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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on December 6th, 2012, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 39 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 39

Some strings attached

Puppets steal the show--and audience's hearts--in PCPA's Wizard of Oz

BY RYAN MILLER

It’s not alive. You know it’s not alive. There is no way some glued-together wood frame and old, shredded sweaters will ever be alive.

And yet there it is, that almost random assemblage, hopping and wiggling around, just like a real, panting, lovable dog would. I mean, there’s clearly a guy holding it, and it’s still obviously not a real, literal animal, but—


The flying monkeys are getting bent out of shape. Literally.

PCPA’s The Wizard of Oz is a demanding production, and the rigors of dozens of shows are starting to take a toll on the puppets that make up the Wicked Witch of the West’s airborne army.

Emily DeRodeff, the production’s puppetry intern, has been keeping an eye on the monkeys—specifically, their tails. And while they’re holding up for now, she knows that the musical is running until the day after Christmas, so something literally hanging by a thread at this point in the run is going to have to get fixed, and soon. It’s not something she can just sew up or tape, either. They’ll have to come apart so she can get at their internal structure.

DeRodeff is responsible for the care and upkeep of 45 denizens of Oz. She acted as New York-based puppet designer Emily DeCola’s California eyes throughout the production prep, basically acting as shepherd to the DeCola’s flock. She guided the translation of on-paper designs into real-world objects, conveying the progress back to the other coast and implementing ongoing tweaks.

She watched and led the Winkies, for instance, through their evolution from beasts with legs controlled by the actors’ legs to the arm-propelled, towering, simian forms that now appear on stage. PCPA’s prop department, led by Assistant Props Director A.J. Bradley, built the fantastical bestiary. Now, DeRodeff comes to each performance at call time and stays through to the end, usually about a four-hour block. If a cord snaps, she ties a new one. If wood cracks—as it did in Toto’s leg during one preview performance—she repairs it as best as possible and sends the puppet back out.

The backstage work is essentially triage. Any mishaps fall under her critical gaze. Does this need to be fixed now? Is the puppet used again in a later scene? Or can it wait? For immediate fixes, she has a utility belt that would make Batman jealous, stocked with lengths of cord, superglue (“this is my best friend”), a Sharpie, a flashlight, and life-saving zip-ties, all capped off with a Leatherman. She even keeps spare Toto eyes handy, just in case.

DeRodeff said she can spend an entire eight-hour day going over notes and handling maintenance, tackling any necessary repairs and touches-up. One actor fell and dented a crow’s wing. A Winkie’s control rods ripped through its body.

The Winkies need the most maintenance, she said. It takes a team of six helpers to get the actors in and out of the suits, which stand 12 feet tall when worn.

“There are so many pieces that can kind of go awry with their backpacks,” DeRodeff said. She paused, as if cataloguing the potential problems.

“And their foam.

“And all their pieces.”

Toto, though? Toto’s her favorite, at least in his “hero” incarnation. The leg that snapped before the regular run was on the “long-shot” Toto, but the more expressive of the two puppets has been reliable thus far.

“I don’t have any problems with this guy,” she said.

And your little dog, too:
“Hero” Toto is a detailed puppet used in the production for emotional, expressive scenes. “Longshot” Toto, a separate puppet (not pictured), is used for scenes in which Dorothy’s canine companion isn’t as prominent.
PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER

But—

It’s just so endearing. And cute. So who cares about the strict definition of life? Because that thing is.

Alive.

For now, anyway. And also, maybe, after the lights go out and the actors take their bows, in memories, too. When audience members are driving home after seeing PCPA’s holiday production of The Wizard of Oz, they’re not saying, “Hey, remember when someone made the Toto puppet look up at Dorothy so sweetly?” They’re just talking about Toto.

Sure, they’re also talking about Tony Kupsick, the actor behind the canine contraption, and they’re certainly discussing the design and direction that went into the fantasy-heavy musical, the artistry of the various costumes and creatures that populate Munchkinland and the Haunted Forest and the Emerald City, but they’re remembering Toto as a fully fleshed character of his own.

Even if that flesh is actually foam or fabric.

And here’s a secret: There’s not just one Toto puppet. There are two. One is for the close-up, emotion-heavy work (“hero” Toto, to the cast and crew), and one is for the scenes where Toto is present, but not required to do any heavy narrative lifting.

For the sake of the story, though, there’s just one Toto. And that’s what people will remember.

That’s the goal, anyway. The show’s director, Mark Booher—who’s also PCPA’s artistic director—said puppetry in this production of Wizard of Oz was sort of inevitable, especially considering the conservatory’s attempts to approach the story “in a way that is authentic … but is also vivid and fresh” and not just derivative of that “incredible MGM movie.”

Judy Garland’s leap from black-and-white to Technicolor is about as firmly ingrained in the U.S. cultural consciousness as something can be. Though the magic slippers she acquires are silver in the book, the 1939 film treatment made them ruby-hued. When they’re paired with her gingham dress, Dorothy is literally decked in red, white, and blue. This is a thoroughly American story, as familiar as—if not more so than—George Washington and the cherry tree.

Try to translate something so iconic to the stage, and you’re just inviting comparisons and criticism. Plus, Booher pointed out, literalism is so dull.


It takes a crew:
Puppetry Intern Emily DeRodeff, Assistant Props Director A.J. Bradley, and Intern Jeffrey Bazemore helped construct the inanimate cast members for this production.

“It doesn’t really do the essential thing that theater has to do,” he explained, “which is incite and elicit the help of the audience’s imagination.”

With a goal of inviting the audience to really invest in this tale, Booher started with a broad base of an idea on which to build this staging of Oz. He wanted to embrace non-literal storytelling, and that concept led to his decision to infuse the DNA of the show with puppets. You can’t just conceive of everything and then simply add in such an element, he said. You have to marry the form and the function at the core, at the heart of the show. And then audiences will truly feel like they’ve gone on this epic journey, which actually never leaves a 35-foot circle of stage.

“By adding a puppetry element, it adds a layer of density to the storytelling,” Booher said. “The audience enjoys not only the story, but how the story is being told.”

He contrasted this to watching a movie on a screen, an action that requires, essentially, inaction. We sit, passively, and stare at a flat surface. With PCPA’s Oz, not only can you see the flying monkey sharing a physical space with you, you can see the actor making it swoop and menace the heroes. You’re no longer passive. You’re a participant in that ethereal alchemy of imagination, breathing in the same air as your fellow viewers, as the actors themselves, and exhaling a sort of shared belief in the fantasy. Everyone in that room is conspiring to bring Oz to life.

So characters were made into puppets—Toto, crows, apple trees, Munchkins, and Winkies. But since puppetry was essentially in this show’s genes, present since conception, the innovation carried through to the scenery, which is all kinetic and can be moved by the actors. Heck, some of the scenery is the actors. Even the tornado that whisks the narrative out of Kansas and onto the Wicked Witch of the East is manipulated like a puppet, a long, spinning rope surrounded by swirling debris, all animated—very obviously—by people.


We wish to welcome you:
More than 40 puppets populate PCPA’s production. Some, like the Munchkins (pictured), are bright and vivid characters manipulated by actors. Others, such as apple trees, are more like costumes.

There are scores of puppets in this show, from small-ish crows with umbrella-skeletal wings at the ends of rods to 12-foot-tall Winkies worn like backpacks. This synthetic menagerie found its shape thanks to Emily DeCola, co-founder and -owner of New York’s Puppet Kitchen.

Among her many creations, DeCola made a dog for a production of The House of the Spirits a few years back, and that caught the eye of Scott Schwartz, who was directing 2011’s My Fairytale for PCPA. He brought her in to do puppet work for that musical tapestry of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. Booher brought her back to help with his interpretation of Oz.

“Puppets are finally hip—in this country,” she told the Sun from Cornell College in Iowa, where she’s currently a guest artist and lecturer. “Which is wonderful, as far as I’m concerned.

Why the emphasis on this country? Because the United States—possibly because of its relative youth as a nation, possibly because of its mix of heritage histories, possibly both—doesn’t boast a puppet-literate populace.

“American puppetry is unique in some ways in that we don’t have a clearly defined sort of puppet canon, as there does exist in a couple of other places around the world, such as Japan,” she said.


Illusion of life:
Intern Jeffrey Bazemore demonstrated the proper way to hold a Munchkin. A series of shapes topped with a face quickly becomes a dancing, singing figure.

Caw!
Intern Jeffrey Bazemore constructed the crows from designs made by Puppet Kitchen’s Emily DeCola. One actor handles the rod, which controls the bird’s wings and body orientation. When the crow “lands” on an actor, he or she then slips a finger into the head to make it look around.

There, bunraku was born in the 1600s and has grown into a nationally valued high art. Consider also France’s tradition of marionette work, or Indonesia’s shadow puppetry. Some countries have centuries of tradition and cultural literacy to draw on. From California to New York, however, puppets have generally been seen as something for children. Lambchop and Kermit, though innovative and originally powered by immensely talented performers—and popular on television—aren’t necessarily theatrical draws.

But 1997’s stage adaption of The Lion King (though based on a Disney cartoon) showed that puppets can do quite well on Broadway, moving audiences to tears with its opening spectacular by populating an African veldt with visibly people-powered zebra, giraffes, great cats, and rhinos.

“Any time we put a puppet on stage, a really interesting dialog, energy exchange, transaction starts to happen that has three parts: the audience member, the puppet, and the puppeteer,” DeCola explained. “And everybody’s in on the secret that the character we are fervently and earnestly and enjoyably believing in doesn’t actually move around and walk and talk.”

In 2003, Avenue Q parodied Sesame Street as a decidedly adult musical. The bulk of the cast is made of cloth, and, again, the performers are all in the open. War Horse, featuring a puppet horse as its central character, opened in 2007 and took five Tony awards in 2011, plus a special award for Handspring Puppet Company.

Puppetry in mainstream theater is clearly taking hold, and DeCola is thrilled. She thinks it’s in part “because American audiences are hungry for a kind of richness in storytelling that puppets can provide” via their blend of dynamic movement and theatricality.

“… We’re now several generations into an audience population that’s become familiar with animation,” she said. “We’re used to a plasticity of reality and a plasticity of narrative that puppets make it possible to bring to the stage.”


Fly, fly, fly!
While the flying monkeys don’t have wings, they can soar through the air with help from the cast.

Today’s theater-goers, it seems then, are quite happy to help believe a character into being, as DeCola described it—though such participatory viewing has obvious roots in Tinkerbelle’s turn-of-the-century clapping resurrection (a beloved theatrical tradition born, it should be noted, on a different continent).

Given the changing environment, DeCola said that this is an incredibly exciting time to be a puppeteer in this country. Artists committed to the craft are finding themselves facing a fertile field, ready to be sown with ideas. The puppetry in Oz, she said, represents her own trajectory, which has involved cobbling together a career out of research, effort, pestering mentors, education, and experimentation.

Thus, the PCPA stage is now home to simple rod puppets, large-scale body puppetry, and bunraku-style work, all developed from a comfortable shared narrative.

“With every piece of puppetry in the show, I looked for a way to root the design and concept in the audience’s familiar experience of the work in some way, whether that was the feel of the theme of the actual style or line of an image from the film,” she said. “And I really did use the film as the text. … That phenomenon of wrestling with and enjoying and also letting go of that classic Wizard of Oz was a fundamental feature of our creative process of making this show.”

Some of this is obvious, as with Toto’s canine shape and profile. There was no reason, creatively or narratively, to mess with the dog.

“It would be counterproductive … to push too hard against what the audience loves already,” she said.

The Wicked Witch’s army of Winkies sits on the other end of the spectrum. The soldiers barely resemble something humanoid. The gorilla-like behemoths have no eyes or discernible features; their faces extend into beak-like noses visually lifted from the spear-points that the “oh-ee-oh”-chanting guards carry in the movie. Their bodies resemble verdigris-crusted metal that evokes the layered-wool-looking army coats in the film.

DeCola said she and Booher wanted to reinforce the storytelling in the characters, so the abstracted Winkies embody “the dehumanization of a culture that had been enslaved by the Wicked Witch of the West, and what more fun way to play with that idea than to actually build them into the landscape through the puppetry design?”

Such nuance and background detail may go unnoticed by the bulk of those who observe it, but the depth it provides goes a long way toward activating imaginations and turning the creative act of storytelling into a collaborative one.

“I think that deep doesn’t necessarily mean not fun,” DeCola said. “Deep and fun can exist in the same place, and when they do, things get real exciting and interesting.”

Pay no attention to Executive Editor Ryan Miller. Send comments to rmiller@newtimesslo.com.