My nephew is coming to visit and somewhat to my surprise has a fondness for musicals. We’re going to see Avenue Q for certain. He likes Les Mis and Man of La Mancha. I’m trying to restrict myself to tickets available through TDF but I’m a little out of touch with what’s happening on Broadway now.
So, I’m looking for suggestions on what to take him to.
We’re having a conversation on puptcrit (Puppet Critique), which is a listserver for puppeteers, about scripting for puppet theater. One of the major problems with writing for puppet theater is that it is a very specific and different skill set from writing for live actors. I don’t write the scripts for our shows, because that’s not where my skills lie. It’s totally different from fiction.
Puppets can do things that actors can’t as well as having limitations that actors don’t. In the course of the conversation, I talked about the importance of finding a playwright who understands, or is willing to learn, about writing for puppet theater.
Frequently, a show is largely non-verbal. The question came up: How do you script a non-verbal show?
In response, I wrote:
Okay, so that thing I said earlier about that I don’t write for stage? My one play was non-verbal and was awarded an UNIMA Citation. The reason I bring it up now is that several years ago, we did an experiment with MUM Puppet Theater and shipped them our script and puppets. By all accounts, the show had the same impact on the audience as our original play did.
The way I did it was that I scripted the characters’ intentions AND their actions. My feeling is that body language is a non-verbal expression of what a character is thinking and feeling. So writing, “Character picks up rock” tells you what happens, but the way you pick up a rock if you’re planning on killing someone is different from if you think it’s pretty. It might be body language, but it is still language.
Since I can’t attach things to posts on puptcrit, I told everyone that I’d post it here. Sorry non-puppet folks, for dropping you into the middle of a larger conversation.
Jodi Eichelberger and I are performing an original piece, “Dinner Conversation” as part of Puppet Playlist, this Thursday at 7:30 pm at The Tank, in NYC.
Puppet Playlist takes talented puppeteers and brilliant musicians and slams them together into an evening of live theater to stir the senses.
Our first Playlist will feature works of puppetry set to the rasping, crooning, stomping and shouting of Tom Waits. Between sets, hear new interpretations of Waits’ music — on cello, electric guitar and more. A chance to see some of New York’s most interesting puppet artists and musicians at play.
Performers (and their work) have been seen all over New York and throughout the world, on Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, at HERE Arts Center, Shakespeare in the Park, the Metropolitan Opera, FringeNYC, Lincoln Center, with Jim Henson Productions, and on both American and International TV (yes, that includes Sesame Street).
Featuring pieces by: Eric Wright, Melissa Creighton, Jean-Marie
Keevans, Jon Stancato (Stolen Chair), Andrew Broaddus, Jon Levin, Maja Rajenovich, and Mary Robinette Kowal & Jodi Eichelberger.
Musical performances by: Anna Leuchtenberger, Leah Siegel, Emily Hope Price, The Relatives and Irv Irving.
My newest gig is doing props and “specialty items” for a play up at Barnard College. The specialty items consist of a series of crow puppets and a box of entrails. When the director called me, she said, “So, do you have any ideas on how we can make a box of entrails? [1. side note: I just realized that I already had a tag for intestines. There’s something vaguely wrong about that.]
“Yeah.” I continued to fold laundry as we chatted,because this was pretty simple stuff. “A box of unlubricated condoms, KY jelly, food coloring, saran wrap and a little stage blood.”
There was a moment of silence on the other end of the phone and then she said, “Oh. I thought this would be a longer conversation.” Another beat of silence. “I take it you’ve done entrails?”
“Oh, yeah.” I tucked the last pair of socks into the drawer. “Had to do a disemboweling for a show. Fun stuff.”
The crows now. That’s going to be a much longer conversation.
Lately, my schedule has been keeping time with Rob’s which means that we’re often up until 2 a.m.Â The advantage to this is that when he goes to bed, I can continue recording in the quietest time.Â The downside is when I have to be up early the next morning.Â Like today.
I had a rehearsal this morning for a show that Jodi and I are doing on March 12th. It’s a very short piece which involves me being a dish, a fork and a bowl.Â Jodi plays a spoon, a knife and a plate. The tension and high drama!Â Actually, I think it’s a good little piece and I’ll post a link to the show information later.
I went straight from that rehearsal to a production meeting for a different show where I’m building some crows and a box of entrails.Â Really, I have the best job.
So, yesterday was really long. I finished up at the theater about 1:30 a.m and headed for home to pack and then catch a 3:30 a.m. bus to the airport. I flew out on US Airways, but not that US Airways flight.
I’m in San Fransisco now, totally wiped out and am going to bed. Just a reminder that John Scalzi and I will be at Borderlands at 7:00 tomorrow night to read. It should be a total blast, especially if our top-secret plan goes well.
Scalzi mentions this on his blog, but I’ll mention it here too. I was going to record this, but my new computer hasn’t arrived yet. So if you happen to have a microphone and computer that you wouldn’t mind hauling along to record us, that would be swell.
And now, since the only sleep I’ve had has been on the plane, I’m turning in.
Over at Boing Boing Gadgets there’s an interview with Michael Chertoff on the TSA and “Security Theater.” Towards the end of the interview excerpt, there’s this section.
Joel Johnson: Sir, I was really trying to avoid using this term [security theater] at all. But are you actually saying that security theater is an important aspect of actual security?
Secretary Chertoff: No. I don’t think it’s theater because I think the person who says this is kind of unrealistic and is kind of trying to be provocative. I don’t think they’re doing things for no reason to make sense, but I think understanding that visible security has a role to play is important. It is a deterrent.
Joel Johnson: Well, sure. But theater also means…theater has a purpose, too, to express a meaning.
Secretary Chertoff: Yeah. I mean, the problem is, I think the term is not meant to be…it’s meant to be pejorative. It’s meant to suggest that it’s like a puppet show.
I know it’s narrow and job specific thing to be annoyed about, but really? Do you have to pick on the puppet shows?
I’ll tell you, it’s strange not to be going into the Puppet Kitchen to build things. I kept feeling like there was something I needed to be doing all day today. What I did instead of that was head up to the farmer’s market and pick up some produce plus some apple cider.
After I dropped that off at the apartment, I gathered Mom and Dad for a stroll down Central Park. The weather cooperated in lovely ways and was crisply sunny. We hopped onto a train eventually and went to Cafe Edison, also known as the Polish Tea Room for an egg cream and brunch before the show. It’s a diner in the fading splendor of a Victorian ballroom. Gorgeous plasterwork and then hardcore diner fare. It’s a grand blend of styles.
We had tickets to the matinee of Spamalot. I’ll tell you that I was highly skeptical of the premise. I mean, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is pretty much perfect as is, how could converting it to a Broadway musical possibly be good. And yet it was. It succeeded perfectly at what it set out to be, a profoundly silly musical adaptation of Monty Python. The energy never flagged. I enjoyed it without reservation.
We stopped at Zabar’s to pick up some treats. Mom and Dad were suitably impressed with the place.
This morning we started off with bagels and cream cheese then headed out into the world. We took the train down to South Street Seaport, which took forever because all trains were running local. When we got down there it was Icelandic levels of windy. I mean,really, the sort of thing that threatens to push you down if you aren’t working against it constantly. It was like gravity suddenly came in two directions and was intent on creating a new direction of down.
We picked up tickets for Tale of Two Cities for this evening and Spamalot for the matinee tomorrow. As Dad says, one highbrow and one lowbrow.
From there we went to Chinatown to Shanghai Cafe, one of my favorite restaurants for a meal midway between dinner and lunch. Their soup dumplings are the best I’ve had anywhere. Yes, for the KGB folks, they put our usual restaurant to shame.
We strolled through Chinatown, Little Italy and Soho up to the City Winery to visit Rob. By happy chance they were finishing early today so he got to give us a tour and then come home with us. We hadn’t gotten a ticket to the play for him, but I doubt he could have stayed awake if we had. He was asleep before we left the apartment.
The play… it wants to be the next Les Miserables and it’s just not. That said, James Barbour as Sydney Carton was brilliant. I could have listened to him all night long and waited for the moments when he was on stage. Particulary his scenes with Brandi Burkette as Lucy. Mom concurs. The cast was overall very strong, I just felt like the music was overblown, even for Dickens. Mom and Dad don’t agree with me there.
So we’ve come home, had a glass of 2006 Passito di Panterlleria and are heading for bed. I bet you guys don’t know what to do with me after all that twittering.
I laughed. “There is no materials cost for this project.”
“How can that be?”
Allow me to explain. I start by using a piece of scrap blue foam as the base for my sculpture. I just trace the profile of dog’s head on it. Now if I’d bought a piece of foam, the cost of this piece would be, maybe, fifty cents.
I then cut it out with a bandsaw.
Next I turn it ninety degrees and draw the top view, which also gets cut out with the bandsaw.
I rough cut the shape with a saw.
I sand it a little to take off the hard edges and give me a loose dog head shape.
I sculpted the details in clay. I prefer working in waterbased clay because I like the feel of it, but for this I used plasticine clay because I had it on hand. A block of clay costs between $12 to $20, but once you’ve got it in stock it gets reused.
You can see that some parts of the sculpture still show the blue of bare foam. If I were planning on casting this I’d have used clay over the whole surface to make it very smooth because the details would show up in the final. But, I was planning on doing direct mache which tends to obscure details so there was no need to go overboard in making things smooth. It took me about two hours to get to this point from the original drawing.
For the first layer of papier-mache I used an old script and a couple of rejection letters — my favorite material — and wheat based wallpaper paste. The wallpaper paste is the only material so far that I’m not able to reuse. Estimated cost of the amount I used? Maybe forty cents.
The key with papier-macheing is to not get the paper too wet with paste. If there’s too much paste, it will form airbubbles as it dries. Those reduce the structural integrity.
For the second layer, I alternate with brown paper bag. It’s got nice long fibers and is heavier than the scripts so it tends to be stronger. It is also a different color which makes it easy to make certain that I have even coverage on each layer.
Each layer takes about 45 minutes to do. If I were going into a mold I could work faster because only the first layer — which is the top layer in a mold — matters. The other layers can be all wrinkly and they’ll have no impact on the level of detail in the finished product.
With direct mache every single layer and every piece of paper matters because each one obscures the original sculpture or has the potential to introduce an unwanted wrinkle.
For this, I did five layers of mache. White, brown, white, brown, white. That’s fairly standard.
The same number of layers in a mold would take about forty-five minutes total. So why didn’t I make a mold? Time. Making the mold would mean less active working time, but I’d also have to wait for it to dry before using it. A damp mold means that it would take forever for the mache to dry. So using a mold would mean less time for me, but a longer overall process. Plus, I knew this was a one-off. We won’t need to make a copy of this.
Even without worrying about a damp mold, I still made a jury-rigged hot box to speed the drying process. It’s basically a hairdryer and an upside down bin. Like the world’s ugliest easy-bake oven.
I used a mat-knife to cut the mache off the sculpture by carving right down the middle.
Warning: If you do this and discover that the mache is still damp inside, make sure you tape the thing back together and dry it. If you let the two halves dry separately they will warp, which is unpleasant.
I ran a bead of hot glue down the halves to hold them together and then papier-mached the seam inside and out. The mache gives it strength, the glue would give fairly quickly.
This is pretty fast, I don’t think it took more than half an hour.
I also seal any raw edges, like the ones around the back of the head. It’s prettier, but more importantly, it keeps the edges from peeling.
Here’s a shot of the finished head and my design sketch.
And this is the head attached to the original dog body.
And here, because I like the final effect, is a detail of the paint job on the dog. All told, I spent between seven to ten hours making this and spent maybe a dollar in materials.
This is one of the hard things about making puppets, explaining that the major cost is in the labor. And don’t worry, the producer of the show totally got it. It’s just interesting that it’s a conversation that I have to have almost every time I build a puppet. I think people make estimates based on puppets they built in elementary school.
So… figuring that I’m skilled labor, how much do you think something like a simple puppet head costs?
Just in case I didn’t say this clearly enough before: This is a wonderful production and if you are in NYC you must go see it.
Sinking Ship Productions delivers ingenious new stage adaptations of three science fiction tales, using elements of story theatre, puppetry, and video. Director Jon Levin takes 3 stories and turns them into wonderfully theatrical fare:
“How The World Was Saved”, adapted from the story by Stanislaw Lem
“On the Nature of Time”, based on the story by Bill Pronzini & Barry N. Malzberg
“There Will Come Soft Rains”, based on the short story by Ray Bradbury
This production received excellent reviews and sold out in its original run. The performance has been extended through September, so don’t delay in ordering tickets!
I was having a conversation with someone about why there aren’t more SF plays. And lo! One appears. there will come soft rains contains adaptations of three short stories by Ray Bradbury, Stanislaw Lem, Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg. Using puppetry, minimal staging, dance and actors this created some of the most compelling theater I’ve seen in a long time.
What’s really exciting to me about the show is that the staging itself pushes the boundaries the way that the best SF does. I’ve often said that the thing that attracts me to both puppetry and speculative fiction is that they are both places where anything is possible. There Will Come Soft Rains took full advantage of that juxtaposition.
There Will Come Soft Rains is the sort of thing I want to see on the nominations list for Dramatic Short Form, but never do.
Seriously. Go see it. There’s only one show left. Saturday at 7:30.
(Tor Books — August 21, 2018) Continuing the grand sweep of alternate history laid out in The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars. Of course, the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, […]