Behind the mask: Wonderheads come to Mount Baker Theatre

Kate Braidwood, who calls herself “co-head” of her three-partner theater group “ Wonderheads,” admits that it’s “pretty shocking” how much her childhood self has found its way into the work she does now.

“I grew up loving playing make-believe and taking drama classes, watching Jim Henson,” she says, “and I loved building and sculpting things with my hands. You can still see the evidence in my parents’ house, with little figures I used to make scattered around.”

Those little figures have evolved into really big heads — masks, actually —that Braidwood creates in her small studio in Portland, Ore.

“It’s a nifty, little not-quite-an-office but not-quite-a-closet-sized room just off my living room stacked from floor to ceiling with plaster molds, paint brushes, jugs of glue,” she says.

Braidhead and her working partner, Andrew Phoenix, who is also her husband, met at Dell’Arte International, a physical theater school in Northern California.

Braidwood says Dell’Arte trains its students in ensemble-based devising, creating their own theater from scratch. At the school, she says, she “discovered that I could mash all those things I loved as a kid together. I could be a performer, but also a writer, a creator, a builder and mask maker.”

She and Phoenix had a similar aesthetic, so after graduating in 2009 they created “Grim and Fischer: A Deathly Comedy,” using Braidwood’s gigantic masks. It’s the story of a feisty grandmother who literally fights off Death (Phoenix plays the character Death and Braidwood is the grandmother).

The Wonderheads were born.

“Our work is very character-driven and we can’t truly know who the characters are until we have the masks,” Braidwood says. “When we do, the development in the rehearsal studio begins, which is a combination of character work —finding their bodies, how the masks play, and bringing them to life— and story development.”

“We improvise quite a bit during the rehearsal process as we develop ideas and scenes, but eventually the show gets to a place that is quite set,” she says. “We’d probably like to be able to improvise more than we do in performance, but our vision is very limited in the masks, which makes improvising with a partner quite difficult. It’s tough to respond to something your partner is doing if you can’t see them.”

Wonderheads is now a trio, with Emily Windler in charge of stage management and sound operation. They tour North America constantly, frequently at fringe festivals.

“Touring in this way brings us to all kinds of theaters and audiences,” Braidwood says. “Sometimes the audience will laugh and cry and ooh and ahh, and sometimes they’re very quiet. If ever we feel during a performance that the audience isn’t coming along for the ride, we have to remember to stay focused, not rush through the show’s moments, and more often than not at curtain call we realize that the audience was totally with us.”

“We’ve found that people are usually really game and receptive to our work; there’s something about these mask characters that opens up an imaginative conduit for people,” she says. “There’s a strong and accessible story with a good balance of humor and pathos, and people are really taken by the magic of how the masks seem to come to life — something you really have to see to believe. And I promise there’s no animatronics involved.”

Wonderheads is not really kid-based, Braidwood says.

“We struggle with how to describe ourselves, and the closest we’ve come is to describe our work as ‘live-action Pixar,’ which still isn’t totally accurate,” she says. “There’s definitely a kinship in tone, whimsy and aesthetic, but the main difference is that I’d say Pixar’s work is geared first toward kids and then to adults, whereas ours is the other way around.”

“We love creating work for adults that has a childlike whimsy to it, but is capable of dealing with more difficult, darker territory. The result is this really fun, multilayered blend of humor and pathos.”

“We definitely want to take our work to Europe,” she says. “We love touring throughout North America, but we’d also love to bring our work to where its roots originated. Also, since our shows are non-verbal, there are no barriers when it comes to language. There’s a real potential to go all over the world with what we do. Fingers crossed.”