Caroline Reck builds worlds.
As the artistic director of Glass Half Full Theatre, her specialty is creating original work that’s visual, story-driven, and uses physical theatre and puppetry to illuminate social issues in new ways.
In 2014 — with support from the Jim Henson Foundation — Reck built a futuristic world featuring hundreds of tiny puppets in miniature landscapes made out of materials like beads, cardboard, and plastic for “Once There Were Six Seasons,” a tale about climate change.
For the company’s most recent show, “Polly Mermaid: Apocalypse Wow,” pieces of trash adrift in the ocean came to life in an oddly beautiful underwater realm constructed by Reck and her team.
Written by Reck and Indigo Rael, “Polly Mermaid” used object puppetry to tell the story of what Reck described as “a mutant, half-mermaid, half-plastic trash creature birthed out of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” The company wanted to focus on the environmental problems created by the everlasting nature of plastic in a way that would truly impact the audience.
“What Glass Half Full is good at is combining visual imagery with a message that resonates emotionally and gets you to think about it in a new way,” Reck said. “How do we make you feel it so it becomes more of your everyday experience, so it impacts how you move through the world from now on?”
As an unconventional artist, it took Reck a while to find her place in the theater world. She grew up in California near Huntington Beach and studied theater at Scripps and Pomona Colleges. Despite getting cast in some lead female roles, such as Mrs. Alving in Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” Reck would sometimes get offstage and cry.
“I felt really trapped by the language,” she said. “I was doing old work written by dudes and I was feeling artistically stifled.” After graduating in 2000, she auditioned for MFA acting programs and got several offers, but she bristled at the thought of continuing to act in scripted classical work. She had a burgeoning feminist consciousness, but as these were the early years of the Internet, Reck wasn’t able to easily identify other feminist performance artists to emulate or work with.
After college, Reck created exploratory physical performances and performed them in San Francisco and Los Angeles. “I was just someone doing a weird evening of performance art, not wanting to get stuck in the L.A. version of acting or go to grad school,” she said.
During a stint studying abroad in London during college, Reck had taken a class based on the physical theatre techniques of French artist Jacques Lecoq. The actors in class would have to stand up and volunteer without knowing what they were doing; then they would create stories through improvisation and physicality. At first Reck was terrified, but then she made a conscious decision to start volunteering herself first.
“It was the best,” she said. “It was a huge life decision for me, learning how to say ‘I have no idea what will happen, but let’s find out.’”
In 2002 she enrolled at The International Theatre School of Jacques Lecoq in Paris, where she finally felt she had found her artistic tribe. She immersed herself in learning the variety of physical forms taught at the school, including clown, buffoon, pantomime, cabaret, and melodrama.
“I was drawn to the non-personal teaching approach,” she said. “A lot of acting classes were about trying to get inside your head and find your deepest stuff. I would feel like we’re all standing around emoting and we’re not moving around and making interesting shapes.” But at Lecoq, the training focused on what the audience sees rather than what the actor feels, an approach that resonated with Reck.
“That’s how I direct, how I act,” she said, “by asking ‘what’s the story being served in this moment?’”
Reck particularly took to a form called object theater, where objects become animated with human significance. “I had been doing it in my performance art stuff without knowing that it was a form,” she said.
After graduating from the Lecoq school, Reck stayed in Paris for two years, living on a houseboat on the Seine River and producing cabaret shows on the weekends. They called it Cabaret Le Clochard, which meant “hobo cabaret.” After producing a series of events and performances in Paris, Reck chose to name her developing company Glass Half Full Theatre, “a name that conveyed optimism,” she said.
When she returned to the U.S. in 2006, she had a stint in New York before heading to an MFA program in directing at Towson University in Maryland. While in graduate school she started attending the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and it was there that she met her husband, Connor Hopkins, director of Austin-based company Trouble Puppet Theater Company.
The two were sitting side by side at a gathering where everyone pitched their ideas for new puppetry pieces. Hopkins proposed a short piece about the Dust Bowl and Charles Lindbergh’s plane crash in the Texas desert while Reck proposed a piece of object theatre featuring office supplies fighting it out on a desk after a typewriter gets replaced by a Mac computer. They both immediately wanted to work on each other’s piece.
“We were kind of the two who were most interested in using puppetry to point out social issues and political structures,” Reck said. Her relationship with Hopkins inspired her move to Austin in 2010 after graduation. The couple now have a young daughter.
Reck has been producing new work to critical acclaim since arriving in Austin. Though many of her puppetry-based shows are for adults, Reck has also done some successful theater for youth shows. In collaboration with Zach Theatre, she created a children’s version of “Once There Were Six Seasons” and a bilingual version of “Cinderella” called “Cenicienta” in partnership with Teatro Vivo.
In 2016 with Lionheart Youth Theatre, Reck produced “Petra and the Wolf,” an ambitious reworking of the classic children’s tale “Peter and the Wolf” with an original score by Mother Falcon. In her feminist reimagining, the main character is a young girl who shows bravery while also learning an appreciation for nature and empathy for the wolf.
Right now, Reck is finding inspiration by reading widely in the fields of cultural geography, anthropology, and cultural studies. One of her company’s next projects will focus on using the scary Mexican legend of El Cucuy to explore how current immigrant communities deal with fears of deportation.
The project is in its early stages, but Reck will surely find a way to build a new world for the piece, and to invite the audience inside.