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Arts Eclectic turns the spotlight on happenings in the arts and culture scene in and around the Austin area. Through interviews with local musicians, dancers, singers, and artists, Arts Eclectic aims to bring locals to the forefront and highlight community cultural events.Support for Arts Eclectic comes from Broadway Bank.

'We took that challenge': Glass Half Full Theatre adapts the children's book 'Maebelle's Suitcase'

Glass Half Full Theatre

La Maleta de Maebelle, premiering this week at the VORTEX, is the newest creation from Glass Half Full Theatre. The play, complete with original music and Glass Half Full’s signature puppetry work, is an adaptation of Tricia Tusa’s children’s book Maebelle’s Suitcase.

“It's a really great book,” says Caroline Reck, the co-artistic director of Glass Half Full. “It has these incredible characters and gorgeous imagery and it's really a book about letting go of what holds you back. But it is a picture book. It's, you know, got 20 pages or so. And so what really excited us about making a staged play out of this book was the opportunity to add other layers to it.”

The book features two primary characters: the titular Maebelle and a bird named Binkle. Expanding the story from a picture book to a stage play let the creators play a bit with both characters. “It's basically a story of this wonderful old lady who lives in a treehouse and she loves to design and make hats for the town,” Reck explains, “and she also loves talking to birds and she meets a bird called Binkle. And Binkle is trying to figure out how to migrate, to fly south for the winter. And she teaches Binkle kind of how to let go of all the stuff he's trying to take with him. He's literally trying to bring, you know, his nest, the egg he was born in, his favorite flower… So Maebelle in the book encourages him to let go of these things by lending him her suitcase and ultimately making a big crazy hat out of the suitcase and his items. We were really intrigued in the story by Maybelle [and] how she learned to become the person who teaches Binkle this important lesson of how to let go. So we saw an opportunity there to explore Maebelle’s past history. How did she become this amazing person? Where is she from? And we took that challenge and gave her the layer of being from Colombia and [added] that the bird Binkle is trying to fly south to Colombia for the first time. So they have this connection and that brought us the amazing opportunity of working with several Colombian artists in town both as performers and musicians to bring this story to the stage.”

One of those artists is composer Kiko Villamizar (who was born in Miami to Colombian parents, then raised on a Colombian coffee farm), who wrote original music for the play and also uses Colombian flutes to provide Binkle’s ‘voice.’

“Yeah, we kind of did a reverse with Binkle,” says co-artistic director Gricelda Silva, who performs the Binkle puppet physically. “Binkle, in the book, he speaks – he actually speaks to Maebelle and they have a dialogue, but we love nature as is. And so we wanted to explore that. We wanted to kind of bring Binkle back as more of a bird in [his] way of communicating with Maebelle through chirps and tweets and how a bird would have to communicate with a human if they had to, you know? So we did kind of decided to ask Kiko to use flutes because we thought… what would this bird sound like?”

“And the cool thing about these flutes particularly is that these flutes are these ancestral Colombian flutes that were originally for bird songs,” says Villamizar. “And they're made with a bird feather. Like the tip of the flute is traditionally the plume, like the biggest feather on a duck. And they use the duck feathers for the reeds. And then the sound that it happens to give sounds like squawking, you know? So it was just a perfect way to sound like a bird talking.”

Actor Stephanie Vasquez Fonseca, who plays Maebelle, says they found it easy to relate to the character. “I myself am an immigrant” Fonseca says, “and I've had to move countries twice in my life. So I definitely relate to the experience of having to choose some things to leave behind or get rid of completely in order to start fresh somewhere else. And growing up, I think definitely items were not as big of a point of connection in our family as the actual memories we made together. So there are things that I wish I still had from my childhood or from my youth that I no longer have. But because of that journey that Maebelle has found herself in as well, I think that lesson of letting go and holding on to what you got – which is memories or people or the feeling that you get from them – is something that feels really close to home.”

“We love to make multigenerational work,” Reck says. “So it can appeal to people at all different stages of their lives because we do puppet shows. It's a great appeal for kids – they love the characters and the silly antics of puppets. But we really like to make work where adults are gonna have a great time too. And there is messaging that's really written for the adults. In this particular case, we have the bird who really represents the child in the story and then a much older woman who's lived her full life and has really learned great lessons from that life that she's lived. So we're interested in providing an opportunity for the adults in the audience to learn from Maebelle and recognize themselves in Maebelle and then for the children in the audience to enjoy the antics of the puppets.”

'La Maleta de Maebelle' runs June 15 - 29 at the VORTEX.

Mike is the production director at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces Arts Eclectic, Get Involved, and the Sonic ID project, and also produces videos and cartoons for KUT.org. When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.
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