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Posts Tagged ‘6th Street Playhouse’

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

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:

Jeffrey Weissman: embracing comedy as a life’s work

In Artist Spotlight on June 19, 2009 at 2:30 am

by Ray Sikorski

Photo of Jeffrey Weissman (submitted photo)

Photo of Jeffrey Weissman (submitted photo)

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – Those who embrace comedy as their life’s work understand that the line between pleasure and pain is thin, if it even exists at all. Stan Laurel, the skinny half of the classic duo Laurel and Hardy, was as well known for busting out in tears as he was for his trademark ear-to-ear grin. The laughs come by doing a tight-rope walk along that line.

Actor Jeffrey Weissman, 50, has spent a good chunk of his life impersonating Laurel, and the sense one gets is that you don’t just learn how to do that tight-rope walk by studying it – you have to get out on the wire, and nets aren’t allowed. Pathos will quickly lead to bathos.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Weissman had an early hankering for the silver screen, but his parents – who knew first-hand about the tough lives actors lead – tried to dissuade him. Determined, Weissman took on some walk-on roles before heading to San Francisco to study at American Conservatory Theater. It wasn’t long before he was short-listed for the lead in the film War Games, along with Eric Stoltz, Dana Carvery, Sean Penn, and Matthew Broderick – who ultimately landed the role and started a career that has yet to stop. Shortly after that, Broderick, who now had some name recognition, beat Weissman out for the lead in Ladyhawke.

Weissman admits losing out on Ladyhawke was tough. He had worked for several years at Renaissance Faires, and the script resonated with him.

“There was a circle of talent that I was a part of there in the early ’80s, that were up on all these big films, but it was obviously not the right time for me to make that big breakthrough,” he says.

“Fate is a fleeting thing sometimes.”

Weissman did manage to land several small parts, including the role of Teddy Conway in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, and as an airline passenger in Twilight Zone The Movie. But his biggest coup also turned out to be his biggest personal challenge, when he was asked to recreate Crispin Glover’s George McFly character in the Back to the Future sequels.

It would have been one thing to simply be Jeffrey Weissman playing George McFly. But because of complicated contract deals with Glover, Weissman was forced to become Glover, right down to prosthetic makeup. The producers didn’t want to let on that Glover wasn’t part of the sequels, so Weissman got buried in the back of shots, sometimes appeared out of focus, and he was forbidden from promoting himself as the actor – denying him the fame he desired since childhood. While he admired Glover’s performance in the first movie, the challenge of making himself into a non-entity, both on-screen and off, resulted in a nervous breakdown and a failed marriage.

Twenty years later, Weissman betrays no signs of bitterness. Since then, he’s embraced the role of struggling actor, taking both comedic and serious roles on stage and screen. His list of credits runs the gamut from Shakespeare to auto body commercials. He’s impersonated Stan Laurel, Charlie Chaplin, and Groucho Marx, and started the L.A. Theatersports improv team. He also got remarried, to the girl he fell in love with in high school.

Currently he’s living in Santa Rosa, California, working as the director of 6th Street Improv at 6th Street Playhouse, teaching at the San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking, and working on a laundry list of acting and directing projects. His latest starring film project, Corked, a mockumentary about the wine industry, just showed at Cannes and is looking for a distributor. And he’s starting a film production company called Buzz Filmz.

“I like being alive, so I try to seize it,” he says of his busy schedule.

And, on top of all that, he proudly travels the world as George McFly, making appearances at sci-fi fan conferences and charity fundraisers.

“A lot of the big fans would come and look at me and say, ‘Well, who are you? You’re George?’ And they didn’t realize that there was a difference, because I did my job.” He says the greatest reward is making human connections with fans who see the movies as timeless classics.

“It’s not been easy overcoming the bullshit of getting depressed,” he says. “It’s not been an easy task, but I’m naturally kind of an optimistic guy, and if you wallow in the crap, it turns into more crap. I need to get back into my yoga, just like anyone else, but I’m surrounded, luckily, by a lot of family and friends, and adoring fans. So I keep my sanity that way, and keep seeing what the universe is going to provide.”

On Saturday, June 20, 2009, Jeffrey Weissman will be teaching a seminar on how to keep an acting career going at San Francisco State University. Free for SAG members. On Friday, June 26, 2009, he hosts “The Best of Sonoma County Improv,” featuring five different Sonoma County improv troupes, at the Glaser Center in downtown Santa Rosa.

Additional information about Jeffrey is available at

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: