John Ellison Conlee plays multiple Watsons, including a machine
Welcome to Building Character, TDF’s ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
This season, several actors are playing multiple roles in the same show—Jefferson Mays in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and Jeff Blumenkrantz in Murder for Two both spring to mind—but at least all their characters are human beings. In The (curious case of} the Watson Intelligence, however, John Ellison Conlee is playing three people and a machine, which adds a distinct new wrinkle to the challenge of crafting several performances at the same time.
Conlee’s roles in Madelene George’s witty play, which is now at Playwrights Horizons, constitute a tour of famous Watsons: There’s John Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ assistant; Thomas Watson, who was on the receiving end of the first phone call made by Alexander Graham Bell; and Watson the IBM supercomputer, which defeated two Jeopardy! champions in 2011. (There’s also Josh Watson, a computer repair guy that George invented herself.)
Asked how it feels to be part of this season’s multi-role trend, Conlee says, “I think it’s probably just a coincidence in that there seem to be [actors playing multiple roles] right now, but I think it’s a thing that exists so much in the theatre because it’s genuinely theatrical. It is one of the few things that we in the theatre can do in terms of storytelling more effectively than I think film and television can do. It’s not like a sitcom that we put onstage. We use very theatrical devices, and I think that’s the reason that so many great playwrights like to use that tool. And it’s so much fun for actors.”
Conlee’s co-stars, Amanda Quaid and David Costabile, also play multiple characters, but for Conlee, the show is actually defined by its sense of unity. “What we’re meant to take from all of these different stories in different time periods is not their differences, I believe, but their sameness,” he says. “People’s search for connection and assistance and help, and the way that we all want love and connection, but also independence and the battle for that. All of these different stories and different time periods are essentially the same story. So I think it’s valuable and helps bring that point home that you’re seeing the same people, even though they’re in different time periods or clothes.” [Read more →]
December 11, 2013 No Comments
The comic collapse of a puppet in The Pigeoning
Read more on this month’s mini-boom in puppetry for adults
Puppet shows aren’t just child’s play. From the Tony Award-winning Avenue Q and War Horse to the genre-busting works of Obie and Drama Desk Award-winning Basil Twist, many puppet performances are being created for grown-ups these days. That’s one of the reasons Twist—a third-generation puppeteer whose work has been seen both on Broadway and off—partnered with HERE to found the Dream Music Puppetry Program. He wanted to help incubate innovative, multidisciplinary puppet works aimed at adult audiences.
The program is housed in HERE’s intimate Dorothy B. Williams theatre, which was constructed with puppets in mind. (In a lovely testament to his family history, Twist’s grandfather’s vintage marionettes are on permanent display just outside the door.) Twist’s iconic underwater puppet show Symphonie Fantastique christened the space in 1998, and every year since, he has presented imaginative productions that explode any lingering notion that puppets are only for kids.
The program’s current offering, The Pigeoning, was created and directed by Robin Frohardt. A Bay Area transplant now based in New York City, Frohardt has extensive experience as a puppet maker and set designer, and she has collaborated on a wide range of projects like the Empire Drive-In art installation (late of Queens’ New York Hall of Science) and the site-specific subway saga IRT: A Tragedy in Three Stations. But The Pigeoning, an insightful comedy about Frank, an ’80s office worker who slowly descends into madness, marks her first full-length puppet show.
Frank has actually existed in different incarnations since 2006, when he debuted at Oakland’s Apocalypse Puppet Theater, a traveling troupe founded by Frohardt, composer Freddi Price (who supplies the live soundtrack for The Pigeoning), and two other local artists. “We were doing these 10-minute puppet pieces about the end of the world,” says Frohardt. “We had this crazy old man character with a ‘The End Is Near’ sign. He didn’t say anything; he just came out when we were changing the scenery and was like our mascot. I always had this idea of writing his back story, how he ended up that way.” [Read more →]
December 10, 2013 No Comments
Master puppeteer Jessica Scott guides La Divina Caricatura
Read more on this month’s mini-boom in puppetry for adults
If performer Jessica Scott is doing a good job in her current show, then you won’t notice her onstage, even if she’s standing right in front of you. That’s because she’s the head puppeteer of a dog named Rose in La Divina Caricatura, a riff on Dante’s Divine Comedy that’s playing through December 22 at La MaMa (in a co-production with St. Ann’s Warehouse.)
However, when speaking to Scott (pictured above) in her studio in East Williamsburg, it’s clear she does more for the show than help bring Rose to life. There are two puppets on her work table, two sewing machines close at hand, and bags of fabric and fake fur on the ground: They’re all part of her job as the show’s director of puppetry, overseeing 14 other puppeteers and occasionally making puppets herself.
And these aren’t just any puppets. Of the almost 20 featured in Divina, most are rod puppets inspired by the Japanese form called bunraku.
Since it requires three puppeteers, a bunraku puppet is extremely challenging to operate, but for Scott, the payoff more than justifies the effort. “You can’t get the psychology out of other kinds of puppets that you can get from bunraku,” she says. “Because your operator is so close to the puppet, you can get super-nuanced, hyper-realistic motion.”
She demonstrates by picking up a bunny puppet from her work desk. His name is Butch, and he stands as high as a small child, with rods on his arms, legs, and head. She turns and twists Butch’s head while moving his right arm, which contains joints at the socket, elbow, and wrist. The effect—a large, anthropomorphized bunny inquisitively peering left and right, stroking the air with his arm—is eerily realistic. “A bunny is not intimidating unless you make it a giant bunny,” Scott says with a smile. [Read more →]
December 9, 2013 No Comments
Inside their approach to Shakespeare’s fairies
As she was preparing to direct her production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is currently inaugurating the new Brooklyn home of Theatre for a New Audience, Julie Taymor had to decide what to make of the magic.
“I felt if I was going to do this play, there were two nuts that had to be cracked,” she says. “One was, ‘How do you approach the fairies?’ and the other was, really, ‘Who is Puck?’”
Her answers give the production its wild energy. Naturally, the show still features the human characters—including four Athenians who flee to the forest on various romantic pursuits and a group of “rude mechanicals” who are rehearsing a play they’ll present to the court—but there’s no question that fairies control the stage. As Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, try to get the upper hand on each other, and as Puck, Oberon’s jester, darts around making havoc, we’re constantly confronted by magic. Actors descend from the ceiling, giant pieces of fabric suggest everything from trees to the sky, and the light turns inky blue, as though sleep itself were taking over the room.
And with the exception of Puck, Oberon, and Titania, all the fairies are played by children. For Taymor, these young people are a key to her production. “When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the fairy world, I told Jeffrey [Horowitz, TFANA's artistic director] that I’d come to the idea of having a hundred children,” she says. “And he laughed. Obviously we couldn’t even fit a hundred children on that stage. But I think what he understood was this notion of utter anarchy that you create with children—the buzzing, fecund nature world.”
That energy creates tension that resonates with Shakespeare’s plot: Just as we try to control the wildness of children, society tries to control the play’s lovers by telling them whom to marry. When they escape to the forest—the realm of the fairies —they are free to act on impulse, the way children do.
Which leads to Taymor’s second question: If Oberon (David Harewood) and Titania (Tina Benko) are essentially the parents in the forest, then who is Puck? [Read more →]
December 5, 2013 No Comments
Inside the choreography in Broadway’s Beautiful
With a canon that includes “I Feel the Earth Move,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” Carole King is one of rock’s most iconic singer-songwriters. Now her journey from Brooklyn girl to Grammy-winning superstar is being shared onstage in the new Broadway musical Beautiful, which is in previews at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
And while you might not automatically equate King’s style with dancing, her music was indeed produced amidst a swirl of movement (think of the pony, the twist, and those gentle side sways during ballads). As they developed their material for Beautiful, choreographer Josh Prince and associate choreographer Alison Solomon worked to create moves that would both honor this era and make sense on the Broadway stage.
“The story of Carole is that of a composer at the piano, so the dance is clearly about singers who move well; the dance needs to support their vocals and be, most importantly, true to the period,” says Prince. “I wanted to avoid anachronistic aspects, but still explore a romanticized, theatricalized version of the era.”
Before rehearsals began, Prince tested a variety of moves through his own project, The Broadway Dance Lab. (Founded in 2012, the Lab offers choreographers time and space to bring in dancers and create work without the pressure of looming deadlines.) “The more you practice, the more you can explore different elements, like timing, vocabularies of movement, and patterns,” he says. “You learn your own sensibility, and then when you’re working on an actual project, you have a technique and perspective you can rely on. I’m a big fan of simple gestures making a strong statement. I was able to investigate that at the Lab, and I’ve used that repeatedly in the show.”
To manage Beautiful, Prince needed an associate choreographer like Solomon. Responsible for everything from writing the “bible” (a written record of all the movement in a show) to giving dancers notes and training the dance captain, the associate is essentially the choreographer’s right hand. “The best associates get into your head and guess what you want,” Prince says. “For instance, during [one performance], Ali and I went into the lobby during the show and re-choreographed a number in the mirror. She adds ideas and also reminds me, for example, everyone on stage right is on a different foot. Sometimes I can just look at her and know it’s not right from her input. That’s invaluable.” [Read more →]
December 3, 2013 1 Comment