The first thing I noticed after meeting puppet designer James Wojtal was the pair of life-sized pink legs sticking out of the box he was carrying. That was not what I expected to see.
That's not to say that the legs looked realistically human -- they were made of plush fabric, after all -- but they were much bigger than what I'd imagined when I thought of the word "puppet." Wojtal called them humanettes, a play on the word marionette, meant to describe something between a full-fledged mascot costume and the hand-held puppets you probably played with as a child. Humanettes are worn by the actors kind of like an apron. The easiest way to describe it is just to show you how it's done.
Watching the puppets in action, even in the bare-bones rehearsal room at Houston Grand Opera, is a kind of magical experience. Wojtal is so deft with them that it's easy to suspend one's disbelief. And that's exactly the idea, according to HGO's touring and ensembles manager Kade Smith.
HGO has included children's performance as part of its Opera To Go! program for a few years now. Initially the singers were dressed in costumes, but Smith said he could tell the children were not really connecting with the characters.
So he looked to the internet with the idea of turning the 45-minute operas, performed at elementary schools throughout Houston, into puppet shows. That's where he found Wojtal's website, which lists his work with Sesame Street and Bear and the Big Blue House, as well as adult fare like Avenue Q and Crank Yankers. The two men exchanged ideas and sketches, and soon Wojtal was hand-sewing puppets for HGO's adapted production of The Princess and The Pea. Wojtal is in Houston to deliver the puppets and teach the singers how to manipulate them realistically.
"It's its own challenge just to make them come to life," he said. "But now they have to sing opera too."
Adapting Hans Christian Andersen's one-page short story into a 45-minute opera for kids was a challenge as well.
"Before they see the opera, many of the boys--because it's about a princess--don't want to see it," Smith said. "We actually create the operas so they appeal to boys and girls." Thus the introduction of the ogre and dragon, puppets built by Wojtal. There are also two imposter princesses, giving the plot a bit more complexity. Music for the opera was composed by Mary Carol Warwick, a Houstonian and University of Houston alumna.
"We had to be careful not to make the characters too scary," Smith said. "Oftentimes, the second graders would run away from the characters. The orge, he has the perfect mix of goofiness and he can threaten, but he's not menacing."
Wojtal came into puppet-making almost by accident. The oldest of five kids, his mother taught him to sew at the age of four, which led to a lifelong fascinating with making art, models and drawings. His puppets are meticulously hand-sewn, including an adorable hand-held rat puppet he said he threw together "on the bus."
He talked his way into a high school AP art class and studied illustration in college, even though he initially wanted to become a paleontologist. One year he interned for a marionette theater in Central Park. That led to a job with The Jim Henson Company, working on various foreign-language versions of Sesame Street. He's also worked on Saturday Night Live, Chappelle's Show and has done makeshift Christmas marionette theaters in the windows of Macy's in New York.
He's now an artist in residence at PuppetWorks in New York and is doing a glow-in-the-dark Off-Broadway show called ImaginOcean, where he plays Tank, an angler fish. In the meantime, he freelances on projects like HGO's Opera To Go! You can also see some of his work in the upcoming live-action Smurfs movie to be released later this year.
So far, his work with HGO seems to have paid off. Smith said the puppets have been way more successful for Opera To Go!'s performers.
"They know the person is there, but they forget because they're watching the puppet's face."
(HGO will perform The Princess and the Pea January 29 at 10 a.m. at Cypress Creek FACE.)