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Puppet Masters: Little Shop of Horrors is a Puppet-Maker's Dream

Bringing life to an alien,cannibalistic plant named audrey II for Little shop of horrors
Kelly Hudson (left), Jana Morrison and Sara Carlé wrestle Audrey II for a singing role in the new comedy-musical Little Shop of Horrors being produced in Victoria by Blue Bridge.

Set design for a rock musical with a cult-like following can be challenging, especially when the designer lives in Toronto and the production is in Victoria.

Now consider that one of the major set pieces is also a main character in the play — a puppet so large it can swallow people whole — and you don’t have puppet-building experience.

Well that’s the case for set and costume designer Patrick Du Wors in Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s upcoming production of Little Shop of Horrors, the hit musical playing July 31 to Aug. 12 at the McPherson Playhouse.

Enter James Insell and Hank Pine, two local artists contracted by Blue Bridge to build not one, but four progressively larger, anthropomorphic potted plants that feed on human flesh and blood.

Director Jacob Richmond’s vision for the production was inspired by B-movies.

“Jacob and I had been talking about B-movies and because all the scenery is printed, not painted, I think what I’ve done is sort of a pop-out version of a black and white movie, with that flat photographic image,” says Du Wors. “It’s a very graphic design. But not graphic as in nudity and violence.”

“When I was talking to [Insell and Pine], they were asking if the plant also had to be in black and white and I was like ‘No, no, no! It’s from outer space!’ It needs to be different. And they’ve created their solution.”

Like two mad scientists in their laboratory (read: apartment), Insell and Pine are busy crafting Audrey II one through four, the alien plant hell-bent on taking over the world. The smallest Audrey II is the size of a regular potted plant. The largest is six feet wide and eight feet long and needs a “digestion mechanism” to get actors in and out quickly.

Starting almost completely from scratch (save for some metal Audrey II skeletons from a previous Kaleidoscope Theatre production), Insell and Pine sourced “iridescent psychedelic rainbow spandex” for the surface of the plant, spray foam for brains, purple vinyl for plant tendrils, and old carpet underlay from a renovation at Pine’s mother’s house to flush out the frame. Add in some hydraulics from the trunk of a car and you’ve got some voracious vegetation.

The two designers are less than half-way through the project at this point, but will have four finished Audrey II's ready to go by the end of the month.

“It’s like a dream project,” says Pine, the concept man. “We build all sorts of giant weird things, it’s sort of what we like to do. And the idea of building a giant man-eating plant was a dream come true. We ran with the whole B-movie thing, so I had this idea of making a huge alien brain with tentacles and as it evolves and gets smarter, the brain gets bigger and bigger.”

They initially envisioned using plastic bags and paper mache to create the brain, but it became too cumbersome and they ended up using spray foam instead. Then they painted it blue, pink and purple.

“The bubbly texture reads well from far away and it catches the colour well,” says Insell, the hands-on creator.

“I’m good at design and he’s good at making my designs happen,” says Pine. “He thinks more on the practical on how to put it together, it’s quite the talent. I’m good at coming up with these fucked-up concepts and he’s good at making the impossible happen.”

Insell says he’s always wondered about how things work.

“When I was growing up I would always be taking things apart to see what was inside and how it worked. I would make mannequins with hangers and my mother’s pantyhose and make costumes for them,” he says. But it wasn’t until his early 20s that he allowed that creative spirit to be nurtured. “I just allowed myself to feel like I was good at it,” he says.

Insell and Pine have worked on numerous projects together, including building the set for Atomic Vaudeville’s hit musical Ride the Cyclone (which Richmond also directed). Both had the opportunity to tour with the show last year. They also build props, sets and costumes for Atomic Vaudeville cabarets.

Insell also builds costumes and props for Pine’s band Hank and Lily and they’re working on an eight-foot “party yeti” for the band’s upcoming appearance at the Shambhala music festival in Salmo, B.C. (Aug. 8-13).

The two met when Pine’s band was playing a show at the bar Insell was managing.

“He made a scavenger hunt and made these very ornate things out of cases of Labatt 50,” says Pine. “He made a cross and he pulled it and Jesus came up from the ground and his hands came up from the sides and he ascended to heaven and I was like ‘holy shit this is all for a staff meeting,’ this amazing thing out of cardboard and I thought ‘I think I like this guy.’”

But neither have ever built anything this large before.

“I’m excited to make something on this scale,” says Insell “This is another notch in my belt. Things come pretty fast and furious for me and I love to make things quick and awesome. I’m really proud and I feel lucky to do something like this and get paid for it.”

“Puppets are a pretty magical part of everyone’s lives and they can be made simply or elaborately. It’s something everyone can do.”

To help navigate the changes between puppets as Audrey II grows, Du Wors has created a front curtain, which can be lit in various ways by lighting designer Rebekah Johnson.

“It’s written with the convention that the front curtain comes down, which allows for a scene change — changing the plant basically — and that style of doing theatre has gone out of style,” says Du Wors. “There’s one other way of doing it and that’s with a revolve. I think we’re bringing back a Broadway tradition actually.”

The set also features a flower shop and the Brooklyn Bridge —both black and white photographic images, printed on huge banners that will be hung on a frame built by Pacific Opera Victoria’s production department.

The cast includes Sara-Jeanne Hosie (from the Belfry Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) as Audrey, Kholby Wardell (from Atomic Vaudeville’s Ride the Cylcone) as Seymour, and blues and jazz musician Jeff Jones as the voice of the plant, Audrey II. Rounding out the cast are Chris Mackie in the role of the Dentist, Damon Calderwood as Mushnik, Kelly Hudson (of Cyclone) as Ronnette, Jana Morrison as Chrystal and Sara Carlé as Chiffon.

Little Shop of Horrors features music direction by Brooke Maxwell and choreography by Treena Stubel (both from Cyclone). The band includes music theatre legend Jim Hill on piano, Leon Nagasaki on bass, Don Leppard on drums and Sebastien Britneff on guitar. M