageddon at the Mushroom Village happens at 2nd Stage at the Adrienne, September 4 through 7, and September 9 through 11.

–Josh McIlvain

Photo Credit: Jay Wojnarowski