Theater Interview: CHELSEA SUTTON (Rogue Artists Ensemble Associate Artistic Director on “Carousel of Fools” at Santa Monica Pier on January 25, 2024)

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by Shari Barrett on January 23, 2024

in Interviews,Theater-Los Angeles

Playwright, fiction writer, director, and immersive experience creator for weird, fantastical artistic ventures Chelsea Sutton has always had a very unique sense of humor. Hearing of her involvement presenting Rogue Artists Ensemble’s upcoming benefit at the Santa Monica Carousel and Pier, Stage and Cinema‘s Shari Barrett decided to speak with her about her vision for the Carousel of Fools event and what participants can expect as they wander around this one-of-a-kind event.

Chelsea Sutton

Hi Chelsea. Thanks for taking time to speak with me as I know you must be incredibly busy with last minute planning for Carousel of Fools. First, tell me about your involvement with Rogue Artists Ensemble and the Rogue Lab.

I first started working with Rogue Artists as an artist and ensemble member in 2015 as the playwright for our Pinocchio reimagining Wood Boy Dog Fish. In 2018 I launched the first year of the Rogue Lab New Play Incubator with Lisa Sanaye Dring, with whom I co-wrote Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin and who is also writing our upcoming project Happy Fall: A Queer Stunt Spectacular. Rogue Lab had two years of writers groups, helping support the creation of about 12 new plays – but the pandemic put a pause on that version of the Lab. In 2021 we were able to do a smaller Rogue Lab focused on directors and their process, and last year we held a Hyper-Puppet Workshop teaching the basics of puppetry to adult performers and makers. I’m not sure what the Lab’s next iteration will be! It always depends a bit on funding and what the needs of the community seem to be. I have been on staff with Rogue since 2012 as their marketing person, but officially transitioned to Associate Artistic Director in 2021 so that I could offer more support for the artistic and new work development needs of the company. (I still do plenty of admin and marketing though!)

Like you, I have always loved carousels. Do you remember the first one or is there a most special one you have ridden on? And how did that experience lead you to direct Carousel of Fools?

I think my first real memory of a carousel is probably at Disneyland. I’m a Southern California native and my grandmother’s house was close enough to Disneyland that you could hear the fireworks from her backyard. My mom and I went there a lot while I was growing up, and I, of course, loved Fantasyland, which has a carousel at its heart.

Everyone is Rogue has either a Disney or sideshow/circus love connection (or both), and when we reached out to the Carousel and explored the idea of a pop-up event in that space, it felt perfect.

What can audience members expect during the benefit event?

Carousel of Fools will feature 30 games, pop-up performances and sideshow acts, including magicians, mermaids, land sharks, carousel rides, tarot readers, naughty finger puppets, a monster truck ballet, a fire-breathing chicken, stilt walkers, a stationary blacklight dark ride, and more! Audiences will spend an interactive choose-your-own-adventure night following their curiosities into every corner of the Looff Hippodrome. There’s really no wrong way to experience the night! You can simply go to play games, ride the carousel, and see the sword swallowers. But if you want a little more weird in your life, you can catch what’s happening in our pop-up performance tents. And if you want a sweet, immersive quest with a little more narrative, you can opt into the Apothecary of Stories.

The event is structured like a carnival – with an entry fee that includes mainstage side show performances and a ride on the 1922 carousel. Additional performances, games, snacks, and drinks are customizable with additional activity ticket purchases. So it’s really a choose-your-own adventure kind of night.

Swordswallowers Amy Amnesia and Brianna Belladonna

I read you bought a pair of red steampunk glasses to wear that night. Is there a special reason for that? Or is it part of an act you want to keep a secret?

I always like an excuse to buy a new costume piece. The vibe of the night is very steampunk/grunge DIY carnival which is very much the vibe of most Rogue shows!

Tell me about the event’s storyline.

It’s the dead of winter and a 100-year-old carousel calls out to you to take a ride. But choose your horse wisely – as the world spins, a curious carnival erupts from the boardwalk of Time itself. Lost in a night of mayhem and wonderment, will you become an oddity, a star, or a mark?

The understory of the night is that we are here to celebrate the Carousel and how amazing it is that we still have it after 100 years, and to remember its histories and stories (and our own) on this one unique, magical night. I explore this a little deeper in The Apothecary of Stories experience, which is about a mysterious traveler who has arrived at the sideshow to save the forgotten, hidden stories of the Carousel. She needs your help to find pieces of the stories scattered around the party before they are consumed by a villainous creature lurking in the shadows of the carnival – the mysterious Dogfish.

So participants won’t know what the evening has in store for them at first! What’s the difference between an oddity, a star, or a mark that evening?

So much of the night is learning who you are at this carnival you were magically drawn to. A Star is someone who’s vibe screams TALENT and SPOTLIGHT. An Oddity is a wonderful weirdo. And a Mark is a naive but charming wide-eyed innocent who looks at the world with curiosity – and maybe is a bit easy to trick.

Illusionist DHP Gastelum

Tell me about the planned entertainments taking place that night.

The sideshow stage stars Amy Amnesia and Brianna Belladonna performing sword swallowing, human blockhead, and other human tricks. Female sword swallowers are rare in the sideshow world, so its super special to see two at once!

There are also three new puppet shows created for this event, a dark ride experience (in a tent), a tarot reader, a professional magician, a naughty finger puppet show, with lots of games and walk around characters all night. But be warned – many of the games are inspired by the usual midway games, but have a added Rogue twist.

We are also partnering with the Santa Monica Trapeze school on the pier, who are performing and teaching some basic circus tricks to folks before our doors even open. Folks who are attending at the $120 level and above are invited to this fun moment with some very talented performers.

Rogue Artists Ensemble's Wood Boy Dog Fish at the Garry Marshall Theatre

Who is the terrible Dogfish and what is its part in the evening’s Carnival?

The Dogfish first appeared in Rogue’s Wood Boy Dog Fish, which I wrote and which was a reimagining of the Pinocchio story. He is basically a twisted villainous version of the whale that swallows Pinocchio. But here we continue his mythology a bit disconnected from that play. No one quite knows his true origin – but I bet that everyone you meet at the carnival has their own theory! He emerged from the darkest depths of the sea and is attracted to fear – he consumes the memories, stories, and very essence of you – everything connected to our ingrained fear.

Will all the acts you described be located indoors around the Carousel, or are many scattered throughout the pier?

All the games and smaller activities will be happening inside the Looff Hippodrome, the main building that houses the carousel [used in the movie, The Sting]. The performance tents and sideshow stage are immediately outside the doors on the deck – so you won’t be going far! The event does not take place up and down the pier, just in that one location, with the exception of the one popup at the Trapeze school right before we open our doors.

Are all the acts featured in the event also members of Rogue Artists Ensemble? And if not, how did you go about finding them?

Almost everyone performing at the event are Rogue Artists Ensemble members or associate artists, or are alumni of Rogue projects. The only exception is Brianna Belladonna who is performing sword swallowing with Amy Amnesia (Amy is a Rogue Artists Ensemble Member) and the artists from the Trapeze school. Everyone else – from those running games, those performing, or those checking you in – are friends and collaborators. This is definitely not an event where we simply booked a lot of outside acts to fill the time.

How many people will be admitted to the event?

We have space for up to 200!

Are there different levels/costs of admittance?

The event is structured like a carnival – with an entry fee that includes mainstage side show performances and a ride on the 1922 carousel. Additional performances, games, snacks and drinks are customizable with additional activity ticket purchases. Entry tickets start at $40. The $60 level includes a drink ticket and six activity tickets; the $120 level includes two drink tickets and twenty activity tickets; the $240 level includes unlimited drinks, activities, and entry into the Apothecary of Stories. All proceeds benefit Rogue’s 2024 season.

Built in 1916, the Looff Hippodrome houses the Carousel on Santa Monica Pier

Can people purchase tickets at the event or are advance reservations required?

We encourage advanced tickets at Eventbrite, but we will be selling at the door as well.

Is parking at the Pier included in the admission cost? And in which lot should audience members park?

Parking is not included, but the parking lots are on the winter reduced rate right now, which is $7. There’s parking on the pier right behind the Looff Hippodrome or on either side of the pier. There’s easy stairways and ramps on either side.

Are special plans being made in case of rain?

Most of the activities are either in covered tents already or are inside. The only thing that might change is moving our outside stage inside. Otherwise, rain shouldn’t be an issue! Just dress warmly as it usually gets cool at night since the Pier is over the ocean.

Anything else you want to share about yourself, the event, or Rogue Artists Ensemble future events?

This is a big year for Rogue Artists Ensemble so stay tuned for announcements about a premiere production later this year plus several readings and workshops of new work. It’s also important to note that part of the inspiration for Carousel of Fools came from another world premiere immersive show we’re hoping to be premiering next year – Schlitzie: Alive and Inside the Decaying Sideshow. The story sheds a light on the intersection of the sideshow and disability inclusivity through the story of Schlitzie, an iconic and often misunderstood performer. Schlitzie is one of the most famous sideshow performers, his story is inextricably tied to Los Angeles, where he was eventually admitted to an institution when his sideshow was shut down. When he performed his act in McArthur Park he was lovingly known as “ratoncito.” An event at the Carousel was a perfect way to begin gearing up for this show, which we are hoping to premiere next year. So, if you like the Carousel of Fools, keep an eye out for information about Schlitzie!

Thanks so much!  I look forward to experiencing Carousel of Fools on Thursday night. And our Editor-in-Chief Tony Frankel asked me to send a special “hello” to you!

Please send love to Tony for me!

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photos courtesy of Chelsea Sutton

Carousel of Fools
Rogue Artists Ensemble
Looff Hippodrome at Pacific Park, 380 Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica
Thursday, January 25, 2024 from 8pm-11pm
for tickets ($30 – $230), visit Eventbrite

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