Breathing Life Into the Beast
Obie Award-winner and puppeteer James Ortiz brings The Beast to life in Skylight’s upcoming opera Beauty and the Beast (Zémire et Azor).
Photo Credit: Mark Frohna
“Can puppetry be as dynamic as an actor?” That’s the question James Ortiz has sought to answer ever since he fell in love with puppetry in junior high school.
“A lot of times puppetry is just an effect,” Ortiz explains, citing recent hits like War Horse for comparison. “Not a character with a lot of complexity.”
Which is why audiences will be in for a treat when they attend Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Beauty and the Beast (Zémire et Azor), because, as far as characters in fairytales go, The Beast is as complex as they get.
Azor (The Beast), Gillian Hollis (Zémire) and James Ortiz (Puppet/Scenic Designer and Director) in rehearsal for Skylight Music Theatre’s operaBeauty and the Beast (Zémire et Azor) running March 17-26. Photo credit Mark Frohna.
Ortiz got his start in puppetry back in his home state of Texas. A local traveling marionette theatre troupe bewitched his young introverted self one day, and his mother signed him up for the program. “It was a really interesting blend of art and theatre, which pulled me out of my shell.”
Blending puppetry and theatre have now become Ortiz’ calling card. Known as “the puppet guy” throughout high school and college, Ortiz’ first professional gig after college was a puppet opera’s adaptation of Puss in Boots. “The techniques they were using were far beyond me, but I was just like a sponge.”
James Ortiz, director, scenic and puppet designer for Skylight Music Theatre’s upcoming operaBeauty and the Beast (Zémire et Azor).
Soaking up everything he could, the Jim Henson Foundation grant recipient started his own theater company, and his haunting and Obie Award-winning production of The Woodsman was born.
“There is something kind of eerie about puppetry,” Ortiz admits, when asked about his unique puppetry style. “It’s kind of odd, and enthralling, and you can’t look away.”
But style aside, it is the story that is the key to everything Ortiz does, and what he chose to focus on when he was first approached about an innovative adaptation of Zémire et Azor, an opera version of the Beauty and Beast tale from 1771 France.
While the original fairytale is quite dark, the version of the opera Ortiz and music director Shari Rhoads were given wasn’t as dark as one would expect.
“The adaptation we were given seemed to sidestep a lot of the ‘spooky’ elements, helping me see the story is about people, and seeing the humanity around the monster,” Ortiz reflects. “It was very clear that [the version we were given] was meant to be a big, delightful, effervescent mash-up of a lot of things that [were loved at the time].” Ballet, opera, spoken dialogue, a monster, special effects, and bawdy comedy all make an appearance in the heartbreaking romantic drama.
It is this unique conglomeration of plot elements that lead to the distinctive feel and features of Azor, The Beast.
Color rendering of Azor (The Beast) puppet by director, puppet and scenic designer James Ortiz for Skylight Music Theatre’s upcoming opera Beauty and the Beast (Zémire et Azor).
“The Beast is the mascot, and he is a variety of bizarre animals,” Ortiz elaborates. Ortiz pulled from period appropriate illustrations of sea monsters, as well as Biblical images of demons. Ortiz also listened to the French recording of the opera on repeat, allowing the feeling of the music to further inspire his vision, as well as the artistic architectural structures of 1800s artist Piranesi.
“He was making neo-classical, demi-romanesque structures – but then putting holes in them and adding vines, and ruins,” Ortiz explains. “He was making these epic, enormous, heartbreaking pieces, a mixture of man-made that is long-gone that is now being taken over by nature, which is what The Beast is.”
Taking these million different little pieces and combining them into what has become The Beast was no easy feat – especially considering that while The Beast should have a gravitas when on stage, the piece has to be light weight enough to operate while still conveying a wide range of emotion and expression.
Ortiz’ elegant solution? Foam.
“He’s made entirely of different thicknesses of foam,” Ortiz shares, likening the dense, tough foam he used as a cross between what one would find in a craft store and the consistency of a mouse pad. After creating a small scale of the puppet, Ortiz used mathematics and ratios to bring the puppet to its full-sized counterpart. “You put the pieces together like a puzzle. It’s a lot of ‘no no, that’s his third toe, that’s not his first toe,” Ortiz says with a laugh.
Original sculpture for Azor (The Beast) puppet byBeauty and the Beast (Zémire et Azor) director, puppet and scenic designer James Ortiz for Skylight Music Theatre’s upcoming opera.
Once completed, The Beast is at a height of eight feet when fully standing, and is operated by four puppeteers at once.
Puppeteer Alex Campea (Ensemble) operates one arm of Azor (The Beast) as Gillian Hollis (Zémire) rehearses for Skylight Music Theatre’s opera, Beauty and the Beast (Zémire et Azor) running March 17-26. Photo credit Mark Frohna.
“From a puppeteering standpoint it is a challenge.” Ortiz states, explaining that puppets operated by multiple puppeteers need to be able to see and hear each other breathing. “The breath is what connects the puppeteers to each other. Before we even touch the puppet, we practice breathing with it.” Breath serves as a way to communicate, such as warning a fellow puppeteer when another is too close to the edge, something is going wrong, or even that they are simply ready to go.
“Inhale is the breath,” says Ortiz, demonstrating, “and exhale is the action.”
Ortiz has certainly enjoyed his time working on Skylight’s Beauty and the Beast, which will be revisited this summer at Opera Saratoga in New York state, through a partnership between the two companies.
While both productions will feature the same puppetry, they will boast different casts, and while Skylight’s version of the opera will be sung in English, Opera Saratoga will be presenting the fairytale in the original French.
As for life beyond Beauty and the Beast, Ortiz already has a few fairytales in mind for what he would like to tackle next. “A couple of years ago I was working with a musical theater composer on an adaptation of East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Ortiz muses, explaining that the story is a Norwegian fairytale centered on a female heroine trying to save the man she loves.
But, before that, Ortiz is going to take a break from fairytales. While Ortiz loves the way puppetry works in a world of fantasy, he is ready to see the art form tackle other genres within the theatre. “I’m really excited to see what this medium can do.”
One such genre that Ortiz is tackling will be this summer at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, during his puppetry residency. “The piece I will be working on at the O’Neill is actually a horror, so it could be really fun to see how that goes. Can puppetry be frightening?”
The recently released behind-the-scenes photos of the Beast would make one shake their head in agreement, but despite the Beast’s startling appearance there is also something beautifully crafted there as well.
Azor (The Beast) and Gillian Hollis (Zémire) in Skylight Music Theatre’s opera,Beauty and the Beast (Zémire et Azor) running March 17-26. Photo credit Mark Frohna.
Beauty and the Beast (Zémire et Azor) opens Friday, March 17 (the same day as the live-action Disney film) and will run for only seven performances through March 26. For more information about Ortiz, the production, or for tickets, please visit skylightmusictheatre.org, find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/skylightmusictheatre, or call Skylight Music Theatre’s box office at 414-291-7800 (M-F noon-6pm, and two hours prior to all performances).