The Creative Team Speaks
Laura Schlachtmeyer, translation and adaptation
I came across Masse Mensch on a library shelf in New York and wanted to try my hand at bringing it into English in a way that still resonates. The translation came into being in 2010 and was performed at the late, great Manhattan Theatre Source.
Then, during the pandemic, I worked with Andrew Bellware on a nonsense opera called The Lucid Wildflowers. Bringing together puppets, live music, and recorded voices was so much fun, we wanted to tackle another project. The Masse Mensch translation came to mind, and Red Flag of the Future emerged.
Masse Mensch is structured in seven scenes that alternate between reality and dreams. We started our adaptation by experimenting with Scene 4, the dream scene that takes place in a prison yard. There are two more dream scenes (Scene 2, at the stock exchange, and Scene 6, an undefined room with a cage) that we plan to do with puppets next!
Andrew Bellware, composer and director
Musically, the idea was to combine simple drum-machine rhythms with dramatic voices, mixing tonalities with atonality in the melodies. The music, based on the beautiful translation by Laura Schlachtmeyer, was written as chromatic melodies based on the natural English language. The melody tends to go "up" when the words go up and down when they go down. Although the score primarily uses electronic instruments, there are also some parts for percussion using found objects such as water bottles and circular saws.
We shot the scene in two parts. The first part was all of the “projections" which are upstage on the set. Those projections are entirely made of either a blank stage we created at the Hoboken MakerBar maker space in Hoboken, NJ, or with the three puppets of prison guards.
Gaylia Wagner, puppet artist
If I recall correctly, all I was asked in the beginning was if I wanted to make insect puppets.
“Who wouldn’t!” I replied.
That was pretty much the end of any design direction. It was a glorious experience.
For this project, I was inspired by John Tenniel’s illustrations of the Looking-Glass Insects - specifically the Snap-dragon-fly and the Bread-and-butter-fly - in Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass. But rather than foodstuffs, I decided the insects in Red Flag of the Future evolved from refuse. All the puppets were constructed of a combination of waste, recyclables, and surplus material, and embellished with little more than masking tape and paint. Because their faces are featureless, parts of each one light up to indicate its turn to speak or sing.
The details of each puppet give some indication of its character’s status within society, and give a nod to the time period in which the original play was written. I had a rough idea of what each one would look like after reading the script, but refined my designs to better reflect the spirit of each character after hearing the vocal tracks.
As for the streetlamp, if you have to ask, you haven’t been to Narnia lately.
Ben Stansbery, head puppeteer
While "meeting" the puppets the night before the shoot wasn't unusual, it did present some unique challenges. I already had a basic understanding of the operation of each puppet from reference materials, so I focused on finding ways to make them expressive and see how they looked moving through our set.
Probably the most important advice I shared with my puppeteers was to keep the puppets moving and reacting even if they weren't a featured speaker, which gave them the freedom to experiment and make conscious acting choices. An easy mistake is to treat the puppet solely as a prop, when they really occupy an odd middle ground between actor and prop. They should be operated from an actor's mindset, making choices to create the illusion of independent life, but their fabricated nature means they can be physically and visually expressive in nonhuman ways.
This makes puppets uniquely suited to this project's German Expressionism aesthetic, an art form where sets and props are already visually heightened to reflect the emotions and themes of the text. You can contort an actor's features or warp your sets to portray the ideas of this art style, but a puppet can be Expressionism fully realized.