The Building of a Puppet

Written by Terry Lobb - September 2017

This has been an amazing couple of months working with my ‘other family’ from Amdram. A creative team who when shows are presented we come together and nut things out and say 'YES! We can do this and we start it all over again. And why? Because we have an obsession with the theatre. (Some may say passion but it goes way beyond that). It can be hard grind taking a lot of energy with long hours and all to help create ‘the vision’ that whoever is directing the show can see. But we do it, we pull together and create something for others to enjoy.

And at the end of a show, we pull everything apart, pack up our set and we all go through that state of a kind of loss, a loss of what to do with our evenings and early mornings, a loss of not having our creative team around us and a loss of that incredible energy that you feel when things are coming together and it is opening night and 'SHOW TIME. So our latest project that I was involved in was Audrey II, Limited edition 4, that odd looking thing who lived in my garage and who started her working life on the stage of Amdram Whanganui.

Colin Hedivan directed Little Shop of Horrors and we had to create his vision. All I can actually remember from our initial meeting was ‘I want her to fill the stage’. And fill the stage she did, she was big, bold, beautifully ugly, persuasive and heartless. At times she glowed under the lights and her natural beauty shone through and then the light would change and her evil, sinister side was revealed. Oh and did I mention she is a puppet? Yes, in order to operate her she had a Puppeteer inside her, Phil Portland, manipulating her every movement and the voice, Dylan Peterson, deep, endearing and forceful especially when she is hungry.

FEED ME! The initial creative team was Kirk Nicholls, Geoff Campbell, Ian Jones and myself, sitting in Kirk's creative space, pencil and paper in hand and sketching. Kirk put together her ply jaw, the solid construction that we were to work with. Hence Audrey II, Limited Edition 4 was born and she moved into my shed, along with her Dads - Kirk, Geoff and Ian.

Well, not really, they had visitation rights!

From there we started to shape her. First the metal straps that formed her shape then No. 8 wire woven through to make the framework for the mesh wire. Unfortunately I don’t weld so this was mainly Kirk, Geoff and Ian and Willy Pelzer. But once the frame work was in place I could fix the wire netting which created the foundation for the mattress foam. We mounted her on a pole and she worked from a ball pivot so we could get full movement out of her. Her jaw was hinged so we could get an open shut action not unlike a pair of scissors.

We had one issue and that was how to make the bottom jaw move in the action of chewing. The way we had her weighted moved the top which was the wrong action. After rather a sleepless night I got up early one morning and screwed long bits of timber to the bottom jaw and weighted with window weights. This seemed to do the trick and when Geoff arrived he bolted metal straps in place of the timber. This was later replaced by box section as the weights we too heavy for the strapping. Geoff and Ian had welded hand grips into the top and these were to operate the top section with the help of counter weights on the back. This was later changed to a seat that the Puppeteer sat on to control the upper portion and a bar to bar to control the lips and the bottom jaw. At one stage during the show the bottom plate had started to move under the weight so Willy had to redo the plate and pole with a much heavier section. It was a learning curve about weight ratio and ease of movement, but the end result came up trumps.

Geoff Campbell was the inspiration behind her lips moving. He welded hinges to the front bar and ran a cable through with a hand piece attached. Kirk and Willy later extended them because we realized we hadn’t taken into consideration the foam layer. Her lips were impressive!

A visit to the Theatre:

This process was gluing foam mattress to her so that it could later be carved. It was a contact glue so the inside and outside of her needed to be covered. She was then shaped which meant Kirk and I carving parts of the foam off and adding other bits to get a better shape. She was starting to look beautiful! She was also strengthened with ply so that when she ate people they didn’t go through the bottom of her. This took me several attempts because I got it wrong the first time and she was too light.

Then came the shaping of her mouth! Because we had concentrated on her body/head shape we had a great gaping hole that needed attention. At this stage we couldn’t do any more welding because of the foam, so Kirk used a technique he had used while working on the films. It consisted of a stronger glue, gauze and No.8 wire and mesh. Where would we be without our No. 8 wire? Basically the roof of the mouth was lowered and glued in place then I put a thin layer of the topper bed foam on it so that it would give the roof of the mouth texture. The teeth were carved and glued into place.

Once the shaping was finished, warts and veins in place she was then coated in gauze and painted to form a canvas like finish that would take the final paint job. This is a very messy process and I had a great team of people who enjoyed messing about. Lyn Lynne, Mary and Graham Dack, Kirk, Kieran Spence and I white washed Audrey. And then she was ready to be shipped to Amdram for finishing. (Sob).

She was finished side stage and when I say finished, she was in a raw state, rather naked and white. She needed colour, definition, a neck/stem, tongue, fabric in her mouth so victims could slide easily through her, an epiglottitis, yellowing teeth, purple lips, a cylix, and a flower box for her roots to hang over. I first painted Treefrog Green, which was a stunning lime green colour. Her warts were bright yellow with orange and pink rings at the base as a good contrast against the green.

The colours of Audrey II - on my jeans, in a tub and on her

Her cylix was cut from light weight foam, a wire attached through the centre so we could curve them and then painted and veined. Andrea McLeod did the finishing on her cylix. The bulbous part of the bud I wanted coloured in aubergine purples as this needed to portray the mature Audrey as in her younger shapes she was somewhat more delicate in colour and now she had matured into an adult. Veins were coloured by strokes of hot pink, orange, purple and deep green. I wanted the colours to pop under the lights.

Her lips were created by gluing in place purple crushed velvet the same fabric was used as the under part of her mouth so that people could slide through her. And her tongue was purple satin filled to Dacron to give it volume.

With her cylix in place, the body painted and fabric glued on the next stage was finishing her neck and the skirt around her to hide the Puppeteer and each cast member that slid through her. Some of it would be hidden behind the flower pot, roots and leaves. I cut the shapes required and painted them in water based paint, the same as I had used for her body. The fabric then became canvas like and although it was more difficult to work with as it didn’t have as much give but it worked well. Yvonne Jones made the roots for the flower pot and leaves which when placed gave the impression they were coming out of the pot. She was complete. She was now ready to start her working life!

Audrey and her second victim!

Opening night and who could resist a photo opportunity with the Lovely Audrey II.

From left – Michele Cantell, Dianne Blair, myself, Audrey II, Bronwyn Hughes, Andrea McLeod and Laura Cleveland on the set of Amdram Theatre’s Little Shop of Horrors.

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