The power of puppetry

Damian Baldet as Timon in Disney's The Lion King

By Jennifer Whitehair

In 1989 a puppet army invaded the Las Vegas Strip.

Using classic puppetry techniques, designer Michael Curry transformed 12 female dancers into a golden army of more than 160 marching figures for Siegfried & Roy’s show at the Mirage.

Twenty years later, puppetry occupies headline roles in numerous top Las Vegas shows from Disney’s “The Lion King” and Terry Fator to Cirque du Soleil’s “KÀ,” “LOVE” and “Believe.”

Puppetry may appear to be an incongruous fit with a town whose nickname is “Sin City.” It is often stereotyped as “for the kids.” For many, children’s televisions shows like “Howdy Doody,” “The Muppet Show,” and “Sesame Street” were their first introduction to puppetry.

“You say puppetry and people think of juvenile work, but then what we have done with it – Terry Fator, Julie Taymor and I, and different folks – is take it really seriously and put it out there as a real art form,” says Curry. Curry has designed puppetry and props not only for “Lion King,” but also “KÀ,” “LOVE,” “Believe” and “Le Rêve” in Las Vegas. You can also find his puppet designs in the Metropolitan Opera, the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Olympics, New York’s Millennium celebration, movies and more.

“It’s not just for children,” Curry explains. “I haven’t done work for children although children like my things. How rare is that, that we can have a technique that operates well multi-culturally, multi-gender and multi-age. It’s a good technique and that’s why I think it’s going through a renaissance.”

For Las Vegas, with its diverse audiences, entertainment like puppetry that can cross cultural, age and gender lines is a requirement for a successful show. Last year 26.6 million of Vegas’ 37 million visitors saw a show – four million of them were from another country. The age composition of Vegas audiences is even more diverse, ranging from 5 to 90 years old.

“Puppetry spans all generations,” says Terry Fator, whose show at the Mirage features a range of characters from Winston the Impersonating Turtle to Vicki the Cougar. “I have people that come to my show that are under 10 and I have people who come to my show who are over 90 and they all go away saying the same thing: ‘It was like magic. The puppets came to life. For 90 minutes I didn’t think about anything but watching those puppets sing, tell jokes and have fun.’ ” And, as Fator’s puppet Emma pipes in to say, “That’s the magic.”

Making Magic

Puppetry is often compared to magic for its ability to engage and surprise the audience. It doesn’t even necessitate the use of a physical puppet. Shadow puppetry is one of the oldest forms of puppetry, dating back thousands of years, yet this ancient art is a key component in two hit Las Vegas shows – “The Lion King” and “KÀ.”

Shadow puppetry is low-tech. Take a light source and then insert an object to cast a shadow, which becomes the character the puppeteer is trying to create.

“KÀ” ranks as one of Vegas’ most technically complex shows. Its custom built stage, lighting, props and sound all contribute to a show that is often compared to a special effects-laden movie. With all of these effects, it comes as a surprise that many audience members’ favorite scene in the show involves no complex special effects, just two of the characters – played by Sheri Haight and Leonardo Santos – creating shadow puppets.

“For a lot of the audience it’s like a magic trick,” says Haight.

“I know when we are doing the show they think it’s a projection on the wall,” says Santos. “They don’t think it is real. But we do it for real every single night.”

“Most people are just speechless in the audience,” adds Haight.

Even when a puppet and the puppeteer are in full view of the audience, that magical spell isn’t broken.

Actor Damian Baldet is part of a cast of 50 who employ more than 200 puppets to perform “The Lion King.” Baldet portrays Timon, the outrageous meerkat who, together with Pumba, makes up an Abott and Costello-like duo who are responsible for much of the comedy in “The Lion King.”

To create the character, Baldet works with a 15-pound puppet whose design is similar to Japanese Bunraku puppets where a large puppet (usually between 3 and 4 feet tall) is manipulated by three puppeteers. Baldet is covered in green facial make-up and a green body suit with a plant-like pattern that focuses attention on the Timon puppet.

While the audiences’ focus may be on the puppet, the actor is never forgotten.

Curry, who worked with Director Julie Taymor in creating the “Lion King’s” puppets, likes to tell the story of the audience member who came up to him and commented about the show, saying: “I love it when the eyebrows move on the puppets.”

Only one problem – the eyebrows are painted on.

“That was the actors’ eyebrows moving,” says Curry. “This is what is so great. We’re so expert in reading the human face that when the actor does that, it transposes to the puppet … they fill in the lost lines.”

This unique relationship between the puppet and actor is key to the success of “Lion King” and other shows that employ puppetry. The fusion of the actor’s performance with the puppet creates the full character.

“There’s a back and forth,” explains Baldet. “Julie Taymor talks about this thing called a double event. There’s human event and there’s a puppet event and that ratio is in flux depending on the demands of the story-telling.”

“It’s ultimately not about the actor,” he says. “It’s about putting your attention always through the puppet and not around or over the puppet. It’s a humbling experience, but ultimately very awesome.”

That relationship is not limited to just the actor and puppet but grows to encompass other performers and the audience.

“For us it’s such a good feeling because you are so close to the theater audience,” Santos explains. “We can see people smiling, laughing, getting surprised by the puppets we do.”

Behind the puppet is the puppeteer

Shadow Puppetry at "KA."

Shadow Puppetry

The key component behind any successful puppetry is the performer.

“Puppets, as much as we like to say they have life, they don’t,” says Curry. “They lay there on the table when not attended by a person.”

However, there is no university of puppetry. The path performers take to master the art is as varied as the puppets. Some performers took up puppetry as kids. Others had no previous experience other than watching “The Muppet Show.” But all agree, it’s about bringing the character and story alive.

Curry worked closely with Cirque du Soleil when he designed more than 10 puppets being used in “KÀ.”

When asked how he starts the process, you get a one-word answer.

“Story!” he exclaims. “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.”

His creation process is both physical and visual, combining designs and prototype creations with real–world usage. This process eventually leads to the performer.

“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,” Curry says. “Then I work with them finding their role with that piece.”

For “KÀ” that meant a collaboration between Curry and the acrobatic performers who would bring to life a crab, turtle, starfish and other denizens of a sandy beach.

Eric Henderson performs as the crab in KA

Eric Henderson performs as the crab in KA

“It does take a personality to make a puppet come to life,” explains JanNelle Rivers, “KA’s” head of props and puppets. “You and I can both learn the movements but we couldn’t make the puppet come to life without that personality.”

That takes the talent of performers like Eric Henderson who can perform as either the crab or the starfish.

“The biggest challenge is taking the human out of it and keeping everyone thinking that it is a crab,” Henderson says. “We know it is a puppet but we want to make it as much of a crab as possible.”

To do that, performers study the real-life movements and emotions of the characters they are portraying. It also means interpreting human emotions and characteristics and conveying those through a puppet.

“There’s a weird translation process that happens between what you have in your brain and what looks right on a puppet,” explains Baldet.

For the character of Timon, Baldet wanted to capture the swaggering braggadocio of the character’s ego in his walk. But the typical wide-legged stance didn’t look good on the puppet. Baldet had to find a way to channel that emotion into a rather mincing walk.

Practice in front of mirrors forms the key as performers explore the nuances of each gesture and move of a puppet.

Damian Baldet as Timon in Disney's The Lion King

Damian Baldet as Timon in Disney's The Lion King

“It was a really interesting journey,” Baldet says. “The first three months my body was just trying to catch up to being able to physically do the show with the puppet. Once I got over the weariness, soreness and pain – after about six months I’d be backstage having a conversation with somebody with my hand in the puppet and I wouldn’t realize it but the puppet would be looking where I looked and talking when I talked. It sort of grafted itself onto my psyche. That was a really cool point. It has found its host and embedded itself in my brain.”

That character creation continues on even after the puppet has debuted on stage.

“There’s always ways to find new things to do with the puppet,” says Baldet

Fator is constantly introducing new characters in his show. Vicki the Cougar and a Beatles’ inspired puppet were introduced when he moved his show to the Mirage. For his one-year anniversary on March 14, he will debut another new character.

“I like having the variety,” Fator says. “I don’t want anything ever in my show to just become one type of puppet. I want to be creative. Whatever my brain comes up with I want to do.

“I love every single character I’ve created. It’s a little creation of yourself – like an artist might love a painting that they create. It’s just a part of my art.”

Puppet popularity

The puppet invasion of the Las Vegas Strip shows no signs of letting up. Curry is currently at work on projects for Las Vegas, including some new pieces that will debut this spring. Jeff Dunham has recently signed a contract for a series of performances at Caesars Palace’s Colosseum.

Curry and Fator see puppetry’s popularity as a reaction to the world around it.

“I think one of the reasons puppetry has become so popular in Vegas, and we’re seeing this trend worldwide, is it makes you feel young again,” says Fator. “We all want to remember those times when we didn’t have to worry about the bills and we didn’t have to worry about a job. It was just a matter of seeing a puppet and feeling like a kid again. That’s really what the magic of puppeteering does.”

Curry believess that puppetry connects directly with an audience like no other medium.

“So here we are in a time in our history, acerbated by politics and economics, where we want more heart,” explains Curry. “And I think puppetry can deliver that in a way.”

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