The Tin Man Takes Shape off-Broadway Q&A

| 29 Dec 2014 | 12:33

Jason Ralph made the transition from a struggling New York City artist to a successful one in an impressively short time. Although he only moved here in 2010, the Texas native is already enjoying an accomplished career in the theater. In 2013, he made his Broadway debut in “Peter and the Starcatcher” after understudying for five of the show’s roles. The theater company that he started with his classmate, Strangemen & Co., has grown and now produces a variety of plays with the talents of a dedicated team.

Their newest project, “The Woodsman,” is based on Frank Baum’s “Oz” stories. It tells the tale of a man who is under a spell where he loses a limb with each swing of his axe. On stage, the body parts are replaced by tin until the beloved character of the Tin Man is created before our eyes. The play, which has a limited run at 59E59 Theaters from January 13 until February 22, is unique in that there is no dialogue, only life-sized puppets being moved to music. Ralph, who serves as its producing director, discussed the show, his life in the city and his career aspirations.

How did your company get the idea for “The Woodsman?”

It’s from several passages from the entire “Oz” series. Our company member James Ortiz, who’s a cofounder, has always had an affinity for the “Oz” stories. We had been interested in exploring different types of storytelling and wanted to see if it were possible for us to tell a complicated, emotional and funny story without using any dialogue. With only using movement, music, song and puppetry to kind of convey all those complicated plot points and emotions.

How are the puppets used on stage?

They’re life-sized puppets in Bunraku style. The story of the Tin Man is that he’s this young man in love and there’s this witch who is trying to stop him from loving the woman he loves. To stop him, she enchants his axe so that it will murder him essentially. And it does so by cutting off each of his limbs one at a time. So in our play, as each limb gets hacked off, it’s replaced by a life-sized tin one, until his entire body is replaced with tin parts. We have a 6’5” tin puppet on stage representing this man, which is operated by 4 people.

The play received a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation.

That was really extraordinary. It’s a really marvelous organization that supports young artists and young theater companies who are pushing the boundaries of using puppetry to tell stories. It’s not just The Muppets. They seem to be very interested in how you use puppets to tell an emotional story. We had some of the Hensons come and see the play and they were very supportive and seemed to really enjoy it. So that was a really special moment for us to get to meet them.

When did you create Strangemen & Co.? How did you meet your fellow cofounder, James Ortiz?

In 2010. James and I have known each other for almost 10 years now. We went to community college together in Texas and then we both got into the Acting Conservatory at SUNY Purchase in the same year. We graduated from there and were in New York City as two struggling actors and we started creating plays. The first play we did was a retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” in a similar style to what “The Woodsman” is right now. We needed a name, apparently, so we came up with one, made a website, and suddenly we had a theater company. From there, it’s grown exponentially. We have a lot of people involved who love it very much and to whom it means a lot. We’ve done plays ranging from puppetry pieces about Oz to political commentary about prisoners of wars.

You made your Broadway debut in “Peter and the Starcatcher.” What was that experience like?

Making my Broadway debut was something I’ll never forget. The most terrifying and joyful experience of my life. It’s amazing to cram all those emotions—of fear and excitement and the feeling that this is what I was meant to do—into one tiny moment.

Why did you choose to live on the Upper West Side? What are you favorite neighborhood spots?

I moved to the city in 2010. I was in Astoria, then I was in Brooklyn and then I met the love of my life and we moved to the Upper West Side, where we are so happy. We chose the Upper West Side because the neighborhood is quiet and beautiful and still has that romantic old-school New York feel. And it’s secluded while also still being only a 20-minute train ride to anywhere you need to go. I think our favorite thing about it is that we’re so close to the park and the Natural History museum. We have two dogs, so being that near to the dog park as well, because it’s honestly where we spend most of our time. [Laughs]

How did you meet your girlfriend?

We met doing a movie together a couple of years ago. She’s an actress as well.

You landed the lead role in a new Syfy series, “The Magicians.” How did you prepare to play a magician?

It was a pilot that we made for Syfy based on Lev Grossman’s novel. We just finished that at the end of the December and are waiting to see if we get picked up. It was the first role I’ve ever done where I actually had to learn practical things as well as act and learn my lines. So I learned card tricks and a couple of disappearing coin tricks. But mostly, how to handle cards and coins competently. That was really fun and a skill that I will have forever now, which is exciting.

What are your future plans?

Well, hopefully I get to keep producing with Strangemen and Co. We’ve got a couple of more plays in the works that we’re really excited about. Also, I really hope we do “The Magicians.”

For more information on the play, visit