Turner and Henry B. Heron.
Puppeteer Sarah Rothering is the young woman behind the mask. She uses a wearable puppet to portray a slightly smaller version of the monster plant.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Audiences won’t notice Sarah Rothering onstage, but her performance is central to the play. The Cochrane-Fountain City (C-FC) High School student donned a pair of grey tights before rehearsal and velcroed four-foot-long tubes of stuffed fabric — in matching grey — onto her feet. Suddenly, her legs were writhing roots. She stuck both arms into the air, Winona puppet builder Timmy Turner gently lowered the final piece of the costume over her head, and the transformation was complete. Rothering became a gigantic Venus fly trap with jaws twice the size of her torso. She articulated its ferocious maw while director James Huffman gave voice to the leafy villain, “Feed me, Seymour!”
Most of the puppets Turner builds fit over one hand. But this fall he was challenged to construct puppets on a whole other scale for C-FC’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” The play features a bloodthirsty plant — Audrey II — that talks, sings, and demands more and more victims — er, food. In the play’s latter acts, a puppet the size of a compact car swallows cast members whole. That puppet was so big, Turner explained, “There were whole days that were spent just hand sewing large amounts of fleece onto a large frame, which takes its toll on you after a while.”
Normally, local theaters might rent out complicated set pieces, such as Audrey II puppets, from companies that specialize in providing them. Home and Community Options rented out a remote-controlled, mechanized set piece to act as the titular magic car/plane/boat for its 2017 production of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” for example. However, the Minneapolis company Huffman hoped to rent Audrey II puppets from turned out to be booked on the weekend of C-FC’s big performance. The next nearest option was in another time zone. “I would have had to drive to Tennessee or, God forbid, New York City,” Huffman explained. “I just wasn’t going to do it.”
The show must go on, however, and Huffman was trying to figure out how to build the puppets himself when a friend of a friend introduced him to Turner.
Turner has been building puppets for the last 10 years. His home workshop looks like the set of a children’s television show, with fuzzy characters hanging on every wall. Half-formed prototypes, yards of fleece, sewing supplies, and puppet-building checklists rest on worktables. His grandmother’s antique Singer sewing machine sits in the center of it all, glowing.
Huffman wanted Turner to build four puppets for the play — one for each stage of Audrey II’s growth. The first two puppets were within Turner’s comfort zone.
The first and smallest was a hand puppet shaped like a potted plant that could be carried around stage and set down on a table. For the play’s first big reveal, Rothering hides underneath the table and reaches through a false bottom to make the plant beckon for its first taste of blood.
The second puppet is just a little bigger: a large potted plant that Seymour (C-FC student Carter Hund) carries around stage. The puppet includes a false arm that makes it look like Seymour is holding the pot, while Hund’s actual hand reaches inside to work the puppet. Like a ventriloquist pretending not to realize his puppet is talking, Hund has to act as if he doesn’t notice what the plant — and his right hand — is doing. “I don’t actually make contact with the puppet until I catch it out of the corner of my eye,” he explained. Hund has this schtick down. He did his whole interview with the Post while subtly messing around with the puppet at the same time. “He’s really good at it,” Huffman pointed out. “It’s kind of simple really,” Hund said. “Just stick your hand in there.”
The next two puppets were more intimidating for Turner. Luckily, he had a chance to meet the designer and builder of the original puppets for the Broadway run of “Little Shop of Horrors,” Martin P. Robinson, while at a puppetry conference. Robinson is a big name in the puppet business; he performed Snuffleupagus on “Sesame Street” and Leonardo in the 1990 “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” film. Robinson shared his plans for the original Audrey II puppets with Turner and encouraged Turner to use the plans as a guide, try new ideas, and contact him with any questions, Turner explained.
“In the arts world, there’s a lot of secrets and ‘Oh, I don’t want to tell you how I do this because you’ll steal it and use it and get the credit,’ but in the puppetry world, people are so excited to share what they know and have people take it and make it their own for the sake of the art,” Turner stated. “To have [Robinson] say, ‘Oh, you can totally do it,’ was just the right nudge of encouragement,” he added.
So Turner went for it. When the students first saw what he had built, Huffman said, “They all about lost their crap.”
Turner ran into one problem. “As you can see,” he said, gesturing around to the friendly puppets on his workshop walls, “I have this knack for making things cute. But it’s also kind of a curse because when I try to make things creepy, they just turn out cute.” Turner recalled that when he brought in his first creations for the play, one of the directors commented, “They’re just so cute.” “Oh no,” Turner thought. “But that actually worked out pretty well for this project because I made them cute and then I added teeth, and that was just the right amount of creepiness,” Turner explained. After all, it is a play about a cute plant that gets more and more sinister.
The play’s biggest and meanest puppet needed to be able to support the weight of the actors it was swallowing. To make the monster, Huffman constructed a wooden frame that acts as the puppet’s skeleton, and Turner wrapped that skeleton in sculpted foam and plant-like embellishments. The puppet functions as a sort of crane that swivels and lifts. Behind the scenes, Rothering works the puppet’s bottom jaw, making it talk and open wide, while another puppeteer turns the puppet’s head side-to-side. When it comes time to gobble up an actor and tilt the head back to swallow, three strong boys pull down on the crane’s counterweight, and the actors grab rock climbing holds cleverly camouflaged into the plant’s tongue. “Think of it as kind of a seesaw,” Rothering said.
Rothering had never performed as a puppeteer before, but, Turner said, “She kills it, and it’s really fun to watch.”
“Originally, I was more interested in tech, but when I started with the puppet, I started falling in love with it,” Rothering said.
Because Huffman is voicing Audrey II’s character and because Rothering is either hiding inside a table or inside the puppets themselves during her entire performance, she has to anticipate Huffman’s lines in order to sync up Audrey II’s mouth with Huffman’s voice. Rothering and Huffman both seemed a little puzzled at how Rothering does it so well. “I don’t really know how I can predict, but I just feel like I can guess when he’s going to say it,” she said. “She just did a lot of rehearsing,” Huffman stated. “She knows the lines by heart, and she’s just really good at guessing.”
Sewing vines for “Little Shop of Horrors” has occupied a lot of Turner’s time within the last several weeks, but it is not his only gig. In addition to selling built-to-order puppets online, he also won a Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council grant this year to launch his new video series, “Winona, I Love You.” In the first episode, released late last month, Turner performs as Henry B. Heron, an inquisitive blue heron who interviews Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson about GRSF.
Henry B. Heron is, of course, a puppet. Turner reaches his arm up Henry’s long neck to work his beak, and uses a rod to gesture with Henry’s wings during interviews. For tasks that require more fine motor skills — such as having Henry try out painting or yoga — Turner can reach his hand into a glove built into Henry’s wing.
“For his character, I don’t have a lot of experience with character development, so right now, he’s pretty much a bird version of me,” Turner explained with a self-deprecating smile. He added, “When I first watched the footage, I was wincing because it was basically my voice … but since I released it, I’ve heard a lot of people say they appreciated that they heard my authentic voice and enthusiasm and it wasn’t faked or anything.”
In forthcoming episodes, Turner plans to interview Winonans who inspire him, including musician Mike Munson, artist Julia Crozier, fine woodworker and Prairie Island Campground manager Jamie Schell, and Manitou Center directors Trish Johnson and Paul Stern.
“It’s kind of a mix of Mr. Rogers, Ellen DeGeneres, and ‘How It’s Made,’ except instead of ‘How It’s Made,’ it’s ‘Who Made It,’” Turner said. “The purpose of the show is to showcase the arts in Winona and everything Winona has to offer … I wanted to think of as many ways as possible to capture the essence of Winona and my favorite parts about it,” he explained.
What got Turner so hooked on puppets? Well, he answered, “I’ve had a lifelong love of making things with my hands: sculpting, sewing, drawing — just making cool things, really.” There is something special about the way puppets come to life, he continued. “There’s a moment when I’ll finish a puppet, I’ll put it on my hand, and people’s faces just light up, and that’s so satisfying to me,” he said. At first glance, as they sit lifeless on the wall, the faces of some of Turner’s puppets might seem to be frozen in a state of joy, but with a subtle movement of his hands, Turner can make them tremble with fear or crumple into sadness. “I think it’s just so easy to make people feel something with puppets, whether that’s happiness or sadness or love or compassion,” he stated.
C-FC students are performing “Little Shop of Horrors” this weekend, with shows on Saturday, October 27, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, October 28, at 1 p.m. at C-FC. Doors open 30 minutes before shows. Tickets are $8 for adults or $5 for students.
Turner’s first episode of “Winona, I Love You,” is on Youtube. More information about his puppetry is available at watertownplankproductions.com.