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Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

Audrey II: a role you can sink your teeth into

In Behind the Scenes on July 25, 2009 at 3:42 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Teeth photo by abzee

Teeth photo by abzee

MARIN COUNTY, CA – “It can be lonely, being a plant,” says Wendell H. Wilson, the actor/puppeteer who has found a special niche playing Audrey II, the man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors. Wilson has played Audrey II at the Willows Theater, 6th Street Playhouse, and with KD Musical Theater at San Anselmo Playhouse and Marin County Day School.

Audrey II is the mysterious, giant, singing, man-and-woman-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors. In the movie version Audrey II is animated through the use of mechanics and special effects, but in the stage version of the musical, all of the animation must be made to happen though the special skills of a talented actor/puppeteer who is capable of bringing a full-body puppet weighing over 100 pounds to life.

“As Audrey II,” Wilson continued, “there are four major costume changes as the plant grows, so there is no break like other actors. I miss jokes and discussions, or when someone says ‘Did you see that happen?’  You can feel like you are not really involved.  You need to know you are helping move the story along, you are an actor, not a prop or object.  You and your character are part of the ensemble.”

Asked what skills are needed to be a large scale plant puppet in a leading role, Wilson replied, “Most important is the ability to give life to an inanimate object, so it looks and feels like the being it is.”

“It is like mask work,” says Wilson, explaining how he gives life to a puppet costume with no eyes, lips, hands or facial expressions. “Taking what you are behind the mask and putting it in front of the mask. When I mouth the words, ‘Feed me, Seymour,” without having lips to move, I have to become the plant.  If other characters treat Audrey II like a living breathing cast member, instead of a prop, the audience will too.”

“Audrey II is a magical being, immortal, different than human,” says Wilson. “I support all that as a plant. Suspension of disbelief is what acting is all about.  Taking the audience out of where they are to somewhere else, and giving them the feeling they are right there, watching it happen.”

How did Wilson ‘become the plant?’ “I thought about, ‘What is the plant’s intent? What does the plant want out of this?’ The plant has an agenda. It wants to be fed.  People won’t catch that if they think it’s a puppet.”

Wilson also remembered seeing time lapse photography on TV, showing the twisting movement of growing plants and needed to find a way to do that same type of movement with his own body.

Wilson’s role as Audrey II required spinning a heavy 110 pound costume, and holding it. With that in mind, Wilson wore gloves and a torso weightlifting belt, and slept more than normal so his body could repair. “Being a puppet on this scale requires flexibility, emotion, intent, and strength,” says Wilson.  “Plus, with so much twisting, and contact with other actors, there is a risk of pulled muscles and injuries. When performing, I am working out up to 2 hours every day. I lose 10-15 pounds during the run of the show.  It is real important you protect your health.” To prepare, Wilson goes through a regimen of physical and flexibility training.   He also does a lot of stretching and twisting, to get his spine ready for the show.

In addition, Wilson explained to other cast members how to push him safely.” I tell them, ‘If I push you forward, push me back. Be as physical as you want, just in a safe manner.’” That contact gave life to the creature, since audiences aren’t used to seeing people hit puppets. Also, by being able to do almost a front full or side split, the audience sometimes doesn’t know where his legs are in the costume.

“My number one goal is being so physical and alive in the plant that people forget they are looking at a puppet.”

Wilson got his start in improv, which is mostly being something you are not. As an actor, he has always had multiple characters and roles. “This training has been important,” he explains, “as it gave me a sense of being able to shed self quickly and pick up something else.”

“Improv also taught me how to sync with a person quickly,” Wilson adds. “Like with the actor who is the voice of Audrey II. You have to listen, you can’t see, you are blind.  I love the whole aspect of the voice adding that next layer of life to this inanimate object.” Depending on the venue, Audrey’s voice may come from a voice actor in the control booth, or one who can see from behind the set. “Neither of us is initiating or reacting.” Wilson explains. “We are both doing it at same time.”

“I wish there were more shows that incorporated puppets,” Wilson concluded.  “It is not easy and not tapped into like it used to be. It is almost a lost art form. Japan had a huge puppetry movement and many opportunities to use a large puppet instead of another person. Being a puppet is more challenging than being face to face with another actor showing your emotions, because you must have a commitment to every action.”

Phil Gravitt is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Noe Valley Voice & other San Francisco neighborhood newspapers, and the Bay Area Visual Arts Blog http://www.BAArtQuake.com.

Additional articles by Phil Gravitt include:

Patrick Varner: from Phantom to Babylon to Top Ramen and beyond

In Artist Spotlight on July 16, 2009 at 3:28 pm

by Ray Sikorski

Patrick Varner in The Servant of Two Masters (submitted photo)

Patrick Varner in The Servant of Two Masters (submitted photo)

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – It’s not unusual for a visit to a theater to bring out the performer in a child. Sometimes such a visit can seal the deal of a lifetime. For Patrick Varner, that visit was backstage at Phantom of the Opera in San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, at the tender age of five.

“It was mind-blowing at the time,” says Varner, now 17. “Being a five-year-old kid and standing on the stage of this theater where there’s more than a thousand seats, and seeing the chandelier up close and personal… It had a long-lasting effect on me that has never gone away. That was sort of the end of everything – it was like, ‘All right, this is what I’m supposed to do.’”

Varner has remained true to his word. After arriving back home in Santa Rosa, California, he implored his parents to sign him up for theater classes, and – except for a brief stint where he feared being labeled a “theater nerd” in middle school – he’s been at it ever since.

Varner’s talents were spotted early on at Santa Rosa’s Montgomery High School, where he landed the second male lead as a freshman in the school’s production of Kiss Me Kate. A natural singer, Varner wasn’t so at ease with all the dancing his role in the musical demanded.

“When I got this part, it was like, ‘Aw, crap, what do I do? I was totally a fish out of water. Just completely uncomfortable; I didn’t know what was going on.”

But Varner seems to be a kid who finds his comfort zone, and goes ten steps beyond it. After the success of that performance, he took on more and more roles each year, and not just at school – he could also be found at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse. While he considers comedy his forte, he also embraces emotionally challenging roles, and strives to be a performer who can play anything. Last year, on top of four or five school productions, he entered four categories in Sacramento State University’s Lenaea Festival, including a manic performance in Becky Mode’s Fully Committed – a one-man show featuring 42 different characters.

“It was insanity,” he says of the experience. He won best performance by an actor, and gold in the one-act category.

He followed that up this year with another slew of successes, including winning a $10,000 scholarship in the Steve Silver Foundation/Beach Blanket Babylon competition. He plans to attend Boston University in the fall.

“I’m excited to be challenged,” he says. “I’m excited to be beaten down and built back up again.”

Despite his early successes, Varner harbors no illusions about the life of an actor. During a summer acting program in New York, a teacher who had played successful parts on Broadway surprised him by revealing he had auditioned for a voice-over role for a bank commercial in New Jersey. “He said, ‘You know, you gotta pay the bills somehow,’” Varner recalls. So, while he relishes an acting future in New York City, Varner also has his eyes on the dynamic community that he witnessed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.

“That’s what I’m really wanting to do right after college,” he says of the Festival, which features new plays as well as fare from the Bard. “But, who knows, after four years, I’m sure that will have changed hundreds of times.

“I think my closer goals right now are just to work, wherever that means I go. … I would love to be a working actor, expressing myself creatively, regardless of financial stability,” he says. “Well, I mean, financial stability is definitely nice, but I am not opposed to living off of Top Ramen.”

Ray Sikorski wrote and directed his first one-act play in 1988, and his second 20 years later. He is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana.

Additional articles by Ray Sikorski incude:

Footloose Productions and Shotwell Studios: a model for incubating theater, dance, music and more

In Behind the Scenes on July 15, 2009 at 4:09 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Footloose's Lenora Lee & Sebastian Grubb, photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

Footloose's Lenora Lee & Sebastian Grubb, photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – After 35 years in theater and dance, Mary Alice Fry of Footloose Productions in San Francisco says, “Success has nothing to do with luck.  It’s perseverance, putting one foot in front of the other.”

Fry is the Artistic and Executive Director of Footloose, providing rehearsal, class and performance space to performing arts teachers and artists at Shotwell Studios since 1989.  Shotwell hosts theater, dance, music, spoken word, comedy and multi-media, including Footloose’s own productions and collaborations.

By keeping ticket and studio rental prices reasonable, Footloose gets good box office support for its shows.  Footloose also has several long term studio rental tenants, and support and funding from foundations, SF Hotel Tax Fund Grants for the Arts, individual contributors and corporate sponsors.

Each year, Fry sponsors, aids, supports and encourages four to five performing artists or small groups in a three-tier process to help the artists move their work to the next level professionally.   The process begins with the artist in residence program, called AIM: Artists in Motion. “I’m looking for original work and original voices,” says Fry.  The residencies last from two to four months and culminate in a work in progress showing at Shotwell.

AIM grew out of an earlier program at Venue 9 called Women’s Work from 1996 through 2004 where artists would share the stage one night a week with other women each doing 10 to 15 minutes.  Fry saw that some of them were really good, and with help and more work, could grow into full performances and realized “I think we’ve got something.”   That is when Fry got the idea to do the Women on the Way (WOW) Festival, so the artists could show full-length work and share audiences.  The annual festival at Venue 9 was immediately successful securing its longevity and is gearing up for its tenth anniversary.

The festival is held on three weekends each January.  “Since there are no other festivals in January,” explains Fry, “the performers often get reviews from several media sources. This helps the performers get grants and build their audiences.”

While AIM and the work in progress shows are open to all genders, WOW, as the name implies is for women only, although men are often involved on the production and performing ends and make up a large portion of the audience.

“Since many performance mediums have a narrow audience, at WOW I mix dance, theater, music, clowns, spoken word, and multi-media.   People show up and see something they had no idea was out there,” says Fry.

If a WOW show is well received, Fry will schedule a full theatrical run at Shotwell.    Recently, a musical by the Tietjen sisters, titled ‘A Murmured Tale,” sold out four shows online even before the box office opened.  It was honed and incubated through the AIM program and is being readied for a professional production in the Tenth Annual WOW Festival at ODC Dance Commons in January 2010 and a subsequent full run at a venue to be announced.

AIM and WOW artists are offered free rehearsal space, along with technical and administrative support, mentoring on how to self-produce, and direction on how to gear up for bigger productions. Help and guidance on publicity, marketing, designing and producing post cards, and creating online visibility are also provided.

There are challenges for artists as well as producers like Fry. “Performers sometimes tire of a piece, and quickly move to the next thing,” says Fry.  “To help them, I need them to focus on one project. Or the writer/performer isn’t up to their material, but they won’t let it go. Then I encourage them to find an actor who can handle the part if it’s a good show.  In some cases, like with Amanda Moody and composer Jay Cloidt, they made an album of the music from ‘D’Arc: woman on fire’ which was one of our hit shows and it lives on that way.  Tina D’Elia made a film from her popular show, ‘Groucho’ and many dance artists build their repertory with pieces created here.”

Participants are encouraged to self produce, perform at fringe festivals, or apply for residencies and festivals at bigger venues like the 125-seat Dance Mission Theater, the 110-seat ODC Dance Commons or the ODC Theater currently being renovated, or even  Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

“My dream is to have a traveling circuit for performers, with five to ten cities, and trading artists with international studios,” adds Fry. “Then the performers would get a feel for being on the road.”

Phil Gravitt is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Noe Valley Voice & other San Francisco neighborhood newspapers, and the Bay Area Visual Arts Blog http://www.BAArtQuake.com.

Additional articles by Phil Gravitt include:

Forest Meadows Amphitheatre

In Places and Spaces on July 3, 2009 at 5:12 am

By Kim Taylor

The Comedy of Errors at Forest Meadows in 1992 (Photo courtesy of Marin Shakespeare Company)

The Comedy of Errors at Forest Meadows in 1992 (Photo courtesy of Marin Shakespeare Company)

MARIN COUNTY, CA – One can swear by the moon, the constant moon as it rises over Forest Meadows Amphitheatre located on the campus of Dominican University of California in San Rafael, where the stage was carefully designed and constructed to showcase a full moon rising directly above the players and audiences during the summer months.

The outdoor amphitheater, located in a meadow filled with trees and a creek, is noted as California’s first purpose built Shakespearean amphitheater. The venue was completed 1967 to provide a new home for Marin Shakespeare Festival, which relocated from the Redwood Amphitheatre at the Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross. Unfortunately, the Marin Shakespeare Festival took its final bow in 1972.

In the summer of 1989 Robert and Lesley Currier received a recruitment call from a small but devoted group of community minded Marin residents hoping to resurrect a summer Shakespeare theater festival at the Forest Meadows Amphitheater location.

By August 1990, the Marin Shakespeare Company was established and presented its first production, “As You Like It.”

During its past twenty seasons at Forest Meadows, the Marin Shakespeare Company has received countless honors including Dean Goodman Choice Awards; San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics’ Circle awards and nominations; the Marin Magazine Editors’ Choice award; the Pacific Sun’s Best of Marin Award; and the Bohemian’s Boho Award.

Today the venue is also used for Dominican University graduation ceremonies and other school graduations and various events. Marin Shakespeare Company also uses the amphitheater space for a limited number of classes each summer.

But, the venue has its challenges. Despite its natural intimacy, noise can travel from Highway 101 and sometimes be heard within the seating area. It’s something the Marin Shakespeare Company would love to correct. More than forty years old, the venue could also benefit from upgraded restrooms, pathways, lighting and seating. And because the venue doesn’t have a lobby the Marin Shakespeare Company builds a new lobby area each season using hay bales and portable buildings.

Despite all its flaws, there’s something special about that man in the moon spotlighting the Forest Meadows stage.

A former entertainment calendar editor and features writer at the Marin Independent Journal, Kim Taylor, combined her media experience and appreciation for arts and entertainment and established herself as a successful and award-winning publicist.

Additional articles by Kim Taylor include: