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Manipulating Life

Posted on September 21, 2012 in Holly Down In Heaven


by Vanessa Strickland (@v_strickland), "Dr. McNuthin" and puppeteer in Holly Down In Heaven
Part 2 in a series of blog posts about the production process for the world premiere of Holly Down In Heaven
When I walked into the first read for Holly Down in Heaven, Mandy Yu, our ASM, introduced me to Carol Channing! She was exactly as I imagined her:
Small, quiet, dressed head to toe in red, filled with stuffing and a flawless plastic complexion.
I flipped.
I’m pretty much a certified puppet-nerd. Whether I see them in commercials, films, on the street, or a stranger tapping a pencil, I hone in. There’s something about believing an inanimate object is alive that I feel is rooted in childhood. Believing my toys were autonomous while I wasn’t looking was something I took seriously as a kid. I would be tuck them in at night, untuck them in the morning and strategically choose playmates and toys for them before I left for the day so they would have fun and occupy themselves while I was at school. I grew out of that phase, but the fascination of toys and play in relation to acting is still very present.

Luke mentioned a rehearsal we had during our first week together as a cast. We took some time to explore playing with the dolls that had been amassed for Holly’s bedroom. Lying about the room were Cabbage Patch Kids, Bratz, vintage Japanese dolls, a Dutch doll, an American Indian doll, and even a Barbie Styling Head. Very quickly our initial tentative movements with these dolls grew into full-on playtime. Everyone had built, as Luke mentioned, “engaging characters” for their dolls of choice, and as playwright Kara Lee Corthron noticed, all characterizations remained consistent, even if the dolls changed to another actor’s hands.
Playing with those toys combined two distinct experiences for me: (1) my professional-actor-brain jumped into improvisational scenework mode and the rules therein; knowing when to speak, when to listen, figuring out how to contribute and when to let the scene play itself out; and (2) it brought me back to a time when afternoons didn’t end and there were no rules of play, everyone’s stories were valid and because of that, they sometimes collided, went off on tangents, came together beautifully, or fell apart entirely because of fussy or bossy playmates. It was really quite incredible to make this discovery in rehearsal, and when I did, I felt completely able to give myself over to these toys and our playing with them.
That’s the kind of commitment and abandon I feel when bringing puppets (or even everyday objects) to life. As an actor, one aspires to live truthfully onstage, and it’s the same for puppets, but you’re
channeling that life into a mask, a marionette, a piece of paper, an umbrella, or a three-foot Carol
Channing. Holly’s dolls want to live. They want to be loved and coddled and played with, and I think that’s something we can all identify with. Companionship and feeling alive.
Funny that my puppetry training originated in productions where the major theme was death.
I find it all fascinating, and truly freeing. Like I said, I’m a puppet-nerd.
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