Puppet Masters

It takes athleticism, flexibility and ingenuity to bring Little Shops’ monster plant to life

Erik Ball teaches high school theater, plays King Arthur in Excalibur’s Tournament of Kings, has eight years experience in puppetry and a great love of Fraggle Rock. The varied experiences came in handy when Ball chose Little Shop of Horrors for his directorial debut with Signature Productions, a local family-oriented theater company created in 1989. The challenge, among many others, was making a man-eating plant named Audrey II magically come to life. Here’s how he did it:

Casting (human and otherwise). Audrey II is a series of four puppets (each a phase in the plant’s tremendous growth spurt) rented from Los Angeles-based puppet company Swazzle. The puppets are manipulated by three puppeteers: Ball, Roxy Mojica and Randy Piper. Carnell Johnson gives voice to Audrey II.

Pre-puppets. The puppets didn’t arrive until nine days before opening night, so in the meantime the cast had to use a lot of imagination in rehearsals. Mojica, who maneuvers the small potted version of Audrey II from underneath a table, practiced with a potato sack puppet. She learned how to use the shadow of the main character, Seymour, to know which direction her puppet needed to face. For Piper, who manipulates the 5-foot and 8-foot versions of Audrey II, rehearsals involved opening and closing both arms in accordance with lines and lyrics.

Rehearsal with the puppets. Once the puppets arrived, Mojica finally understood why her small stature was a condition of her casting. The potted Audrey II was a much tighter fit than her potato sack, and she has mere seconds to get her hand inside. She admits it took a lot of trial and error.

Physical strain. The 5-foot-tall puppet is a half-body costume that includes head-gear resembling an astronaut helmet, and the puppeteers must remain hunched over while moving the mouth with both arms. The 8-foot Audrey II requires the puppeteers to climb inside and hold a position similar to that of a downhill skier for 40 minutes. Without the luxury of sight once inside, listening to the nuances in Johnson’s deep Motown voice became crucial in achieving Audrey II’s realism.

Opening night. On July 25, the puppetry team arrived two hours before showtime for last-minute rehearsals and preparation (a practice they plan to continue). Ball and Piper completed an extensive stretching regimen, focusing on the biceps, forearms and legs to prevent the cramps they experienced during rehearsals. Onstage, they paid close attention to every breath they took to ensure the puppet moved only when needed. They fought through pain and sweat but, the audience’s applause made their hard work worthwhile.

Keeping it fresh. Ball says that you must “continue to allow yourself to be silly.” Freeing yourself of hang-ups and “allowing the idiosyncrasies of your personality to shine through the puppet,” creates a truly memorable character.

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