Puppeteer Eric Wright and The Little Shop of Horrors
In a season where actors are being asked to perform feats of increasing strength, the most physical performance of the year isn’t happening on Broadway. At Off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre, puppeteer Eric Wright and his cast mates at Little Shop of Horrors are bringing to life the creepy, kookiest thing on New York City stages this winter.
Little Shop of Horrors tells the story of a forgotten flower shop brought back to life when a man-eating plant takes residence inside of it. Throughout the performance, four different puppets are used to represent the plant, known as Audrey II. While the smallest is able to fit on a desk, its final incarnation is large enough to fill the majority of the stage at the Westside Theatre.
One of the actors portraying Audrey II is Eric Wright, an accomplished actor with more than a decade of puppeteering experience. As one of the co-creators of Puppet Kitchen, Wright and his collaborators established the company as a central hub for puppetry in New York City, offering design, fabrication, performance, direction, and workshops for productions all over the world.
In addition to Wright’s work with Puppet Kitchen, he has also puppeteered at some of New York’s most vulnerable venues. While previous onstage credits include Madame Butterfly (Metropolitan Opera), The Firebird (City Center) and Alice in Wonderland (New York City Opera), this production marks Wright’s first time working on Little Shop of Horrors.
“As a puppet designer myself, I’ve always admired the myriad versions of Audrey IIs that are produced around the country,” says Wright. “I loved being able to see how ours were made literally from the inside out.”
During every performance, Wright manipulates two or three of the show’s four puppets. His first role is playing the smallest incarnation of Audrey II (called “Pod 1”) by hiding under a desk to stealthily manipulate the plant. Wright and his cast mate Teddy Yudain trade off who manipulates Pod 3 and who pilots Pod 4 each performance.
While trading off puppeteering duties allows the performers to use and rest different muscles, each track also has its challenges. Since Pod 4 needs two people to operate, whomever was in Pod 3 also assists on the boom of Pod 4 (manipulating the counterweight to aid the Pilot’s performance). “Pod 3 feels like a sprint, and Pod 4 feels like a long-distance haul,” reveals Wright.
In order to keep their bodies in shape for such physically demanding performances, Wright and his cast mates work with a physical therapist who created a set of “puppeteer warm-ups”. Prior to each performance, they spend considerable time stretching through neck, hands, and forearms, but also quite a bit of core exercises and leg warm ups.
While the four pods are variations of the same character, manipulating each of the four puppets comes with their own physical challenges. “Pod 3 really demands an ability to explode into a full-body performance after sitting perfectly still for a few songs,” says Wright.” “Pod 4 requires strength and control of a puppet that weighs at least twice as much as I do!”
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Published in collaboration with The Ensemblist
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