re-visiting the little shop part three: designing the pot-plant

Above: a suitable setting for a monster. Audrey II awaits down that sinister hole at the front of the stage! (Ray Handy as Mushnik, Michael Finesilver as Seymour and Samantha Shaw as Audrey.)

The carnivorous Audrey II of the original production of Little Sop of Horrors (and of the subsequent transfers to Broadway and the West End) had been a puppet designed to match the campy tone of the musical. It had a ‘Muppet Show’ quality to it that entirely suited the director’s and the designer’s vision, a giant avocado pear-shaped pod sculpted from a lightweight material and finished in green fabric textured with warts. The plant was basically just a big head split in two so that the gaping maw could be made to lip-synch dialogue and songs and open wide enough to swallow various members of the cast. When I saw the production in London the puppet was expertly operated and had a lot of character. Being a plant, it stayed put in one part of the stage, which meant locomotion wasn’t an issue. The pod slipped over the puppeteer who operated it from within. The puppeteer’s legs were clad in dark tights and disappeared in the shadows beneath the plant. There was some arrangement of mesh inside the maw that hid the puppeteer from view while allowing him/her to see. The puppet-plant was well designed had plenty of character when combined with the voice, performed by an off-stage actor.

For the Theatr Clwyd Little Shop I had a notion to create plant that would be at one with the dark, Expressionist set, and would have the potential to be more nuanced in its performance. Something more organic than the simplified cartoon-like carnivore of the original show. (No criticism intended here. I think the creative teamwork on the original show was inspiring.) And more scary!  For our monster I envisioned whip-like brambles and twiggy extrusions growing from its back, making it a creature well-camouflaged should it escape into the wild to lurk in dank leaf litter and the noisome and overgrown vacant lots of inner cities.

Moreover, I’d set my heart on making the moment when the plant first eats a living person in full view of the audience, a tad more shocking and visceral. In the London production ‘Twoey’ had mesmerised it’s first victim into taking a look inside its opened jaws before clamping them shut and chomping noisily as the actor’s feet vanished down its throat. Watching closely I figured that the actor had either exited via a trap-door under the plant, or simply slipped away under cover of the shadows in the dimmed lighting state. The moment had been theatrically effective, but as with most stage-trickery, once you’d worked out how it was done it was less so the second time around. I thought that I’d attempt something rather more ambitious.

My concept drawing for the adult Audrey II

Our Twoey would have legs that would only appear part way into the show, unfolding from under its bulk. I had the image of Baba Yaga’s home in mind, the hut that runs around on chicken’s legs. While it wasn’t perhaps plausible to have Twoey running around (something I think I could devise now, but back then the materials and technology were limited) I wanted the plant to perform a limited series of moves that would confound the eye of the sharpest observer. Twoey would appear to crouch like a baby chick, opening its jaws wide in an ‘entreaty’ position. Once the victim had moved to within striking distances, the puppet would snap its jaws shut on its ‘meal’, chew furiously and noisily for a couple of seconds and then rise up on the powerful legs, throw it’s head back and swallow.  It would be like a monstrous baby bird gulping down too-large chunks of meat. Afterwards it would do a little hopping-from-foot-to-foot dance of delight before looking around furtively and hunkering back down, satiated. To aid this illusion there would be a trap-door beneath the puppet through which the ‘meal’ would exit while Twoey was in crouch position chewing. When the trap had closed, then the plant would swiftly rise up on its legs. The trick would have to be perfectly executed with elegance and speed if the violence and horror were to be captured with the comic timing intact. A sight gag is like music. You can’t miss a beat.

The creature is first seen as a small pot plant standing on a shelf, and ours was a glove puppet manipulated from beneath a desk specially built like a magician’s trick table (the kind that spangled ladies get sawn in half on) giving the illusion that there wasn’t anywhere for the operator to hide.

Here the puppet builder Bill Talbot shows the un-painted first-stage Twoey.

Above: first-stage Twoey painted. There was an exterior skin that at a dramatic moment in the production peeled back by itself revealing the baby carnivore within. In the photograph the segments of this outer layer are hanging down. (There was a larger second-stage puppet that was carried around like a pet pig, but I have no workshop photograph of  it.)

Above: the first-stage Twoey in performance. The plant-creature has just snapped at Seymour, drawing blood for the first time… and liking it!

Above: puppeteer Marie Phillips standing in front of a life-sized scaled-up drawing of the third-stage ‘adult’ Twoey puppet. Marie was an endlessly inventive performer on Little Shop. She invested our giant hunk of foam rubber and scrim with astonishing liveliness, guile and malice. Moreover she went through much discomfort doing so, because large-scale puppetry like this is physically exhausting and often dangerous work.

Above: the cane framework for the stage-three puppet takes shape.

Above: the framework covered with muscles and textured skin. The third-stage creature had rudimentary hands, great three-talon mitts that the puppeteer could wriggle.

Above: the third-stage puppet fully modelled but unpainted. The first set of legs only appeared once the plant had started to get out of control, and the second pair later, giving the impression that the creature was rapidly evolving to be mobile and thus even more lethal. (I had a sort of shark-like crab/louse in mind.) The legs were operated by off-stage puppeteers holding long control rods. The feet were spring-jointed to give them flex and stretch. Chief puppeteer Marie was harnessed into the creature, and could bear its weight for limited periods when it was in ‘leg-mode’. (The puppet was supported in repose by a metal frame-work that had gears to carry it through the stages from crouch to fully erect. Marie could lift the puppet free  from the geared frame to operate it unaided, but the support was useful to give her rest periods and to get it up and down smoothly.) She worked the jaws, lip-synching the dialogue and songs, and also the cable-controls that enabled the creature to snarl and twitch its snout when scenting the air for prey. (Having only wrinkles where eyes would normally be, I wanted Twoey to be heavily reliant on scent, snout permanently twitching and alert.) Marie’s legs were costumed to match the tendrils under the plant, and the lighting completed the illusion of rendering her invisible.

Above: production photograph. Sam Shaw as Audrey and Michael Finesilver as Seymour. Audrey II (Twoey) puppeteered by Marie Phillips with off-stage voice supplied by Paul Kissaun, lurks in the shadows awaiting the next meal!

16 thoughts on “re-visiting the little shop part three: designing the pot-plant

  1. I know I’m a bit late to the party, but I have to wonder: how did you decide on the contrast between Alan Menken’s upbeat 60’s pop pastiche score and your dread-filled German Expressionist vision? Do you feel like it worked?
    The claws and legs, by the way, were a clever way to get around the plant’s typical increase in size between acts.

    • Hello Joey. I love the musical. But it frequently descends too much into pastiche, leaving a distinctly chill and hollow feeling when the tone is not modified by belief in and concern for the characters. Beyond the music, I don’t see it as ‘upbeat’. After all, some pretty terrible things happen in the course of it, including the death of the heroine. I felt that by being quite serious about our approach, while we might lose the cheaper laughs, we’d gain much more audience involvement by emphasising the hopes of Seymour and Audrey, and their essential sweetness. They’re innocents in a cruel and deceitful world. The script encourages us to laugh at Audrey, tottering around in too-high-heels with her blackened eye and relentless optimism, though it’s horrible to see her bullied and beaten by the ghastly Orin. So I wanted the audience to laugh first, but then be ashamed, because she was so damaged by life.

      Did it work? The audiences loved it, and many who saw it came repeatedly during the run. The humour became bitter-sweet and moving, because the characters were earnest and believable. If you can make the audience care enough for them, then everything goes like a dream. There needs to be truth in the performances, and this is a musical that frequently suffers from a lack of that quality.

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    • That would be wise. You can never be quite sure what you’ve brought home from the garden centre with you! The label may say spider-plant, but that fast-growing fellow in the corner doesn’t look like any kind of spider-plant I’ve ever seen! Are those legs?

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