Optical Popsicle Infinity: A look at how far the annual visual variety show has come
by Seth Johnson for NUVO
When writing the script for their annual Optical Popsicle variety show, Indianapolis artist collective Know No Stranger isn’t afraid to throw the zaniest of twists into a plot — even if it might seem impossible to manifest live in a large theater setting.
“Last year, we probably backed ourselves into the most demanding corner that we had up to that point by writing a moment in the finale where we launched the entire theater through a black hole into another universe,” says writer and performer Ryan Felton. “That ended up being a really special moment that immersed the whole audience and brought everybody together.”
Crowds should expect much of this same wackiness at the show’s seventh installment, which Know No Stranger is calling Optical Popsicle Infinity. Taking place at the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Toby Theater for the second straight year, the show will consist of puppetry, video, live music, dance and more, with several surprise guests also making appearances. Due to the large amount of people that were turned away from last year’s sold out extravaganza, the 2015 Op Pop will have three show times rather than one.
“I like to view Know No Stranger as a bunch of kids with superpowers,” says Emily Gable, puppeteer and illustrator for Know No Stranger. “It’s like Captain Planet … We’re showing people that Indianapolis is something very special and eclectic and almost homemade, and it makes you feel like you’re in your grandma’s house and you’re playing with all your old toys again.”
It was Oct. 23, 2009 when Know No Stranger originally unveiled their very first Optical Popsicle at Indy’s now-defunct Earth House, with no real intentions of creating an Op Pop 2, 3 or Infinity. At this point, the group honestly admits they had no idea how the Indianapolis arts community would receive their eye-popping ideas.
Illustrator and performer Brandon Schaaf recalls, “I remember standing with Michael [a former member] and we were like, ‘What if people don’t like this? We think what we’re doing is funny. We think what we’re doing is poignant. But, we don’t know if anybody will see it. And if anybody sees it, will they like it?'”
At this time, the group ultimately had something that they were trying to prove.
As one opportunity led to the next, the group was asked to be the IMA’s first-ever performing artist in residence for 2015 and 2016 as part of the museum’s multi-faceted ARTx series.
Scott Stulen, curator of audience experiences and performance at the IMA, first witnessed Know No Stranger at their sold out Optical Popsicle 7 performance last year at the Toby Theater.
“There’s this genuine, playful, kind of joyful spirit at the core of all of it that resonates well with me, and I think it’s also something that is fairly rare to be honest,” says Stulen. He sees their collaborative nature as being something that truly makes them an Indianapolis gem. “I think it’s so unique to have a group of artists that are working as a collective and doing work like this. They’re also relatively young, but have been able to accomplish so much in a short period of time.”
In addition to this year and next year’s Optical Popsicles, the group’s residency will also include a puppet making workshop in January 2016, the debut of Know No Stranger’s first musical in April 2016, and much more. Through this residency, Stulen is hopeful that the collective will gain exposure from those outside Indianapolis.
“My goal at the end of this is that we can get them to be able to tour regionally if not nationally with some of these projects,” says Stulen.
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