Kate Braidwood

2015 Fellowship Recipient

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Kate Braidwood in her Portland mask-making studio.

Kate Braidwood in her Portland mask-making studio.

Sabina Poole

By James Bash

“Audiences are often very surprised by how much can be communicated without words,” says Kate Braidwood. “They find themselves being drawn into a story and moved to laughter and tears, even though we never speak on stage.”

Braidwood is referring to the response to shows created by her physical theatre company called Wonderheads. Wonderheads productions are very unique because they use full-face masks and mime-like abilities to tell intoxicating, hour-long stories. The company’s first big hit is a show called “Grim and Fischer.” It is a funny and poignant tale of the Grim Reaper’s quest to claim an elderly woman (Mrs. Fischer), but she is not ready – so they battle it out.

The company’s second huge success is “Loon,” which tells the story of a man who falls in love with the moon. Like “Grim and Fischer,” “Loon” has received overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews and won multiple awards.

Wonderheads started in 2009 as the brainchild of Braidwood and her husband Andrew Phoenix. Both are actors who received their master’s in ensemble-based physical theater from Dell’Arte International, a physical theatre school located in Northern California. The style of their artistry is a mashup of mask, mime, puppetry and clowning.

They use large, evocative masks made out of papier-mâché or neoprene. Elastic bands are used to hold the mask to the actor’s head like a baseball catcher’s mask. Braidwood makes all of the masks, and each one takes anywhere from 50 to 80 hours to create from start to finish.

“I’ve always loved sculpting,” remarks Braidwood. “As a kid, when I wasn’t playing dress up or in drama class, I was playing with play-dough or making clay figures.  Somehow as a grown-up I’ve managed to combine all my childhood passions!”

The company’s latest work, “The Middle of Everywhere,” concerns two strangers who meet at a bus stop where they discover a mysterious radio. When they change the radio station, it transports them through time and space. Somehow, they have to figure out how to get home again. Whereas “Grim and Fischer” and “Loon” are geared towards adult audiences, “The Middle of Everywhere” is more of a family friendly adventure.

Wonderheads has toured extensively throughout Canada and the United States, and Braidwood would love to see the company expand and go on tour overseas.

“For the first few years, we travelled everywhere in my grandma’s old Honda Civic,” recalls Braidwood. “Then we were lucky enough to be named a finalist in a Scion competition that was geared towards entrepreneurs in the creative arts. The prize was a new car, which was perfect because we probably spend more hours in it than at home!”

Oregon Arts Commission

(503) 986-0082 (phone)
(503) 986-0260 (fax)
775 Summer Street NE, Ste 200
Salem, OR 97301-1280