Theater Profile: Meet Mad Cat Theatre’s Paul Tei and Jessica Farr
Creating more than just a theater company was Paul Tei’s mission when he founded Mad Cat Theatre Company in 2000. A homegrown South Floridian (he grew up in Hollywood), Mad Cat is his vehicle for “provoking the audience to reimagine its surrounding world,” according to the statement on the website. Tei likes exploring the darker side of emotions and the mental state, and creating stories that reflect the current state of our society.
He and Associate Director Jessica Farr do this through original works, adaptations, multi-media, live music, dance, puppetry, and poetry. There’s not much these two won’t do to get their message across. Artburst Miami chatted with them about the evolution of their careers and Mad Cat Theatre.
Artburst: Tell me a little bit about your backgrounds in theater from when you started to today having your own company.
Tei: I started Mad Cat in the Fall of 2000 after bouncing around in a bunch of companies. I knew when I went to grad school that I always wanted to have my own theater company, having grown up and spent 10 years at Area Stage, Akrpolois, 3rd Street Blackbox, and Juggerknot. I knew that what I wanted was a company and an extended family. I was an only child. I felt a lot of comfort playing in bands and playing on a soccer team when I was growing up.
That camaraderie, like-minded artists to spend time with on and off the field, appealed to me. My training at DePaul University was about how to work with other artists and share a common language. It just seemed like the right time to start Mad Cat in 2000: new millennium, new theater company.
Farr: I went to school for theater for most of my life. It was everything. Then I lived in New York and Los Angeles and came back here because I wanted to see what Miami was really all about as an adult and as a working artist. I returned back here four years ago. The first Mad Cat show I was in was “Terminal Baggage” in 2005. I became a company member and a resident playwright in 2012. Paul and I teamed up on the administrative level two years ago.
Scene from Mad Cat Live’s “The Eagles’ On The Border” Photo by George Schiavone
Artburst: You’ve had several home bases around Miami before landing at your current home at Miami Theater Center. Tell us about your journey to arriving at MTC.
Tei: Beth Boone, artistic director of Miami Light Project, was a close friend who invited me to look at her space on Biscayne Boulevard and 30th Street, and I lived on 34th Street. After I broke from Juggerknot, I saw the place and it was amazing, and she made me a really great offer. I did very well financially from my first national commercial for Pringles, so I took a great deal of that money to get us started. We were on Biscayne Boulevard for nine years and it was a great location in the heart of a changing city.
We tried to be a present, current voice of Miami in the middle of it all. We weren’t in a posh place or a gated community. I wanted theater for the every-person. Miami Light Project told us they were moving to Wynwood and it was going to take a while to move in, so Ann Kelly, former executive director, found us spaces to perform in during the interim. I had moved to Los Angeles and was working back and forth.
We were the first local theater company to be asked to perform at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in their studio space. When Miami Light Project opened in Wynwood in 2011, we moved in there and loved the space, but our audience wasn’t having it. When the art is being given away in Wynwood, it made it hard to ask people to pay to see us. We did great work there artistically but our audience didn’t come.
Ann reached out to Miami Theater Center and we checked out the Black Box, which was smaller than our previous space, but we figured once we got there and we worked in that space for a while, we could also work on the mainstage, which we now have a few times. We love being a part of the community in Miami Shores. It’s the perfect fit and we love being here and being a part of a small community, as well as participating as a member of the Chamber of Commerce. It feels like we are a boutique theater in growing neighborhoods. The two venues offer varied ways for the audience to come out and see our work. The audience gets to see shows on both scales.
Farr: The original space was great. I always looked forward to coming to rehearsal because you never knew who would be hanging out. Wynwood seemed too good to be true and it was, at least for us. Miami Theater Center is the perfect fit for us. We have been stretching our legs and growing artistically there.
Pictured are Deborah L. Sherman and Noah Levine in “Firemen Are Rarely Necessary” by Theo Reyna. Photo by George Schiavone.
Artburst: How did you come up with the name Mad Cat?
Tei: Well we once threw the name Funky Monkey in the ring. The two ideas I had were Funky Monkey and Mad Cat. I wanted an animal and feeling that would reflect Miami’s mental landscape, and a term that would mean more than one thing. Mad Cat was about having more than one meaning. Mad as in angry and upset with where we are in the world and the state of theater in its stagnant toxicity, which I feel is even worse now. And Mad as in we are all a little crazy. And the cat is my spirit animal, if you will. Or an alter ego. I wanted a band rather than a theater company, a name that wasn’t boring or pretentious. At the time, every company sounded like a law firm or a new diet you should go on. The name felt obvious.
Artburst: Tell us about your brand of theater, because you do a lot of comedies but you also do very daring productions, including musical ones as well as Shakespeare (with your own brand of humor of course).
Tei: We look at what’s going on around us, digest what that is and then start to deconstruct it. We then examine the music we’re listening to or the books we’re reading, or films we’re watching and think about whether or not we have seen this before. We look at what are the parallel connections to what’s happening here in America and is it a mirror to what’s happening abroad or has happened in the past. I was born at the dawn of the seventies, the beginnings of nostalgia. I sat on my mom’s lap and watched the moon landing. I grew up with “Sesame Street,” “The Electric Company” and “Grease.” I grew up with retro and punk rock. It was hard to discern the decades as they were commenting on each other. Mad Cat is like that. Is it happening now or then or before? We try to be of the time and timeless if we can. Because we live in such a nostalgic world. It should feel like you’re floating deja vu.
Farr: We have a lot of influences across artistic mediums. From Fellini to Foghat. We like to mix it up and keep people guessing. We’re a hive mind of artists who wear many hats. We don’t want to bore ourselves, either.
Artburst: Paul, I know you also act how do you manage enough time to run a theater and act as well?
Tei: I don’t sleep a lot and I miss a lot of things, but having only one career doesn’t satisfy me. It’s hard on my personal life, but I’m a workaholic.
Artburst: What do you feel are your most memorable productions you’ve done as Mad Cat and why?
Tei: All of them are memorable to me for one reason or another. I’ve never been a fan of greatest hits. I’m much more of a deep cuts kind of guy. I do enjoy collaborating with Jessica and playwright Theo Reyna a lot.
Farr: My all-time favorite was “Animals and Plants.” It’s why I wanted to be at Mad Cat. I also am partial to “Blow Me,” “Centralia,” and “Gerald Ford Superfreak.”
Artburst: What is coming up in the future for Mad Cat Theatre?
Tei: This season we’re dealing with the potential end of the world so: Black Sabbath in concert and our site-specific production “Gamel” with the ghosts of Española Way and Miami Beach in October. Jessica’s new play “Wake of the Flood,” about the potential for disaster and what happens once it finally arrives will be presented in March. A lot of this upcoming season is about fantasy becoming reality. Then we have “Mixtape 3,” our third of the Mixtape series, which this time around, will be all about film, music, and puppetry.
Farr: We’re pushing ourselves artistically to live in the now and try modes of expression we haven’t utilized in a while.
Artburst: How do you feel about the state of theater in Miami?
Tei: It’s on my periphery. It’s not my main concern. We’re working on ourselves.
Mad Cat Theatre Company is based at the Miami Theater Center, 9806 NE 2 Ave., Miami Shores