This ‘Optical Popsicle’ is a museum-quality show
by David Lindquist for The Indianapolis Star
Before the members of Know No Stranger take their “Optical Popsicle” show to a big, shiny stage at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the performance artists are assembling their anything-goes spectacle in a church basement east of Fountain Square.
The “clubhouse,” as it’s known, is ramshackle but organized. There’s a shelf for fabric rescued from thrift-store dumpsters, a stash of random electronics, a paint closet and an accumulation of props where you’ll find Mongo: a 6-foot-tall puppet who eats humans.
But something else is dominating the clubhouse during preparations for the Oct. 11 event billed as “Optical Popsicle 7.”
A metal “music machine,” built by Know No Stranger player Alan Goffinski, is about 12 feet long and 10 feet tall. It makes a percussive racket thanks to drums and keyboards hooked together by bicycle chains.
One person can crank the machine to life, and its sound will accompany a performance by Indianapolis-based rapper Scoot Dubbs at “OP7.”
“We’ve done some crazy contraptions, but not to this extent,” said Goffinski, 28.
“Visual variety show” is one way to describe “Optical Popsicle.” At last year’s event, the cast provided a more colorful explanation in song: “O is for optical, ’cause you see things with your eyes. And P is for popsicle, a treat to blow your mind.”
Exercising dinosaurs were part of the show. The first “OP” featured a man wearing overalls and answering questions at a booth titled “Hikipedia.” This year’s edition includes puppets modeled after cast members.
Know No Stranger entertains audiences throughout the year, including recent performances at PBS Kids in the Park and the Oxford Kinetics Festival in Ohio. But “Optical Popsicle” is the group’s flagship event.
“This is what we look forward to all year,” Know No Stranger cast member Ryan Felton said. “It’s the most ‘our’ voice of any of the productions that we put on.”
The current troupe includes founding members Michael Runge, Brandon Schaaf and Emily Gable. With roots in the Herron School of Art and Design, Know No Stranger formed in 2009.
Past sites for “Optical Popsicle” include the Athenaeum, Madame Walker Theatre Center and the bygone Earth House Collective.
Know No Stranger’s connection to the IMA arrives with Scott Stulen, hired this year as the museum’s first-ever curator of audience experiences and performance.
Stulen first encountered the arts collective when he traveled from Minneapolis to Indianapolis to speak at the 2012 edition of TEDx Indianapolis. He’s such a big fan of Know No Stranger that the group is a newly designated artist-in-residence at the IMA.
“I think their work is really playful, very inventive,” Stulen told The Indianapolis Star this summer. “I love how they take analog technology and repurpose it. They do a lot with nothing.”
Goffinski said he appreciates the assistance — personnel, resources and funding — from the museum.
“They’re on board, and they get it,” Goffinski said. “They get what we’re trying to do. It’s a totally different relationship than when you are just the tenant for a weekend at a venue. They don’t furrow their brows when we say something completely weird that we want to try to do.”
Still, all of this won’t make Wallace Wimbley feel any better as showtime approaches. Wimbley isn’t a flesh-and-blood Know No Stranger player but a furry puppet who’s white-haired, nebbish and about 80 years old.
“They asked me to be the stage manager for last year’s show,” Wimbley said during an impromptu chat. “Against my better judgment, I came back. Now, they always manage to pull it off, but this thing does a number on my gutty works.”
The man behind Wimbley is Know No Stranger’s Felton, a 27-year-old who grew up in Trafalgar, Ind.
Felton refers to Wimbley as a “little louder, little more pessimistic” alter ego.
“I think it’s from somewhere not very deep inside myself,” Felton said. “I think he’s always been there, just bubbling below the surface. We have a lot in common.”
Wimbley aside, Know No Stranger encourages people to check out “Optical Popsicle” as an evening that offers absurdity, introspection and awe.
Admission is $20 at the door, but discounts listed at KnowNoStranger.com set a feel-good tone for attendees. Options include $2 off for anyone who brings a watermelon sculpture. Dress like a member of a marching band for a $3 discount, and it’s $4 off if you agree to a “very, very bad haircut” on site.
Felton said “Optical Popsicle” has a dependable track record.
“Any show that can get my dad to stand up and sing R. Kelly’s ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ is a unique performance,” he said.
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