23 August 2012

Theater Thursday: Two Girls, a Guy, and a Puppet

Happy Theater Thursday, true believers!

I'd like to say a few words about a certain show that has taken over my entire summer. It's a short, rather amusing show, running at an average of approximately eighty seven minutes. What is  that show? That show is Car Talk!!! The Musical.

Car Talk!!! is my first foray into the world of professional theater. My involvement is pretty straightforward. I'm the assistant stage manager intern. It's a nice, shiny way of saying I'm a member of run crew, since we have an actual ASM who I think is quite good at what she does. Being part of run crew means I get to do normal crew-y things. I sweep and mop the deck before every show, and the deck's not that big so this doesn't take very long. I preset a large number of the props so that our talented bunch of actors (or I, when necessary) can grab them swiftly and easily before running on stage. And then, during the show, I do a couple scene changes, get my fifteen seconds of spotlight, and, most importantly operate the mouth of a giant car puppet.

The puppet. Ohhhhhhh, the puppet. If I've learned anything during my time in Car Talk!!!, it's that puppetry is hard and I don't think it's something I'm going to pursue. The puppet, which I shall simply refer to as the puppet to avoid SPOILERS, is a monstrosity of metal and foam and lights and wheels and wires and probably something else I'm forgetting. It's quite tall, easily obscuring the three crew members operating it. Four of us had to work together to lift it on the deck, for it is a heavy beast. Due to its weight, every time I get behind it, shortly before I push it out for its grand unveiling in each show to a mix of giggles and quizzical looks, I am momentarily petrified that it will defy all laws of physics and simply tilt backwards. And if it tilted backwards, well, let's just say I love pancakes, but not when I am them.

The puppet has a moving mouth, eyes that look to its sides, eyebrows that go up, down, and spin all around, a hand spun pinwheel, and light up... everything. That seems like a lot of things, and it is, but then you remember you have to keep it alive with those things, and, well, suddenly the task seems daunting. There's one crew person on the left eyebrow and the pinwheel, the ASM is on the right eyebrow and the eyes, and I'm on the mouth. The lights are controlled from the light board in the booth in the back of the theater. So, the three of us behind the puppet control every facial feature, and all it has are facial features. Clearly the most expressive part of the puppet is its eyes, and so we've (and by we've I mean not me since I don't touch the eyes or eyebrows during the show) made it rather sarcastic, with cocked eyebrows and sideways glances galore. That definitely goes a long way, because otherwise we'd be relying on a foam mouth. A foam mouth that REALLY only goes up and down and sometimes can squish in a little bit. Try as I might, the puppet doesn't do much with his mouth other than lip flap. It reminds me of all the anime I used to watch religiously and learning that the main reason that everyone in dubbed anime has a very distinct speaking pattern isn't just because of the unnecessarily (but often humorously) dramatic dialogue, but because of preexisting lip flap that the voice actors have to match. It's a little different here, since I'm the lip flap and I'm matching preexisting recordings, but it's the same kind of problem. There's not much wiggle room for different lip movements or inflections. There's also not much wiggle room because you've got a grown man and two grown women behind a puppet, but that's neither here nor there. Regardless, we try to keep it alive. And, you know, I think it's working.

Well, I just said a crapton more about that puppet than I meant to... Whatever! More importantly, I've gotten to work on this production from the rehearsal process through now, and, well, it's been a very different beast than what I'm used to. The show started rehearsing during finals week at MIT, which was a barrel of laughs for me. I remember sitting in music rehearsals while the actors learned their parts with a binder open to my notes on quantum mechanics reading and rereading pages and scribbling sparse calculations on an extra sheet of paper next to me. All the while I marveled at their voices and the general ease at which they learned pieces. And then I had my final that Wednesday, came out terrified, but passed the class and everything was okay.

Scene rehearsals involved a real dialogue between the actors and the director. The director would try something, and the actors would do it and if it didn't feel right they'd say so. And then everyone involved in the rehearsal would work out an alternative that served the storytelling better and suited everyone's needs. It was fascinating to watch. What I'm used to is the director says do A, and the actor does A, and that's what gets done in the show regardless of whether it actually works or not. It was great to see people really work together to do the best they could.

Rehearsals must have been roughly every day for a month, and then we opened on 18 June. We're still running. The longest run I had ever done until now was six shows spread over two weeks. Here we are on month three. At this point, everything that I have to do during the show, which I am being intentionally vague about in hopes that you'll come see for yourself, feels like slipping on a glove. And not one of those impossible to pull on latex lab gloves that are either too small or too big for your hand, either; ones that actually fit. There are no surprises in what I'm doing because now I know exactly how long it takes to do X, or when it's easiest to get Y, or how long before Z occurs. I still worry about placing a couple of things simply because knocking any of it over adds time, time that I don't have, to that scene change, but in general I'm very relaxed. What I do is easy, which is nice.
Of course, with all this relaxation going on, it gives me more time to hear the little changes and additions the actors make to keep the show fresh. Or the adlibs as a result of a slightly flubbed line. And it gives me all the time in the world to be healthily envious of all of them, singing, dancing, and bringing a strange, somewhat whimsical story to life. I've told many of them this before, but what I wouldn't give to REALLY be up there with them. To embody a role in the world they're creating when they first step on that stage and a certain familiar tune starts up. I hope they realize how truly lucky they are. I'm sure they do, but sometimes it helps to know that there are those like me who look at them and just feel desire and motivation to do what they're doing.

We recently extended to 16 September, which means we've extended into the first two weeks of the school year. While I'm glad we're able to extended this wild ride another two weeks, I'm also not looking forward to having to balance psets, grading, classes, and a library job with that for that time frame. But it should ultimately be fun. If you're in the Boston/Cambridge area, and you haven't seen Car Talk!!! yet, or even if you have, I highly recommend you come to Central Square Theater on Mass Ave and see it and see some talented actors, hear some great music, and have a good time. Besides, the Globe loved it.

Tune in Sunday for the first Science Sunday in which I shall talk about... IT'S A SECRET TO EVERYONE!

1 comment:

  1. I saw Car Talk and loved it. If you're in the Boston area go check it out. You'll love it; especially the Wizard of Cahs. He has loads of personality.