Zeb L. West isn’t afraid of a little adventure. Last year, the Texas-based puppeteer showed up in Vancouver for the Fringe Festival without having booked any gigs, and ended up performing all over the place—with the festival’s blessing. He’s back this year (this time, as an “official” Fringe Festival participant with an indoor show entitled Innocent When You Dream), and given his appetite for adventure, he didn’t think twice when he was asked to participate in Brief Encounters 20. Below, Zeb chats about his craft, his geeky interests, and his upcoming collaboration with visual artist Brendan Tang.
Q: Tell me about your work. What’s your artistic passion?
ZEB: My background is in physical theatre: puppetry and mask acting. Often those forms transcend language and cultural boundaries, and other kinds of boundaries like mental boundaries and emotional boundaries. They engage the imagination.
I’ve studied puppetry and mask acting. Those two media in particular access an interesting part of the brain quickly, the same part of the brain that animation can allow people to access. It’s like when you watch a Pixar movie and you wonder why you have a sudden emotional attachment to it. Puppetry has the same ability to quickly mainline into a person’s subconscious.
I work with a company in Austin called Trouble Puppet and they do puppetry for adults. They work in a style called tabletop puppetry, which uses three-foot-high puppets that require three people to operate. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of ensemble building between you and your partners to do it right.
Q: Sounds like great prep work for Brief Encounters! What did you say when you were first asked to participate in Brief Encounters?
ZEB: I was into it right away because I’ve done a lot of collaborative work in my career, and this is a fun study in collaboration, in learning who you are in a collaborative environment and getting to know someone else very quickly in that environment… You can have a lot of fun with it. I jumped at the chance.
Q: Tell us about your Fringe show.
ZEB: Last year I just showed up and they let me perform outside, but this year I applied like a normal person and I’m doing an indoor show that’s about a man trapped in the belly of a whale. It’s about that age-old moment in time where you’re stuck in a place that’s partly of your own construction, a place you can’t get out of, and you’re there until you don’t want to be there any more or decide you don’t want to be there anymore. The guy in the belly of the whale has only two books to read: Don Quixote and Moby Dick.
Q: So in addition to being in the belly of a whale, you’re also prepping for Brief Encounters. What’s that collaborative process been like so far? Without giving too much away, what can audiences expect from your collaboration?
ZEB: Brendan and I have been meeting in the cracks where we can. He teaches at the university on the island, so we first met over there and we drank some coffee and went on a blurting session about what ideas are contained in our art and what kind of geeky stuff we were aligned on. We have quite a bit in common. We met up on a lot of geek culture things. In another life, I worked in the video game industry, and he did the same and he also includes a lot of that in his art.
He and I didn’t really feel too beholden to a specific genre. I think of myself in a broader sense of studying physical theatre of which puppetry and mask are both included, and he’s not just a ceramic artist, so we’re trying to not hold to that idea of holding on to those, even though we will use those because that’s what we know. Expect video projection and something slightly cinematic.
Q: What advice do you have for artists who are invited to participate in future Brief Encounters?
ZEB: I feel lucky that Brendan and I have a lot of common, but the joy is in encountering an artist who has gone on their own specific and weird path. So if you’re paired up with someone who has a unique path, celebrate the different.