Chicago’s Fourth Annual Physical Theater Festival Runs June 2-10

Mariposa Nocturna: A Puppet Triptych will be at Physical Fest this week.

Physical Fest is back and full of interesting program surprises as usual. There is a modernist fable titled Memory of Dust, a peak in to the life of  the Confetti  Maker, a multi-disciplinary puppet theater romp with Mariposa Nocturna, a telling of the life of a World War II bear from Syria WOJTEK: the Happy Warrior and an exploration of what the fear of failure entails with Anatomy of Fear. The 4th annual festival will run June 2-10 at Stage 773. In addition to these four feature shows, there is a much loved Scratch Night of local talent and a full compliment of workshops from many of the visiting company’s artists.

Third Coast Review was pleased to have the opportunity to interview director Glenn Tillin of the UK-based Quarter Too Ensemble about their show WOJTEK:the Happy Warrior:

This is a surprising topic for a physical theater piece. Was it challenging to create?

The biggest challenge was what to focus on in the story. When we began research we discovered tale after tale about Wojtek and the soldiers he lived with. There is much about his life we don’t even touch on in our piece and so much of it resonated with the company it was hard to choose what parts we would not be developing.

The other difficulty was negotiating the wider reality of the war: The story is rooted in real peoples’ lives, so I felt it incredibly important to honor and respect those real people within the wider picture – particularly the Polish people displaced by the historic events in the story. Wojtek’s tale has a fantastical feel to it, so we had to work very hard to stay connected to the factual elements as I think the fact that these events actually happened is inseparable from the poignancy of the story.

Where did the idea for the show come from?

Back in 2011 Kitty Myers (co-artistic director and performer) read a very small newspaper review about a book that tracked the “Wojtek trusts” campaign to erect a memorial for Wojtek and his soldiers in Edinburgh. As most do, on first hearing about Wojtek she became full of intrigue and disbelief and said to me ‘if this is true, it would be an amazing story to tell’. She ordered the book Wojtek: Polish War Hero and began researching. The more we looked the more it became clear that it was a real tale and as we talked to Polish friends we found that it was already an important story for families of Polish descent. We sat on it for a few years until the opportunity arose, when working at Rose Bruford drama school, to develop a show for young audiences.

What do people find the most intriguing about WOJTEK:The Happy Warrior?

I think, for those who haven’t heard the story, the fact that it’s true. We’ve come across audience members who have seen the play and then gone away and researched for themselves because they find it hard to believe this actually happened. We also get lots of questions about how we came up with the ‘ideas’ for what you see in the show. I think people are drawn in when they see something that is truly collaborative in its conception–they want to know more about the process that is igniting their imaginations.

Was addressing warfare important to the cast and creators?

We originally did quite a bit of research into the bigger picture of WW2 in Europe and the Middle East. Wojtek fought at the battle of Monte Cassino, which was pivotal in the campaign to break the Gustav line. It was also important that we tracked what happened to Poland and its people before, during and after the war. The atrocities that took place should never be forgotten but also important is the resilient kindness, humanity and bravery shown by Wojtek’s comrades who had lost everything.

One of the most concerning aspects is that the damage done to Poland and its people is not an anomaly relegated to history; similar events are taking place in our lifetime elsewhere in the world and the connection is very tangible, if you’re prepared to look. We didn’t intend to make an ‘anti-war’ piece but when you start to invest in the facts and place your imagination in the midst of such horrors its hard to not draw a ideological response.

Who is the audience for WOJTEK:The Happy Warrior?

Originally Wojtek was devised to tour primary schools for ages 7+. During this tour it became clear that it was of interest to adult families and those of Polish descent. When we took it to the Edinburgh Festival in 2015 we were overwhelmed by the response from the Scottish and Polish community that were connected to the story. We always wanted to make this story accessible to as many people as possible and it is designed to play in non-theater spaces too. I think even if you don’t have a particular interest in the subject matter it is hard for anyone not to get drawn into the story.


Physical Festival Chicago features nine days of performances. Tickets are $12 for students ($45 for festival pass), industry, seniors and military or $18 for adults ($60 for the pass). All performances will be held at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont.

Kim Campbell
Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell (they/them) is a freelance editor, podcaster and creative writer who has spent a career focusing on the arts, particularly literature, theater and circus. Former editor of CircusTalk News, they have written about theater and circus for Third Coast Review since its very beginning. Kim is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the International Network of Circus Arts Magazines. In 2019, they were on the jury of FIRCO in Madrid (Circus Festival Iberoamericano) and in 2021 they were on the voting committee for the International Circus Awards. See their tweets at @kimzyn or follow them on Instagram.