Exploring puppetry with Michael Curry

Michael Curry has enjoyed a 20-year working relationship with Las Vegas entertainment, beginning with Siegfried and Roy’s show at the Mirage. Over the years he has worked on a number of shows designing puppets and props for Cirque du Soleil’s “KÀ,” “LOVE,” and “Believe.” He has also produced work for “Le Rêve” and created the giant frog on Wynn Las Vegas’ Lake of Dreams.  This year, Disney’s “The Lion King” began performances on the Las Vegas Strip bringing 200 puppets designed by Curry and Julie Taymor.

In addition to all his work in Vegas, Curry has designed a pantheon of pieces for a variety of shows and performances around the world including the 1996 and 2002 Olympics, the 2000 Super Bowl, numerous Disney parades and shows, the Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Paris opera, the American Ballet and many more.

Curry’s experience designing puppetry and props is so extensive, we couldn’t fit it all in just one story. Read story on puppetry in Las Vegas.

Here are some of the highlights from our interview:

Let’s talk about your history of production design and puppetry work. I believe the first show you worked on in Vegas was Siegfried & Roy. 

That was one of the first big projects I ever had.  It was 1989. I was in my late 20s. It was one of my first jobs. I was spotted off the street (by John Napier- Co-Creator, Co-Director and Designer of Siegfried & Roy’s show) in a costume I had done for an amateur parade.

I was a fine artist selling in galleries at the time and had no interest in puppetry or the theater. I was a sculptor and painter, very much in that mold of working by myself. Then I moved to New York City and began seeing street performers and became very intrigued in getting out of the gallery and finding a different audience.

So I started doing some kinetic sculpture outdoors. Little by little they became more and more performance orientated. I was already interested in that when people started asking me to do things in theater.

I just did it for kicks. I took it seriously as a challenge but I didn’t think it was my calling. Then I realized in the middle of it how wonderful it was to collaborate with other people. Fine artists don’t do that. They lock themselves by themselves and drink (laughter). And that’s what I did and write big intellectual treatises about what your work is supposed to mean.

Five years into theater I realized the right career has found me. I didn’t even have to go looking for it.  Today I have 40 teammates here and we collaborate very freely. Theater is wonderful because there are six or eight principal collaborators in any project – just the right amount of people.

Let’s talk about the design process. When you start designing a puppet, do you begin from the visual impression it makes, from the movement it needs to accomplish or do you try and create a character first and worry about the action later?

None of those. It’s story – absolutely story. This is what makes a piece fit in the show. It’s not its own special effect. It’s one that is supplementing and furthering story. It’s something I am absolutely focused on all the time. I talk people out of puppets all the time because it doesn’t help the story. You really want to find the best method to make this dream play come true.

In the case of “KÀ” we know we wanted to have some comedy and warmth and we wanted to put humans in an awkward position because of the journey, because they are encountering new things. There’s fascination and danger. This show is filled with danger and reaffirmation of love. 

I really thought about the story. Now of course it’s not far behind that I think well this is Cirque du Soleil in Vegas so there’s extraordinary human motion and then great color and great whimsy.

Or if you take “Lion King,” we knew we had and animal story that was very human. Julie Taymor and I didn’t want to put any more encumbrances on the actor than necessary. We wanted to put just enough to symbolize the animal but still let the actor and the story be the primary focus.

I will say my attitude has changed over the years as I’ve done this. I started rather technical and I really only cared about the sculpture, the pictures and the forms. But then I started becoming more expert in the theater and you realize these pictures are only in support of the story.

And creating the puppet itself?

Literally when I’m sketching ideas I’m up from my table walking around.  Literally I move. I do very crude foam core cutouts and play in front of mirrors. I design these things by stepping through them physically in real space in a dance studio while I’m drawing pictures. I always have those two things working simultaneously.

My design process is very hands on. This is one of the reasons I own a design fabrication company. I have to taste the soup every day to make sure it’s right. My day is walking around like a surgeon and making sure my patients are OK.

It’s a great process. Mine just happens to be very hands own and very collaborative, not just with my own staff but when I go to the stage I’m very active with the performers.

I don’t do traditional puppets. But I have great fascination and love of it. I sort of deal with the fantasy because I’m afraid to get to close to reality. I’ve never done a taxidermy-correct puppet.

Is there a specific type of actor you look for when doing puppetry work?

I am always surprised by when we audition. You can’t really see who is going to be a good puppeteer from the outset. The ones you think would be great like say an actor / dancer or musical theater person – you say,”Oh they are a great mover and they are good with their voice.” But sometimes the process of translating yourself to an object freezes them up. Others can pick up a paperclip and just make it a character. It is very exciting for me to finish a piece and then it has a second life, that’s when I put it in the hands of a performer. Then, I work with them finding their role with that piece.

Not too far behind the puppet you’ll find the puppeteer. So I do think about them simultaneously. You end up being a pretty good mover when you design a puppet. I work a lot with the movement of the puppets myself so that by the time I’m able to introduce it to an actor I’m liable to show them 90 percent of its good stuff and they find the rest.

Sometimes an actor will take a puppet and start moving it and I’ll say “No-no don’t do that,” … Then I’ll say, “No keep doing that,” and they’ll find something I never saw. Every actor I’ve worked with has made some comment about how good this for them that they are learning who they are. This puppet feeds back through them and they learn more about themselves as an actor. I work a lot with opera and ballet. It’s not just actors. It’s very exciting to speak through another object. This is why I think children are able to talk through dolls about traumatic events. People can talk through an avatar or cypher and speak things they normally couldn’t do. This happens to actors and dancers when they are manipulating puppets. They can sometimes push through to more expression than they could do with their own naked face as it were.

Do you feel the actor is performing through the puppet or with the puppet? 

Through the puppet. The puppets, as much as we like to say they have life, they don’t. They lay there on the table when not attended by a person. Whether the actor feels there’s something metaphysical that’s enhancing it, it’s really coming through them.

But, I’ve also heard that great instruments make people play better too. I try make puppets and design movement that is so intuitive so easy and responsive to you. It’s like a good pair of running shoes before the event. We’ve learned over the 24 years we’ve been doing this what works for people.

Actors, I’ve learned I can’t do it without them. That’s also a wonderful symbiotic relationship. We really depend on each other. I make a little adjustment on a puppet technically and suddenly they are hugging me because now they can break through. It’s a really great partnership.

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