As co-artistic directors and founders of Portland-based Imago Theater, Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad had a motto: If it’s too complex, don’t do it. That motto had to go out of the window when they began creating La Belle: Life in the world of the Automaton. After a 3.5 year development process that involved more than 40 people, including 3 painters, 5-8 fabricators, 2 actors, 2 puppeteers, a mechanical engineer, sound designer, and original music by more than 5 artists, Imago Theater is finally bringing this eye- and ear-dazzling new production to Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley this November.
“It was hard to conceptualize what we were trying to do,” remembers Mouawad. La Belle combines many kinds of theater, including shadow theater, puppetry, and masked theater, with original music and songs to tell a story that Mouawad likes to describe as “a love story inside a love story that takes place in a ship.” The great fires in the belly of the steamship are stoked by the aptly named character Sam Stoker, played by Jim Vadala. A heavy storm drives one of the ship’s passengers, Lady Rose, played by Justine Davis, down into the engine room where she discovers that Sam has built an array of ingenious automata to tell the story of La belle et la bête, or beauty and the beast. Lady Rose gradually gets swept into helping him tell the story, and “lines begin to blur between Sam Stoker and Lady Rose, and the story of beauty and the beast,” Mouawad explains. At first glimpse, Lady Rose is “very prim and proper, and you aren’t sure if she’ll get into the world that Sam has created,” says Davis of her character. At its heart, it’s a very simple love story, but with magic in everything, and in the end “she’s able to see beyond the grime and dirt” of Sam Stoker’s boiler room.
Both Mouawad and Triffle trained at the school of Jacque Lecoq in Paris, famous for its unique teaching methods in acting, physical theater, and mime, and its influence comes through strongly in their work in Imago Theater. Actress Justine Davis, who performs not only the role of Lady Rose/Belle but the voices of at least five puppets, says that the audition process for La Belle “was probably the most intense audition I’d ever done. Part of it was because the show is so integrated in what they need their actors to do. It involves miming, clowning, some dance, I also had to sing, you’re also the voices of all other characters, while playing your human characters.” Both Davis and Vadala had to complete a series of training workshops led by Triffle and Mouawad on mime, puppetry, and movement in preparation for La Belle.
“A lot of the script development that made the show work took place in the last two weeks after three years of work, so there are some pleasant surprises that happen along the way.”
Davis enjoyed being part of a new work, and one of the biggest challenges (aside from playing so many characters) was that the show was constantly changing. “There were at least eight different endings that we had and we even changed the ending two weeks before opening the show.” Mouawad believes that always being open to new and better ideas throughout the production process is crucial. “A lot of the script development that made the show work took place in the last two weeks after three years of work, so there are some pleasant surprises that happen along the way,” he explains. The most important thing is “to just go hour by hour and just take a deep breath. Otherwise it just starts to overwhelm you.”
“I sculpted 90 percent of heads and hands that are the puppets,” says Mouawad. “Carol designed all of the costumes. We both collaborated on the design of set and all the different aspects of the set.”
In La Belle, the puppets look and perform like real automatons, and the puppeteers need to be completely concealed. The chance to build these pseudo-automatons and operate them opposite live actors was a challenge that La Belle’s lead puppet fabricator and operator Lance Woolen was not going to pass up. Woolen, who built his first puppet at eight years old when he picked up a rubber pterodactyl in a gift shop and turned it into a marionette, says that “this show was very much a departure from most of the work that I’ve done.” That work includes stage puppetry, TV, and even stop-motion puppets for films like Coraline (2009), Paranorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014). Figuring out “how to operate a puppet four feet away from us via cables and rods and things … that was the biggest challenge, developing those mechanical constructs,” says Woolen.
“Working with Jerry and Carol is a very organic process. We didn’t have hard and fast designs for the puppets…. More than once we would build a prototype that would do a certain thing and Jerry would look at it and think about it and say, it doesn’t quite do what I want, can we do this or that. We’d kick it around and build a new thing and bring it back and refine from there.”
The live performance is also uniquely difficult for both puppeteers and actors. “By the end of the show I will probably have had my hands on 12–14 puppets all together,” explains Woolen. “And more often than not it takes two people to operate a single puppet, or we’ll be operating multiple puppets at a time.
“There’s something about hitting your marks with a puppet, and when you’re in sync with a performer doing the lines,” says Woolen. “The puppets appear to be automatons, appear to be doing their own performance, but hitting the marks and being in perfect sync with the performer who is doing the other part of the character, making this character live, that is a special kind of synchronicity and it really is electric for the performer.
“Just because you create something complex, doesn’t mean it’s going to compete with something as simple as a piece of cloth falling on the ground. Theater is a mystery, what works and what doesn’t.” Well, whatever Imago Theater is doing works.