APTP Discovers the World of Puppetry

APTP Discovers the World of Puppetry

Posted by: Jennifer Merriman at 03/21/2014 03:01 PM

God's Work Rehearsal Blog

Albany Park Theater Project’s (APTP) acclaimed youth ensemble returns to Goodman Theatre this April with their exhilarating new drama God’s Work. As the talented teenagers ready for the upcoming production, we’re going behind-the-scenes with the cast and crew to learn about the group’s inventive rehearsal process. God’s Work marks the first time the group is using the Japanese tradition of Bunraku puppetry. A puppet will be used to play “Baby Rachel,” a younger version of the lead character. Read below as APTP development coordinator Jennifer Merriman discusses APTP’s exploration of this exciting performance style!

This isn’t an actor, but it is much more than a prop. In God’s Work, APTP is discovering the world of puppetry, and in the process, Baby Rachel—both the character and the puppet—has been born. When Baby Rachel takes the stage you blink twice to make sure you’re not seeing things—the little toes and dimpled chin move freely— a youthful curiosity and playful humor exudes from the puppet. You begin to see how an object can be given personality.

APTP enlisted the expertise of puppetry designers Brandon Campbell and Lacy Katherine Campbell to create Baby Rachel. Experienced artists and educators, Brandon and Lacy not only designed and built Baby Rachel, but taught APTP’s youth ensemble members how to give her life.

Creating Baby Rachel herself was a challenge, requiring hours of experimentation with fabrics, materials and building techniques. Brandon and Lacy tested several machés in search of one that would give the puppet a magical quality, while still being able to withstand months of rehearsals, performances and any potential falls or stumbles. The key to creating Baby Rachel turned out to be Paverpol, a simple fabric hardener that strengthened and made her stage-worthy.

Rehearsals began in December 2013 to teach APTP’s youth artists how to handle the puppet. While learning puppetry was daunting for the cast members, the prospect of introducing a new art form to the APTP stage proved inspirational. The Bunraku puppetry style keeps puppeteers in plain sight of the audience. This challenges actors to simultaneously perform as their character while moving the puppet. In order to tackle this feat, Brandon and Lacy focused on the dynamic between the cast and the puppet. “The process has been very much about not only teaching them to be puppeteers, but teaching them to function as caregivers, because that’s ultimately who they are playing,” said Lacy.

The learning process was built on “baby steps” to master the “micro movements” of puppetry: the puppet’s breathing, its focus and fixed point. Focus relates to where the puppeteer directs the puppet's "attention," while fixed point establishes a sense of gravity and weight for the puppet, so it is not simply "floating in space." APTP ensemble member Ely Espino, age 17, learned to balance her role as both puppeteer and as Irene, Rachel’s aunt, through various exercises and workshops. Ely discovered that a simple shift in her positioning and stance made all the difference: “I felt more like a puppeteer than my character because I stood behind the puppet,” she said. “When I changed my position to stand next to the puppet, I saw a huge difference in being able to connect with the other actors.”

Puppetry designer and director Brandon C. Campbell works with ensemble members Ely Espino and Jalen D. Rios on a scene in God's Work.

The ensemble members were also taught to always treat the puppet as though she were a real little girl, even outside of rehearsal time. Now, when you see ensemble members getting to know Baby Rachel, it looks as though they are sharing playtime with a younger sibling rather than exploring the characteristics of a new puppet. “You learn to love the puppet,” said Jalen Rios, who plays Rachel’s uncle. “You really need to take care of it, take it out of the tub, wrap it, dry it, help it heal,” he said of rehearsing a bathtub scene. “Like it’s a real baby.”

We look forward to sharing Baby Rachel with the world when God’s Work begins performances on April 4, 2014. We hope you will join us and experience the magic of puppetry, storytelling and imagination.

Maidenwena Alba demonstrates the company’s first use of bunraku-style puppetry in God's Work.

God's Work runs April 4 - April 19 in the Owen Theatre. Get tickets now.

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