“The movie has nothing to do with the book,” says puppet designer Brian Hull about the 2011 Jim Carrey version of Richard & Florence Atwater’s 1938 book, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” “The movie is just Carrey doing his thing in contemporary New York, which is different from this period piece, which is retro and a throwback to old Hollywood magic.”
Hull, the manager of Wishing Chair Productions at the Nashville Public Library, is talking about the new Nashville Children’s Theatre (NCT) musical production of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” for which he designed all the puppets. The show opens for a long run on Thursday, October 26.
The musical, directed and choreographed by NCT artistic director Ernie Nolan, includes thirteen puppets in all, two 32” adults puppets, Captain Cook and Greta, ten 10” baby penguins and one seal, all of them first designed by Hull and then crafted with the assistance of NCT Assistant Technical Director/Properties Master/Scenic Artist Rachael Silverman. While Geoff Davin and Erin Parker, both in their NCT debuts, will take on the human roles of Mr. and Mrs. Popper, respectively, and Shawn Knight and Corinne Bupp will be the puppeteers of Cook and Greta (among other roles) it’s up to Nashville stage veterans Galen Fott and Rona Carter to give life to the baby penguins and a half-dozen other characters.
“The first consideration, with two lead penguins and ten baby penguins and a seal, is how to get the two performers to work on their roles at the same time they have five penguins each,” says Hull. “It’s a bit of challenge to figure out how to do that and make it work with that size cast, but I think we had a strong idea. After a number of conversations with Ernie, I started doing some sketches until he was happy and that’s what we built.”
Making the Puppets Last
Once he got started, Hull had a second consideration: how to make the puppets last. Mr. Popper’s Penguins” runs through December 3, which is sure to put some wear and tear on the penguins.
“I tried to make the puppets indestructible,” Hull says. “That’s the trick and reality of dealing with puppets. You see “The Lion King” and there are three people on staff whose main job to fix the puppets after every show. So I tried to design the puppets so that they are unbreakable without them being too solid or unmovable or heavy, though they do have some weight to them.
The adult penguins’ heads are cast in unbreakable plastic and covered in felt, so they have a real skull and sturdy frame. The babies are bean bag puppets affixed with a bobble head.
“We created a bobblehead out of an old wooden clothespin,” says Hull, “epoxied to a spring inside the skull that’s also cast in plastic. So they are always in motion. You pick them up and they are moving.”
For Silverman, who is now in her third season at NCT – she was previously in the Scenic Art Department at Julliard and a charge artist at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival – working with puppets was a completely new experience.
“It was really one of those classic mentor/mentee situations,” she says. “Brian works so much in his head, but I feel we were a great pair. I was able to discern what he was thinking and put it into action and pick up quickly what he was telling me to do. I learned mold-making and casting, and how doing this manipulates that. Figuring out the mechanics of it was fascinating.”
“Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” with a book by Robert Kauzlaric and music and lyrics by George Howe, tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Popper, he a house painter with no work and aspirations of travelling to the Artic; she scraping by to put food on the table. But then a penguin named Captain Cook shows up, followed by a female penguin named Greta. Soon there’s a snowdrift in the living room and ten baby penguins waddling around. What can the Poppers do but take the show on the road?
“It’s a real happy-go-lucky, joyful experience,” says Silverman. “It’s a vaudevillian show with penguins. “
“Mr. Popper’s Penguins” runs from October 26 – December 3 at The Nashville Children’s Theatre. For tickets, along with Parent Tips, visit the Nashville Children’s Theatre web site.