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.

Summer 2015: Southern Colorado Repertory Theater

Once again I was privileged to spend the summer in my beautiful home state of Colorado, nestled next to the Rocky Mountains, performing summer repertory theater.  This season, I performed Eulalie in The Music Man, Olympe in A Flea In Her Ear, and Catherine in Proof.

Eulalie was the first character that I dove into, and I found her challenging.  I honestly hadn’t expected to be doing Music Man (I was under the impression we were doing Little Shop…and I was incredibly excited to build puppets for it and perform as a puppeteer) but the last minute change happened so I had to adapt.  I did not know where to start.  Musicals are fun, but I don’t consider them to be my forte.  With Eulalie, I decided it might be fun to find her “Spirit Animal” or the creature that most embodies the quirky yet delightful Mrs. Shinn.  I found her. In a character created by my good friend Lorna Howley.  Her name is Didi the Dodo.

Once I began channeling that character, Eulalie came alive.  Some of my favorite moments were just discovering little quirks in her behavior.  If Harold Hill touched her, she immediately cleaned her hands.  She was a blast and director Greg Henrickson was an absolute delight to work with.  He let me go as far out as I wanted, and pulled me back when it was just a bit too much.  Not much was a bit too much.  The actress who played Mrs. Paroo, Jean Schuman, and I had a wonderful time on stage together.  At the end of the season more than one person came up to me and said “That was wonderful! If you and Jean had more “air time” it would have been the Eulalie/Paroo show”.

 

I was also in charge of costume maintenance which was a new(ish) experience for me.  I’d done a lot in college, and it was really fun because the costumes, provided by Greg and his company The Theater Co in California, were spectacular and easy to care for.  And the actors really did a good job of keeping everything neat.

The second production of the summer was A Flea in Her Ear, which was also my first professional show I did when I was 16.  This time I played Olympe, wife to the hotel owner. The challenge with this one was that the man who played my husband…who was supposed to be ten years younger than I was…is actually 30 years my senior in real life…so in terms of makeup I had to age myself…but not go too far….and yet be old enough to look older than him.  It took a lot of trial and error.  Olympe’s spirit animal was this:

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The red wig was a throwback to the original actress the first time I did this play, Holli Harsh, who had a ton of red hair.  This play was fun, but it wasn’t my favorite because I was only active for scene changes and twenty lines in act two of a three act play.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy performing in this fantastical French farce, I just didn’t feel like I had time to bond with the entire cast.

The third show of the summer was Proof and I was privileged to play Catherine, a mathematical genius struggling with her fathers death and her own worry for her mental stability.  This was hard work and a lot of fun.  I enjoyed every rehearsal with my cast mates, Jackie Rahmlow, David Rivera, and Fred Vaugeois.  Fred played my father, which I was absolutely tickled about because he has been my theatrical father in a lot of ways, shaping who I would become and sparking my interest in this art form when I was a teenager.  Some of those monologues are killer, but with the cast that was so supportive and strong, and with the direction of Harriet Vaugeois, we made a great play absolutely beautiful.

And to keep with tradition, this was Catherine’s spirit animal:

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Over the course of the summer, we were asked to perform in several cabarets.  I did a few of them, and they were fun, but there was no information on what was expected of us until after we all arrived, so nobody had anything really prepared.  Jean did a wonderful job of keeping all of us in line.  Highlights were I got to build a little Audrey 2 puppet and sing “Suddenly Seymour” with myself, I used the Dormouse puppet that I had given to Jean from Alice in Wonderland two years ago, and he performed in most of the cabarets.  He was a hit.  Everybody anticipated what Dormouse would do next.  I loved it!

This summer was great but also complicated.  I was asked to do the scenic art for all three shows after I arrived, something I hadn’t planned on as part of my work load, and then also ended up having to re-do many of the handcrafted props because they were not up to snuff for a professional company.  All of this was piled on top of performing in three shows, multiple cabarets, and being in charge of costumes for all three performances, with well over one hundred different pieces to take care of.  I have an auto-immune issue and by August, I had a massive flair up because of stress.  I ended up having strep throat twice. One of the challenges from this summer was communication.  I love working for this company, but after how disorganized and stressful the summer was, I decided that I might need to take a break from it for a while.  By no means did I have a bad time, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting new people and always love being in my home town, but for the amount of work and stress that it caused me, it is sometimes necessary to take a step back and reevaluate what my boundaries are in a professional sense.  Sixteen year old me worked my self to exhaustion many times.  Thirty year old me knows better.

As always, I am thankful for the opportunity to act, and look forward to another opportunity to work for the SCRT in the future.

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The company from upper left to right: Harriet Vaugeois, Cassandra Giovine, Fred Vaugeois, Jeffrey Schultz, Gayle Killion, Jackie Rahmlow, Micheal Epson, Justin Mohay, Christopher Perez, Drew Frady, Steve Ortega, and Davie Rivera. This was on our trip to Taos, New Mexico.  Not pictured are Sam Lyle, Jean Schuman, and Derek DuBay.

Aladdin at the Puppet Co Playhouse

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Josh Rosenblum, Christopher Piper, Toni Goldberg, various puppets, and Liz Dapo. Photo by Christopher Piper

In February and March of 2015 and again in October of 2015, I happily performed in Aladdin at the PuppetCo Playhouse with Josh Rosenbaum and Christopher Piper.

I was the lead puppeteer for Princess Badre, Mother, the tailors, the dancing girl, the Spirit, the Slave of the Ring, and I sometimes puppeteer the peasant, older Aladdin, and various props.  It was a challenge to learn the backstage choreography and to get into a rhythm with the other two puppeteers, but once we had our lines down, and got to be on stage, we quickly formed a unit that was able to anticipate the needs of each other, and help out when things went awry.

 

Developing characters for this production was one of the easier processes for that.  Princess Badre spoke with a soft and educated voice that was also sweet.  I try to avoid what I call “stereotypical princess voice” which to me plays down the intelligence of the heroine and makes her too naive and gullible.  Mother was a little over the top and a pushy older lady, who was really very concerned about her son.  She was probably my favorite character in the show.  The Slave of the Ring was just a few pieces of gold colored, sheer fabric on a long rod that waved around quickly, was actually quite magical.  His voice was very nasally and reminded me of a Neptunian from Futurama.  The Spirit was a beautiful long rod puppet that Josh and I voiced together.  We got to a point where we didn’t have to look at each other, but could follow each other during a performance, so that if one of us missed or added a word, the other would instinctively follow.

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The Spirit from a backstage point of view.  Created by Allan Stevens and Christopher Piper

It was a lot of fun and it was the first show I performed with the PuppetCo Playhouse.  I look forward to hopefully many more opportunities.

For a review of the performance click here!

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Josh Rosenblum backstage.

The Winter’s Tale HalfMad Theatre

 

Design by Leanne Mercadante (draft version)

Design by Leanne Mercadante (draft version)

Recently I directed William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale for my company, HalfMad Theatre.  What a glorious and terrifying experience it became.

 

The cast of The Winter's Tale

The cast of The Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale is called a problem play, and it is called a problem play for many, many reasons.  Give it a read.  The first time through may be a bit rough.  The second time through you might find more places that are “problematic” that you didn’t discover before.  By the third or fourth read, you’ll think you might be a little crazy for picking this play to produce and direct.  You, dear reader, would be correct.  The play takes place over sixteen years, in two different countries.  There is a scene involving an Oracle and a one time character called “Time”.  The first 2/3 of the play are very dramatic, a jealous husband accuses his wife of infidelity within the first ten minutes of the show, seeming to come out of almost thin air.  He then spirals into a type of madness that gets his wife “killed”, his son dies, presumably of a broken heart, his best friend and his advisor flee the country together, and one of his most loyal subjects gets eaten by a bear.  Then you are smacked in the face with a rollicking comedy, that is a bit abrupt, where there is a satyr dance, a sheep shearing festival, and quite possibly the first dildo joke made in the history of theatre.  Then at the end, after the comedy, we are thrown back into a watered down rom-com where father and daughter are reunited, and dead wife is a statue that returns back to life and isn’t really dead.  Oh and the lady that was the wife of the guy who got eaten by a bear, immediately after learning of his death, is basically forced to marry the advisor that left, but now returned because everything is okay now.

 

Our thoughts exactly.

Our thoughts exactly.

I had a hard time relating to this play.  I wanted to do it.  There is a bear, which is an interesting draw for a puppeteer, but I also thought we could come up with a way to tell the story that is the heart of the play.  A lesson about jealousy and redemption.  I hadn’t been able to think of a way to tell this tale until this last year.  For the first time in my life, I had a family member, and my best friend from childhood pass away.  It was shocking and devastating, and not to go into too much detail, but I was left feeling there were things I never got to say, and that was my fault.  I had my own regrets and that is where I finally, FINALLY, understood how and what I wanted to say with The Winter’s Tale.  I wanted to say: I love you, I miss you, and I’m sorry.  You will never be forgotten.

It can be incredibly easy to think about what you want to do, but when you put it into practice, you find out that it is much more terrifying than you expected it to be.  I had a hard time focusing on little things I needed to do: finish cutting the script, work on designs for the puppets, analyze conflicting parts of the text.  The closer I got to it, the more emotionally raw I felt.  I cried in rehearsal a few times.  I grew distant from my talented cast a few more times because directing this play was turning into a type of penitence.  I was stuck in limbo until the show went up.  Rehashing in my brain every drive home how could I make sure I said everything I wanted to say in this show.  I cried a lot.  A lot.

Tech week was hell.  It usually is.  There are a few things I would have done differently, puppet and set wise, but the actors were phenomenal.  They captured each character in a way that was unique and honest to the story we were telling and the audience was with us every step of the way.

Here is the DC Metro Arts Review  , the Bright Young Things review,  and the DC Theatre Scene review.

Time was a major character who moved the action along.  We set the story in Leontes’ memory, the final memory of a dying man.  It was his limbo too.  Time kept the show moving, taking out the need for an oracle and playing many different characters.  The two had a dynamic relationship always pushing forward and hesitant at the same moment.  Time made Leontes live through the hard moments of his life, never hesitating to point out the truth, even if it was incredibly hard to swallow.

Connor Hogan as Leontes.

Connor Hogan as Leontes.

 

The cast was comprised of four ladies and five men.  Camillo, traditionally a male role, was changed to female so that a) there was another role for a woman and b) there could be an interesting relationship between her and Polixenes, the man that is accused of sleeping with Hermione, Leontes’ wife.  The Winter’s Tale is like an episode of Springer….

The puppetry was difficult to figure out in terms of style and simply put, I ran out of time and money to put towards the puppets.  The bear ended up being very simple and not what I wanted at all.  I would do it better next time and will make a bear that is up to my own personal standards.  I was, however, very pleased with the puppet we used for Mamillius.  Mamillius is the son of Leontes and tragically dies after he thinks his mother is going to be sentenced to death.

Justin Mohay, Frank Mancino, Paige O'Malley, Connor Hogan and Mamillius

Justin Mohay, Frank Mancino, Paige O’Malley, Connor Hogan and Mamillius

The puppet was an accurately proportioned six year old child.  I made my sister measure my niece and send me the dimensions.  He was a bunraku style puppet and if I do this style again, I would not have put leg rods on, instead would have made his legs like a table top puppet, so he could stand independently and move a little easier across the stage.  He was wood, foam, brown paper, and cloth. His arms broke once or twice, so I would think of a better way to build them, but overall, I was really happy with how he turned out.  Audience members either forgot he was a puppet and empathized with his death, or were totally creeped out because he was too life-like.  Either way, a huge success.

At the end of Shakespeare’s text, Hermione comes back to life.  It’s strange and clunky and I didn’t want it to  end on a happy note.  Our Hermione was much more ambiguous.  More of ghost, an embodied gift of forgiveness and love that was neither alive or dead. While this experience was heartbreaking, it was also incredibly beautiful.  People laughed.  People cried.  It made people reflect on their own feelings and more importantly, how fleeting life is.

The Winter’s Tale played at Capital Fringe’s Trinidad Theatre from March 13-29.

The Murder Room at Bowie Playhouse

The next show I will be performing in, opening October 31st of this year is The Murder Room, by Jack Sharkey, directed by Gayle Negri.  This is a fun show with a great cast and I would implore that you come out and see if it if you get a chance.  We are still in the rehearsal process (which has been loads of fun) and I’m still working on my accent and “being 60”.

Click here for more information!  Hope to see you there.

Left to right: Joel Consolati, me, Eric Smith, and William Hardy hard at work. Or hardly working.

Left to right: Joel Consolati, me, Eric Smith, and William Hardy hard at work. Or hardly working.

My expression is how I look...often

My expression is how I look…often

See How They Run at Greenbelt Arts Center

I just finished a very fun run of the British farce, See How They Run, in which I got to play the delightful and charming American actress Penelope Toop.  This was a great way to start making more friends and getting involved in theatre in the DC area.  I had a great time and was sad to see it close, but now I have a few auditions coming up, as well as puppeteering full time during the day!  Making this acting thing work my way. Please see my press page for photos.  I also will keep updating my puppet page (new puppets new pictures!)

I also went to Comic Con in New York for the first time ever and had a great time with my friend Jess.  I will post some of those pictures soon as well!