Sculpting a Story

One of the most common questions from audiences after seeing Cabinets of Kismet is “Where did you get the idea for the story?” While I’ve talked a little about Shaun Tan before on this blog, I’m going to try and outline the process of creating the story for this play, because it was a rather unusual journey.

Genna and Amie with Lightbulb Head. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Genna and Amie with Lightbulb Head.             Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The initial seed of the story came from conversations between Genna, Lisi, Nikki and myself about Tan’s work. We all read various books and stories by him and came to the conclusion that the themes we were most interested in exploring were those of alienation and outsider status, as well as the journey of accepting change and dealing with fear. We each created prototype puppets with various objects and paper and somewhere along the line, I think I came up with the initial idea of having a character who escaped from one world into a very different other one. We called him Kismet and based his look on a magnifying glass photo holder with alligator clips that Lisi had.

Most of the puppets were created before the specific moments of the story, which is the reverse of how we usually work. Once we had a cast of puppeteers, we ended up doing a few sessions of improvisation with the object characters, to figure out what each could do best, and how they could express various emotions and states of being. Then our director Carmen Wong put those various segments in order or arranged them on the set and we worked out the timing so that everyone had a sequence. We ended up each taking 2-3 principal characters, although we also switch off a lot to make things easier. With object puppets like this, it doesn’t work as well to say “Be sad” because the features of the puppets don’t change. They have to move or perform an action to express that sadness, and that of course is different for each object. Breaking down all the emotions and reactions of each character into tiny specific actions for the puppets was a long and very time-consuming process.

Kismet escaping across the drawers. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Kismet escaping across the drawers.                  Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In the end, I think we probably could have benefited from having more audience input. Because of scheduling and various cast changes, we didn’t have a chance to ask people to come and give feedback during rehearsals and I think that would have been very helpful. Object world was much intentionally much busier than Paper world, and therefore a little harder to follow (especially if you came in late). Just for fun, here is an excerpt of a ‘script’ written by puppeteer Amie Root, detailing her movements just before the destruction of Object world. I think it gives a good sense of our approach to our movements and characters.

When Genna perches over Cecilia, enter with Demon Bird to terrorize Mophead. Fly off SL around the garage unit and hover by the theater unit until Amy is set for handoff of bird. IMMEDIATELY pull swirl dancer from her drawer behind theater unit. Quietly as possible, unwrap the jingle chain, set her and the telephone cord on top. QUICKLY strike the jingle chain. IMMEDIATELY go to nurse at garage unit and enter when Kismet calls. Freak out over zoom. Hand off to Genna.