‘Lula Del Ray;’ Img. credit: Jerry Shulman
How do you develop characters, and express them emotionally without actual expression? I noticed, for example, how important the appended facial profiles were for the two main characters. Is working with the actors who use their bodies as shadow puppets a totally separate process from working with the actual shadow puppets?
Acting in live action is a lot like puppeting yourself. The puppets are usually designed to do one or two specific actions, like look up, or blink an eyelash — that’s it. You have to do that with yourself when acting in silhouette in that it is important to separate your actions and do one thing at a time. If you try and do too much at once it gets muddled and the meaning is lost. Breath is also really important. It’s a subtle thing but reads really clearly in the medium. For example, Lula sighs a lot because she is young and gets frustrated at her mom all the time. When [co-artistic director] Sarah Fornace was developing the character of Lula she sighed in the scenes with her mother, and we picked up on it and then the puppets were sighing, too. That became a strong trait of the character. Breath helps put the storytelling into the body of the performer. When you’re wearing a mask you no longer have your face to express feeling or emotion, so you have to put it in your body. We use gesture in a way that is not like pantomime — it’s more about an emotion and intention distilled into single gestures, like the tilt of a head, or the position of your shoulders, that indicate what you are trying to express without using words.
How long does it take to get the language of “manual filmmaking” like this into your brain? From my experience with overhead projectors, I know that even remembering what’ll make things bigger versus smaller, go upside down or right-side up, was such an oddly acquired skill. Is there a particular training workshop new performers go through?
Overhead projector puppetry definitely uses certain brain muscles you have to develop. For example, everything you are looking at on the screen as you puppet is upside down and backwards. When we hold auditions they are really workshops where we are teaching you the medium to see how you pick it up and to see if you like it. It can be pretty unforgiving, as a performer. One tiny bump of a puppet on the overhead is blown up really big and feels very obvious on the screen. You have to get really good about letting go of mistakes and moving on. Otherwise you will never get through the show; it moves so fast you have to stay really focused the whole time and there is no time to stop and think about what you just did. It’s a team sport. Everyone is working together to create each scene and transition from one image to the next. When the show is really going it feels like a well-oiled machine as each person has a specific job and task to accomplish in relationship to someone else.
‘Lula Del Ray’; Img. credit: Jerry Shulman
I love the decision to make the music almost lyric-less, itself rendered as a faded memory, with voices never quite forming real phrases. At what point did your musical vision match up with that of the piece? How did you collectively come to a decision about whether the music would be more insinuating than lyrical?
The music holds a lot of the emotional weigh of the storytelling in Lula Del Ray. The cello is often externalizing what is happening with a character internally and portrays a lot of Lula’s unspoken feelings. It also helps the audience know the emotional tone of the scenes. Since we don’t use dialogue in the show we wanted to be very specific about what words the audience does hear.
The story you chose is very simple, and you allow the complexity to come from visuals and music. Have you ever toyed with more convoluted narratives, or do you think the only way to make this type of storytelling work is narrative simplicity?
Lula Del Ray is one of the first features we ever made. Its tone is much more meditative than some of our other shows. One of our newest feature length works, Mementos Mori, tells an interwoven narrative featuring four protagonists whose stories all intersect. That show features seven overhead projectors and two small screens we live feed to the large cinema size “main screen.” So that show is pretty complicated. Each show we make is a different genre of cinema and has different pacing requirements. That being said, as a medium, shadow puppetry is really good at being floaty and dreamy. And slow. It took us several years to finally feel like we had control of the pacing and could make it do what we wanted. Most of the time. There are still a lot of limitations. The medium is constricting but we find it makes us get to the essence of storytelling in that we are working with a language of metaphor and gesture. We have to really think about each shot and transition because we are literally building it by hand from the puppet to the background to the hands that manipulate it.
The Under the Radar festival runs at the Public Theater through January 15.