Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"War Horse": Intricate horse puppets on stage in London

Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa created amazing horse puppets for a play called War Horse, now playing in London.

(Click the link above to read about it in the New York Times)

Back in 1998 at the Henson Puppetry Festival in New York, I saw this troupe perform a sublimely great piece about apartheid, featuring an incredibly compelling alligator puppet. I'm excited to hear they are still around and getting into larger projects.

Here's a slideshow with more images.

from BoingBoing and animator friend Barry Purves

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Monday, March 23, 2009

TEDx USC: Natasha Tsakos

Very cool TED Video shown here at TEDx about Natasha Tsakos, a corporeal mime actress who combines nonverbal communication, Foley sound FX, and projected CG animations in her work, in particular her show called Upwake.

Reminds me of the work of Robert LePage, with more of a Charlie Chaplin / Buster Keaton performance style.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

KÀ in Las Vegas: Videogame as Theatre?

I just got back from Vegas this weekend, my first time there. Naturally I'd heard all about some amazing Cirque du Soleil shows there, like "O", "Mystere", and "Zumanity," but when I got there, my native Las Vegan friends told me they loved a newer show called "KŔ".

Well, they couldn't have picked a better show for me to see.

Imagine if you will a multi-story tall auditorium stage that appears to have no bottom, out of which a myriad of theatrical environments emerge. A ship atop a stormy sea. A sandy beach. A monstrously high cliff. A wall for shadow puppets. Battlefields. A forest. Or, during the pre-show, intermittent bursts of flame. To the left and right are illuminated copper cage towers. Think H.G. Wells meets Ewok tree condos on Endor.

Of course there are the Cirque trademarks -- dancers, acrobats, twirlers, and people flying through the air. (If you have not seen a Cirque show, go rent Mystere, Quidam, or Dralion and come back. Or better yet, go see Varekai or whatever tour is out there now live) There is the fantastic music. Though in KÀ, the music is blended with extravagant sound effects, playing through speakers in everyone's seats. But this is the first of their Vegas shows to have a plot*, albeit a relatively simple one. Two twins are kidnapped and must be rescued across varied landscapes full of strange creatures and peoples.

Hmm. Sound videogame-esque? We'll touch on that shortly.

Unbeknownst to me while I was watching it, the Cirque du Soleil troupe brought in two of my theatrical heroes, Robert Le Page and Michael Curry to work on it, as director and puppet fabricator respectively. I wrote a review of Robert's amazing earlier work "The Far Side of the Moon" back in 2001 and got to talk with him a little about how he was experimenting with moving set technology and puppets. Of course, Michael Curry is the genius behind the Lion King Musical puppets, masks, and its morphing cliff stage.

The fusion of all these talents adds up to an unbelievable, jaw-dropping, almost indescribable experience. However, I think I've stumbled upon the right analogy here, although please don't assume I mean to undermine its theatricality in any way: KÀ is part live-action, ultra-high production value videogame sequence, part Cirque du soleil show, part martial arts.

To make my point, here is the state-of-the-art in camera-oriented videogames Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii™:

Now picture something along these lines, right in front of you, live with human beings, scaled to the size of a good-sized hotel. (Ok, not a giant orb spinning but I wouldn't put it past these guys to do something like that next time.) A giant spinning rectangular plane. Two, actually, both acting as stages so capable of transforming they might as well be virtual.

In a sense, KÀ really is part videogame with its use of real-time, tracked projected animations. The larger of the two stages in KÀ is not limited to physical texture, thanks to a clever use of computer vision and projection techniques. It becomes a cliff, or the dark sea with bubbles following a diving actor. Through the combination of this and flying rigs, the stage becomes more like the eye of the camera, with moves previously reserved for Film and now videogames.

Will this make good theatre? Or just another technological exercise like the motion captured, virtual camera move-fests of recent Zemeckis films like The Polar Express and Beowulf? We will see.

Coming soon, I'll try to go into more detail about how this technology works and how it will change live theatre.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Japanese Bunraku Returns!

Bunraku performers and fans gather after some late night Japanese beer following the show.

On Friday some friends and I went to see an authentic Japanese Bunraku theatre performance in Little Tokyo. Apparently, this is the first time in 20 years that an official Japanese troupe has toured in the U.S. I was happy to see it was a full house and not just puppeteers, although my friend Sam had rallied a lot of us puppeteers and got us a discount. He also acted as translator after the show when two of the performers and a few fans went out for drinks afterwards.

The staging and sets were gorgeous. A huge curtain with silk-like metallic decoration opened to reveal Japanese landscapes including a temple wall, a precipice and the Underworld itself. I particularly liked the use of a real tree, which moved organically. Above the stage, a large screen showing English supertitles. To the right, the narrator and the musicians playing shamisen (guitar-like instruments played with a big wedge pick).

What was the show like? Well, writing about a puppetry performance is a bit futile in my opinion. The whole point is to fall for the magic moment where your mind thinks that there's a living thing on stage, despite the fact that it's actually a doll with three people behind it. One great thing about this show is that the director of the theatre presented and translated a demonstration by the performers, explaining how the puppets work, what the narrator does, what the musicians do to enhance the story. This was brilliant and really made the show itself accessible to everyone. Also, in part of the show, a musician puppet came out playing a shamisen. This puppet's performance matched the music and the fingering of the real musician pretty much exactly! Great attention to detail. (When have you ever seen an animation or a puppet performance of a character playing a musical instrument where the fingering was accurate??)

The troupe and bunraku puppetry itself originate in Osaka, Japan. The government subsidizes the troupe almost entirely. Apparently, it's not especially popular in Osaka itself (indeed, my friends there hadn't even heard of it), but the shows in Tokyo are often sold out.

I asked them (over some Sapporo) how old the stories were and whether new ones were being written. They said that the most recent one was 130 years-old, but the ones considered "classics" are 300 years old. There are some new ones out there they said, but by the way they shook their heads disapprovingly, it was clear these were inferior to the classics.

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posted by Brian at 10:07 AM 0 comments links to this post

Monday, September 24, 2007

More Puppet Up! Live Shows in Los Angeles

As I've blogged about before, Puppet Up! is a live improv show with puppets, produced by the Jim Henson Company. Go see it!

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

An Afternoon with the Mighty Wurlitzer

My posse and I went to El Segundo* to watch the 1920's silent film The Mark of Zorro with live accompaniment provided by a Wurlitzer organist. What a treat! First of all, the organ at the Old Time Music Hall is no ordinary organ -- it's a Mighty Wurlitzer, not unlike the one in the Disney-owned El Capitan Theatre. But this one had extras. Drums! A gong! Bells! All mechanically controlled by the organist and decorated with glow-in-the-dark paint. This Wurlitzer is the largest musical instrument /one-man-band / automaton I've ever seen!

The theatre itself is adorable, with Laurel & Hardy dolls and 1920s architecture. There's a tiny ticket office with a precariously small access passageway. A friendly elderly man offers popcorn and candy for a buck. They host silent films and musical performances regularly. We enjoyed singing along to the authentic-looking pre-show Sing-a-long slides with lyrics to "Ain't She Sweet?" and "I'm in the Mood for Love." (I remember when I was little they used to show older Harvey "Little Audrie" & "Caspar The Friendly Ghost" cartoons on TV with "Follow the Bouncing Ball" sing-a-longs, so I already knew "Aint She Sweet?")

* which turns out to be a nice quiet little neighborhood, not an apocalyptic area next to refineries and an airport as I had previously imagined.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Watch a Finding Nemo: The Musical preview!

Brother Colin wrote in to tell me his buddies Robert Lopez, his wife Kristen, and Michael Morgan worked on the amazing Finding Nemo: The Musical down in Orlando, Florida at Disney's Animal Kingdom themepark.

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posted by Brian at 11:09 PM 0 comments links to this post

Monday, April 02, 2007

Video Projection Technology for Theatre

Interesting New York Times article about how a theatre company is using an old-fashioned technique in new ways for creating special effects in live performance.
The Eyeliner system makes use of an old stage trick called Pepper’s Ghost that by most accounts was first seen onstage in an 1862 production of Charles Dickens’s “Haunted Man,” at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London. John Henry Pepper (1821-1900) is usually credited with discovering the illusion, though an engineer named Henry Dircks was really first to suggest placing an angled piece of plate glass between audience and actors, allowing off-stage objects or people to “appear” reflected on the glass as if they were onstage. When the off-stage lights were turned off, the ghosts seemed to vanish.

With Eyeliner, the unwieldy glass pane is replaced with a lighter, nearly invisible screen invented by Uwe Maass, the managing director of Event Works, a company in Dubai. Another company, Vision4, from Denmark, holds the licensing rights for New York.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Star Wars Trench Sequence as Hand Theatre

Hilarious! I love the Death Star explosion at the end.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Finding Nemo, the MUSICAL?

Brother Colin writes in from Boston:
"Okay, so I know the composers and the star of a theme park show. Big deal. Only the show is at Disney World, and the show is "Finding Nemo."

Try to get your brain around the scale and technical ambition evident in these clips and photos."
Jeez. Live-action Pixar that's not on Ice? Wow.

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posted by Brian at 6:17 PM 1 comments links to this post

Monday, October 11, 2004

What I did this weekend: Got eaten by a 3-story high, singing plant

When my friend Eric Kurland called Tuesday evening to see if I wanted to go see Little Shop of Horrors, I was bummed because I had to work. Grr. So I checked to see about getting tickets for the weekend. SOLD OUT??? There was only one thing to do. Ebay it. Found front row tickets, and for that amount I could have paid for a red light violation. But how many times do you get to be that close to a giant, singing plant in motion?

Of course I needed someone to go with. My usual suspects were out. One was in San Diego. The other said not only was she busy, but that she "just doesn't like singing plants." (She told me about a guy she knew who has a similar problem, with any singing inanimate objects! Whoa! I have dubbed his condition "anthropomorphophobia.") Then I tried my lesbian friend ("I'd love to go, but I have a birthday party that I don't really want to go to, but they live right across from me and I can't get out of it.") Desperate, I tried a friend's younger sister whom I hadn't talked to in a year! "OH! I'D LOVE TO GO" she said "BUT I HAVE TO WORK!!" But she offered to let me into Disneyland sometime at least. *sigh* On to the guy friends. I have one that I knew right away would hate it. Another had a previous engagement. Another had a poker game. Then, amazingly, I got a call from a friend who's been working at Michael Curry Productions (the guy who made the puppets and set for The Lion King) who was in town for a business trip over the weekend. Told him I had tickets. "Oh I'd LOVE to go. But there's a chance I have to do a meeting with Disney at 8" And of course, he did have a meeting.

So I was stuck seeing it myself. The plan was to sell off the other ticket, but I got lost and was about 20 minutes late (!). Arrrrgh. Driving to that theatre if you don't do it right is like trying to swim up a waterfall. But I caught my favorite numbers at least. Besides the plant, my favorite performer was actually in the female chorus, named Yasemeen Steilman. Oh my. So adorable. Yes, being in the front row has its advantages.

Incidentally, it's moments like these where I can't stand copyright law, because I ought to have been able to take a photo from that distance (sans flash) and show you my experience. How can I possibly communicate to you the magnitude of the plant, which during the final act, extrudes up and out over the audience, right over my head and looking like it would arch down and bite my head off?

Ah well. Your imagination will have to suffice.

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posted by Brian at 5:03 PM 0 comments links to this post