The Story Behind the Story


I like to think I tricked Theo Ellsworth into collaborating with me.

Theo and I first met nearly 15 years ago through a mutual friend. We sat on my kitchen floor and he showed me the book he was working on. His story featured a typically bizarre Theo world, and it featured bees. My earliest memory is a bee sting. I’d just written the first draft of Periphery Stowe, in which several of the main characters are bees. Never one to let a good coincidence go to waste, I told Theo that someday we had create a story together.

Theo moved back to Missoula last year while I was bumming around Europe. When I got home the first thing I did was track him down. I’ve made a few attempts to collaborate with Theo over the years, but that man’s a workhorse, and he was always neck deep in his own projects, so it never worked out.

This time I had a plan.

I cornered him at his table at the Made Fair and said, “Okay, what if you go into your studio, drag out 10 or 15 old drawings that you like but that don’t have a home. I’ll build a story out of what I see.”

Theo told me he liked the idea and that he’d see what he could dig up. Meanwhile, Viscosity and I were busy trying to figure out how to develop an expanded version of our show, Thisillusionment, for the fall. What we wanted to do turned out to be too big to accomplish in one year. Our designer Scott Morris was getting into masks and puppetry, and here I saw huge crossover potential with Theo’s work. I thought maybe we could assassinate a couple birds with the same rock.

A few months ago Scott and I met up with Theo in Charlie B‘s in Missoula. Theo had already made up his mind to work with us, but instead of using old drawings, he wanted to start from scratch. None of us had the first clue what our story would be about. Theo would create illustrations and I would write around them, then Scott would build our world in three dimensions.

Theo had the first drawings with him that day at the bar. He handed each of us a manilla envelope with “?” written on the outside. “It’s a mystery mark,” I said, and the title was born before anyone knew why.

Over the next several weeks Theo and I bounced ideas back and forth using words and images until characters and their stories started crawling into the light. The process was subconscious and weirdly organic. Theo kept drawing pages as I worked our concepts into a novella and three versions of a script. As Scott started to dream up inventive stage, mask, and puppet designs, director Rebecca Schaffer and dramaturge Kate Morris dove into conceptual development, and a first phase installation started coming together.

Since then the project has exploded into the eager and willing of the arts community. We have a brilliant creative and organizational crew and a steady stream of volunteers. There’s a book to produce, a show to plan, departments to inspire, and a crowd funding campaign to run. Orchestrating this thing has turned into a full time job.

So maybe I didn’t trick Theo after all; maybe he tricked me.

Mystery Mark is a cartoon exorcism. It’s the story of Clay, a man who is being stalked by the star of his favorite childhood television show. Clay, who desperately wants to surgically alter his terrified facial expression, thinks a physical fix will help him deal with his emotional problems. All he wants is to escape his anxiety and settle into a normal life, but there’s a voice in his head who has different plans…

(Kickstart with us!)

The theatrical side of Mystery Mark will involve a wide collaboration of creators: writers, illustrators, designers, filmmakers, animators, actors, musicians, and masters of the organizational arts. We’re hip deep into a Kickstarter campaign to help provide the resources we need to complete the first two pieces of Mystery Mark’s journey: the illustrated book and the theatrical installation.

The installation: A looping theatrical installation incorporates the main characters and themes from the story–with actors, masks, and puppets–and features an original score by long-time Missoula band, “Cash For Junkers“. Funding will support design, build, rehearsal space rental and other production costs including set pieces, costumes, masks, puppets, and props.

The Mystery Mark Installation will open during the Missoula Fringe Festival in August, 2014, and feature an original score by long-time Missoula band, Cash For Junkers. You can get a taste for their music on our latest video.

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