The Dead Diva’s Show

This is so exciting! Recently I was asked by a friend, Arlee Chadwick, to work on a show with her and another puppeteer friend, Micheal Lester.  The show is called The Dead Diva’s Show and the basic premise is that we get together and discuss Hollywood Diva’s.  Here’s the first episode:

We had SO MUCH FUN together.  Micheal has an encyclopedic knowledge of old Broadway and Hollywood actresses and he is so easy to talk to.  I can’t wait for us to do more episodes, which of course I will post.  Enjoy!

 

The Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater

So much has happened since the last update! I’ll have to do a catch up blog soon.  I got married in June (Yay!) and am no residing in New Jersey.  For the last year and a half, I got a job working at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre based in Central Park in New York City.

Marionettes, as I’m sure I’ve said before, I find to be the trickiest puppets I have worked with so far.  Strings were made to catch on anything and everything, they break from time to time (seemingly always at the most inconvenient moment), they take a whole different set of muscles than I had built up from rod puppets, and they require you to really think ahead of yourself somewhat, to preempt the next motion, because of the delay the strings create.  That being said, they are really very interesting to me: in short I find them cool as hell.  Maybe it’s because I haven’t had that much experience with them, or maybe it’s because there are so many brilliant modern marionette makers like Ronnie Burkett, Kevin Frisch, or Scott Land, that I find to be inspirational and awe inspiring.  When the opportunity came up to audition for the Swedish Cottage again, I jumped at the chance!

First we need to talk about the cottage building itself.  In Central Park, right off 81st Street and Central Park West, just a short walk into the park itself, is the cutest little puppet theatre.  It’s a cottage built for the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia and was transferred to Central Park in 1877.  For the last 80 years it has been home to a marionette theatre: Basil Twist, Bob Brown, Nicolas Coppola, just to name a few, are some of the famous puppeteers to pass through it’s adorably decorated wooden walls.

I auditioned and was offered a part time position with the company performing at the cottage itself and also on the road.

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Don’t you want to go in and drink some cocoa? You know you do.

The road show that is done is particularly a great program: all summer long, the van travels to all five boroughs and does free shows in the parks.  That’s right, you heard me, FREE shows in Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. From April to October, the Puppet Mobile can be requested by parks for festivals, or just fun days for the family, and will bring the crew out with the show and anybody can come.  I love this concept because it is in align with my belief that all children should be able to see and experience art.  When I joined, the show being performed was Cinderella Samba.  I had one day to learn the show, and then preform.  As nerve wracking as it was, my fellow puppeteers had my back and told me where I needed to go and when I was missing something.  Within a week or two, I felt like I memorized the show but that I didn’t really have the puppetry down.  The next year would sort of be on the job training for the puppetry.

The shows the cottage do are canned, which means you don’t preform live, you perform to a prerecorded track, which is very different from the style I am used to doing.  I feel there are pros and cons to this kind of performance.  The pros are that you get the opportunity to do a show many times, so you get the opportunity to practice the same character a lot without worrying about lines.  You also get the chance to perform multiple characters in a show because the puppeteer tracks rotate, so one day you might be Peter Pan and the next you’re a lost boy and a pirate.  This is beneficial in that every marionette is different in weight, movement, with different strengths and weaknesses.  The major downside is that after a year or performing this way, I felt I got lazy as a performer.  By the fourth of fifth month into a nine month run, there were days I knew I was just going through the motions, that my reactions weren’t in the moment and were just going along with what line is playing on the track.  It’s very hard to get out of that rut, and I think it’s super important for a performer using tracks to occasionally do a live show, it keeps all elements of the performer sharp.

I was super excited to be able to do the voice for Peter Pan for the production of Neverland: Peter Returns.  Bruce Cannon asked me if I would be willing to do it and I was so happy to oblige!  I also got to be a sexy mermaid and a lost boy.  I had a great time recording those lines and songs and it never ceased to crack me up when at the end of the show I would walk out and say goodbye and when asked who was the voice, I would say me, and children would look at me like I was an alien.

Recently I left the cottage after performing in five shows, it became financially impossible for me to maintain the distance to get to work and the cost of commuting, but I had a great time working with the staff while I was there.  I hope to be able to go back one day, I just need to readjust my goals for myself as a puppeteer and what I want to get out of puppetry and voice over.

 

I have more to say about the performance aspect and I’ll come back to it!

Rapunzel at the PuppetCo September 2016

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The Prince, Witch Wartsmith, and Rapunzel surrounding me. Photo by Christopher Piper

One woman.  Two hands.  Six puppets.  45 minutes of mad cap comedy chaos.

During Sleeping Beauty,  I was asked if I would feel comfortable performing a solo show. Not only did I enthusiastic say “Yes! Let’s do it!” but I pretty much skipped the whole way home.  I have been waiting for this opportunity and I could not have asked for a more enriching experience with a delightful script and a director who let me be a goofball and would pull me back when it was a little….too over the top.

This script was written in the 1970’s bye Duane T Bowers and performed originally with two people as a hand puppet show.  It’s the story of Rapunzel, but she doesn’t really show up until about halfway through the show.  It’s sort of like an origin story, except it doesn’t need a reboot every five years.  It begins with the “chorus” narrator introducing the husband and wife who desperately want a baby, who just happen to live next to Witch Wartsmith’s enchanted rapunzel garden.  Oh, and rapunzel is a type of radish by the way.   Yep.  That long haired princess admired by many…is named after a vegetable.  I had great fun with the pre-show speech talking about if anybody knew anybody named Broccoli or Carrot.

One day, the wife wakes up with a horrible craving for rapunzel and insists that the husband steal her some, much to his dismay.  He relents and the third time he goes, he meets the witch.

It should be said at this point that Witch Wartsmith is probably one of the most adorable and misunderstood characters in the history of the PuppetCo.  She wants a child of her own, now, the way she goes about it is probably not the best, by telling the couple who steal her radishes that she wants their first born baby, which they promise in return, because they don’t think they can have a child.  But of course, they do!

The slapstick comedy abounds.  Allan let me have freedom to try new bits and the eye to pull me back when it didn’t read or was way too much (Although I’m not sure how ‘too many kisses’ is every too much. Heeheehee)  Rehearsal was so much fun. It was very laid back and we worked well together.

I was the first woman to perform the show solo and that was a great honor.  I had to have several different voices because I played both male and female characters and wanted to make them distinct.  When I would go out after the show to say goodbye to the theatre patrons, I would often get asked where the other guy was.  I would say, no, I preformed the show by myself, and then would get asked if the voices were recorded.  I would respond no, I do them all live.  One person rolled his eyes and didn’t believe me, like I was lying to him.  I found this all quite funny and to be a huge compliment.

This show I could do over and over again and again because it is just so much fun.  I hope to be able to take up to the New Jersey area and perform at other venues because it is a jewel not to be missed.

 

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Just puppets.  No other performer hiding out under the play board. 

Sleeping Beauty at the PuppetCo May 2016

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Josh Rosenblum as Frog and Liz Dapo as Lady Frog

A picture is worth a thousand words.  Sleeping Beauty, written by Duane T Bowers for the PuppetCo is a witty and delightful comedy.  The story begins with a storyteller in a garden with two of the thirteen fairies.  After a bit of a temper tantrum, Fairy 13 turns the storyteller into a frog.  What’s that you say, dear reader?  There is not a frog in Sleeping Beauty, you gasp at the obvious mix up between Sleeping Beauty and The Frog Prince, but, au contraire!  In one of the many many version of the story, there is a frog, who tells the Queen that she will have a beautiful child.  Yep.

I had a thrilling time doing this show.  I played the Queen, Fairy 12, Sleeping Beauty, Princess Briar Rose, the Maiden Frog, as well as the Chancellor.  I also puppeteered for Fairy 13 when Christopher was playing another character.  It was such a fun challenge, not only to use all these different voices, but to puppeteer a puppet that was being voiced by someone else.  You start to learn the rhythm of the lines and get a feel for the attitude of the character.

The Queen was a grand lady who was very regal in her voice, but also very bird like.  I found working with her parasol a challenge sometimes, but once I got the hang of it, I made sure I used it whenever I had the chance.

The Princess didn’t show up till almost the end of the show.  She was a cute 16 year old girl.  Really that’s all I have to say about her.

The Chancellor was very fun and the first male character I got to voice at the PuppetCo.  When I first did his voice in rehearsal, Christopher and Josh dropped their puppets down and turned to stare at me.  They didn’t think my voice could go so low.  After all, in every day conversation, I pretty much sound like a Fraggle.

Fairy 12 was my sweet little old lady voice, the Frog Maiden, ended up being Scottish or Irish….it really depended on the day.

I love this show.  Here are some photos I managed to get behind the scenes

 

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Josh and myself with our Frogs

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Backstage for Sleeping Beauty

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Just in case Josh forgot who he was in this show….

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Rehearsal with Christopher, Allan, and Josh

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Liz, Toni, and Josh run lines outside in the sun.

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Toni, Josh, and Storyteller Frog close up

James and the Giant Peach

Joel Abels out of Fresno, California contacted me on a Wednesday night.  By Thursday we had discussed what he needed: James and the Giant Peach puppets.  When did he need them? Two weeks from that Thursday so that gave me a week to make something work for him.

I love a good challenge and with this project, I haven’t been building as much lately, so it was a great kick start to getting back into my workshop and getting things going again.

There are five characters in the musical that are usually puppets: Earthworm, Centipede, Ms. Spider, Ladybug, and Grasshopper.  I have never made bug puppets before (or arachnids) so this was going to be fun.  I started off creating designs of what I wanted.  Through the entire time I kept telling myself “Keep it simple. Keep it simple.” because my tendency is to overcomplicate or think I can actually accomplish more than I realistically have time for.  For example: moving mouth and eye mechanisms take a lot longer when you want to make them out of a hard material with a trigger attached, as opposed to cutting out a mouth in foam that a person just has to use their hand with. (Thanks Kevin Augustine!)

So I kept it simple.  My Uncle Tony had a lot of black reticulated foam that he said I could use for my puppets a while back, so materials were basically donated.  I built five large puppets and six small puppets.  In about a week.  I got them out the door with enough time so that the students had a few days to rehearse with them and get to feel them out.  I used a lot of hot glue and rough cuts, so I would really love to build these puppets again and take my time to make the moving pieces and more articulation.  I want to push myself to have a better grasp of the mechanical possibilities in puppet building.

I’ve attached a few photos below of some of the puppets.  When Joel sends along some performance photos, I will share those as well.

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Beauty and the Beast at the PuppetCo

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You guys seriously.  Marionettes are a challenge.  But when you get it right…there is something so completely magical about the experience.  I don’t mean “get it right” as in “I need to move a hand I pull a string”, rather, this character and I are one being right now and how she feels is how I feel and she’s the one who shows it because I am imbuing her with everything I’ve got.  Once you get to that point in a show using puppets on a strings, there is a very surreal feeling of connection through a tiny physical tether.

The puppets we used for this production were not true marionettes, but a hybrid between Sicilian Rod puppets and marionettes.

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Myself with Beauty and Josh Rosenbaum with Beast.  

There is a central rod that connects to the puppets head.  On top of that is a controller that has strings connected in a loop for the hands, and a rocker bar on the front so you can walk the legs around.  They were designed by the late Terry Snyder and they are beautiful.   The type of puppetry is overt puppeteering, meaning that we the puppeteers are visible through the entire show, right next to our puppets.

So, you ask, what are the challenges to working with marionettes?  Well, in the immortal words of Mr. Allan Stevens “Anything on strings isn’t for me” because strings tangle, they break, they get caught in other puppets….the list goes on and on…but…when you stop worrying about the mechanics of the puppet, and begin to give the puppet life, you handle those little snafus one moment at a time.  For example: see that beautiful Beauty puppet up there?  Sure, she’s elegant, she has a glorious gown, she’s heavy as the sun is bright, but she has one fatal flaw….she likes to lose her head.  Josh and I fixed her neck multiple times during the run, but inevitable three times, that head just wanted to float away from her body.  You could actually feel the disconnect, it wasn’t a pop, it wasn’t a snap…it was a “Oh dear lord I’m not holding up ten pounds of puppet anymore” which somedays my shoulder was happy about…even though the rest of me was on “Please oh please don’t let the body fall over because how terrifying would that be to a group of kids….” so I learned how to grab her body and we would finish the show without a hitch…literally there was nothing hitched together.

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This scene…this scene caused sooooo many problems. 

I loved being Beauty.  I usually play the characters in plays, so being the princess was fun.  (I’ve played princesses before as puppets…but this was different for me)  However, my favorite character to play was one of the mean sisters: Vanity.

Vanity was a Brooklyn girl (the play takes place in rural Russia((our version does anyway)) and she has always been a Brooklyn girl.  Josh and I came up with so many new fun bits to add to the show.  We somehow managed to improvise with each other…and I only made him break on stage once! She had many wonderful lines including “I’m so hungry I could eat my shoes” and “How long does it take to squeeze a chicken?”

We had some moments were the technical aspects glitched out, but Josh and I were so comfortable working together that we could make it through.  Even when Josh decided to stick an altoid in his mouth moments before going on stage and ended up spitting it out….we both watched it roll across the floor and hit my shoe…that was a very interesting moment on stage.  We had opportunities to interact with the audience, we made the sisters into a comedy act all to themselves, and we learned how to do a ribbon dance with puppets all while not tangling ourselves up in the process.

The experience with this wonderful play written by Terry Snyder, given to the PuppetCo and performed by veteran master puppeteers like Christopher Piper, MayField Piper, and Eric Brooks, was a delight to learn and even more fun to embellish on.  Allan gave us the freedom to discover new moments and try new bits.  He also pulled us back when necessary.  I could write an entire thesis about the process, but that might be a bit more information than anyone is willing to read! It was an enriching experience and one that I will miss greatly.

Pinocchio at the PuppetCo Playhouse

The biggest take away I took away from this marionette…life sized marionette show was that anything on strings will inevitably break or tangle.  And when that happens….that’s when the excitement really begins.

Let me start at the beginning.  I take you back to early January of 2016. The time of day, usually mornings or after noon, the place, balmy Glen Echo park, the scene: a Mr. Allan Stevens as Gepetto on the ground of the set, while Josh Rosenblum, Elizabeth Dapo, and Christopher Piper operate life sized marionettes from a bridge twelve feet off the ground.

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Josh Rosenblum as Pinocchio and Christopher Piper as a donkey

The puppets are beautiful.  They were created by Christopher’s father, so we estimated they were at the very least, fifty years old.  However, that means that the materials were a little different from what we use now, so they had a tendency to lose a string and were pretty heavy. We built muscle during this show!

I got to operate and voice the Blue Fairy and I gave her a little southern accent because Christopher said that is how his mother voiced her, so I thought it would be nice to carry on tradition.  She was amazing to operate…once you learned not to fly her into pieces of scenery.

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The Blue Fairy and Lighthead backstage

I also go to voice the Cat, the sidekick to the devious Fox (Christopher).  Once I got that puppet in my  hands….and found his cockney voice…there was no going back.  I found new bits that he could do, like lick his paws and shake his fur dry after a thunderstorm.  He also had the quirk that whenever he blinked, he did it three times.  I highly doubt anybody noticed, but it was there from the beginning.  Christopher told his father about the Cat’s new personality and commented that it was becoming the Cat Comedy Hour.  I thought that was pretty great.

Josh played Pinocchio, so he had his hands full the entire show.  Christopher manipulated and voiced Lighthead, Cricket, and the Fox, but the two of us often traded off or had to hand each other a new puppet.  If you want to see organized chaos, I suggest you sit backstage during a marionette performance with multiple puppeteers.  It is a sight to be seen for sure!

I had a few issues that I was working through and will keep in mind for the future whenever I use marionettes.  One was to watch how I walk.  It was easy with the fairy, because her feet never touched the ground, but the cat was a challenge.  Too much tension and he would float, not enough tension and his legs would collapse.  There was a sweet spot that was sometimes hard to find.

There were also challenges presented to us because of what happens with marionettes sometimes…tangles and strings seemingly exploding on their own.  More than once we had to haul down the ladder to untangle a fish from a puppet (Oh…there is a glorious underwater scene with many many fish…which all hung backstage….) or vice versa.  One of the performances my control rod broke and I watched in abject horror as my shoulder bar fell on top of the cat. There was nothing to be done except run down the ladder, find some gaff tape, grab the bar, run up the ladder, temporarily fix it and hope I hadn’t tangled the strings too much on the way up.  Pinocchio had a few good mid show fixes where he would lose a foot or a hand string, so we would try to help Josh as much as we could.  All of this while being silent because we were on mics.

I took away a lot from doing this performance.  Trouble shooting and manipulation aside, it was a fantastic experience with seasoned performers who are truly masters of their art.

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