Meet Michael McKeogh from The Twentieth-Century Way

We are very excited to welcome a new face to Know Theatre’s stage for The Twentieth-Century Way! Michael McKeogh comes to Cincinnati from Chicago, Illinois where he has graced many area stages. We asked Michael a few questions. Enjoy!

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Will you tell us a little bit about your background? From Detroit, went to undergrad with The Know Theatre’s Andrew Hungerford. Played Picasso to his Einstein in Picasso at the Lapin Agile. The irony is that I PLAYED an artist but Andrew actually IS a genius.

Can you tell us about the moment you knew you wanted to be an actor? I never had that “moment.”just got involved in high school on a whim and started falling in love with telling stories.

How do you prepare for a role? That’s my dirty little secret but I’ll give you a hint: it’s more about questions, less about answers.

Tell us about your favorite role (besides your role in The Twentieth-Century Way of course). My most recent role was Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine of the American civil war. With a role like that there comes a larger sense of responsibility. You are playing a version of a person who really lived so you want to honor him but also bring yourself to the part. It was a wonderful gift.

Tell us just a little bit about your character in The Twentieth-Century Way. Mr. Brown is a complicated dude. Desperate and eager, but at the same time confident and grounded. He also struggles to self actualize, which is what really draws me to him.

What has been your strangest experience as an actor? Definitely when I carried a live lamb across the stage. Nude. Definitely the strangest. Especially for my in-laws.

If you were to be declared the ruler of your own country what would you name it and why? That sounds terrifying. Much harder than being an actor. I’ll pass.

The inquiring masses want to know, why should they come see The Twentieth-Century Way? Give them the hard sell! It’s like no other show that they will see this year. 2 actors 19 roles 1 indelible ink pen.

Thanks Michael!

Click here for more information about The Twentieth-Century Way! 

Bringing Marionettes to Life

How do you translate acting to a puppet? How do you endow the puppet with expression? Does the puppet become an extension of your body?

Throughout the process of The Dragon, I have received varying forms of the basic question: How do we bring these puppets to life? And my answer has changed and evolved almost daily.

I, along with many others in the cast, consider myself an actor first. This is my very first time working on stage with puppets of any kind. And even those on stage who have significant puppetry experience, had never used marionettes before in a performance capacity, all save John Lewandowski. The rest of us were learning a new art form.

During the first workshops in September, it was just about learning how each puppet works. Every single marionette is built a little differently and has different functions. For example, my main character, Charlemagne, does not have hands. Many of the puppeteers use their character’s hands to gesticulate as one of their main forms of expression. I, however, have the ability to fluidly move Charlemagne’s head. This is a unique form of expression that is specific to this singular puppet. This is one of many examples of how the puppets are built differently and vary in function.

After we learned to adapt to each puppet and their individual “bodies,” the second thing that really came into play was the vocal work. I found myself having to dig even deeper into acting tools such as subtext and inner monologue to keep these puppets from becoming nothing more than objects on stage. We all were working hard to develop dialects, vocal patterns, and pitch ranges that were specific to one character alone. It sounds silly, but many times I also found myself, as the actor, over compensating with my own facial expression. This was something we really had to fight against.

Additionally, there is the problem of eye contact. As actors, one of the first things we are taught is to listen and connect with the eyes to one’s partner on stage. Dylan Shelton, who plays Lancelot, would comment on noticing actors trying to look at him from time to time and how bizarre that felt. We did not even realize we were doing this. It just comes naturally. We had to re-teach ourselves, in a way, to connect with the puppet and then let the puppet make the eye contact for us. Let me tell you, this was and is still one of the hardest things for me as a puppeteer on stage.

So, when it comes to bringing these puppets to life, it really comes down to those three things: learning each individual puppet, vocal work, and eye contact. But here is the real trick we have pulled on all of you…I don’t actually endow the puppet with expression, you do. After each show, when all the work is done, I never once made those papier-mâché faces move. My characters did not frown or smile and their eyes never once even blinked. So who actually brings them to life? I think the audience does. If you are a willing person and you come into the theatre to do nothing more than sit there and be present, you will in fact, bring these puppets to life on your own with your imagination. And that, to me, is the most beautiful thing about working with puppets.

Designing The Dragon (Part One): The Long, Twisting Road

In small theatre, we’re used to often having a quick and dirty design process: thorough but compressed, short and intense. We have a few high-octane meetings, we put together the design, and then we run with it because, well, rehearsals are about to begin.

The design for The Dragon, on the other hand, was a process that was both extended and intense: my first meeting with director Irina Niculescu was in December of 2009.

There are a number of reasons why the process began so far in advance. From an overall design perspective, there was more to do on this show than on many others. For most productions, you’re designing a world around actors, the light in which they perform, the costumes and accouterments that help define the characters they play. But in the case of The Dragon, we were also designing most of the characters themselves.

From a purely logistical perspective, the designs of the puppets needed to be complete by late 2010 in order to give sculptor Lisa Siders enough time to craft the heads of the puppets from my two-dimensional drawings, and the Madcap workshop enough time to build the puppets using a combination of my drawings, Lisa’s sculpting, and technical drawings of the puppets’ mechanisms made by John Lewandowski.

In another departure from standard procedure, we began the design process working more from the ideas of the play rather than the actual script we would use in performance. We had two translations of the original text by Eugene Schwartz on hand, and while they contained the essential action of the play, and many elements that we would keep, the text used for performance hadn’t even been started yet. Even once “finished,” the performance text would continue to evolve, as new plays do, through the rehearsal process.

Why adapt when there are multiple versions of the text available? For one, the play was written for human actors in the mid-twentieth century, and so the play is long, and with too many characters. It would be impossible with our time line, even a year out, to design and build the number of puppets that would be required to perform the complete text.

Beyond that, Irina’s conception of our play of The Dragon was to take the essence of the story and use puppets to explore other aspects of those ideas: themes of manipulation and shifting power. And, in one major shift from the original, Irina had conceived of Elsa, the damsel in distress, as not just a poor maiden, but as a torch singer of sorts, beloved by the town. This both elevated Elsa’s status within the world and allowed an integration of music into the play, something that would help to make our take on the play even more unique.

Finally, incorporating local playwright Alison Vodnoy into the process made the production a truly local collaboration, created from the foundation up for this one of a kind show.

From this starting point, these constraints and opportunities, we began a design journey that would last over a year, full of missteps and false starts, avenues explored and abandoned, leading finally to refined concepts that continued to evolve until the production became fully realized on the Know’s stage at the beginning of April.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be retracing the steps of that journey for each of the design elements. It’d be lovely if you’d like to come along. Just take my hand. What a warm little paw you have. That’s right. Follow me.

The secret art of the puppeteer

Please welcome a guest post from Irina Niculescu who conceived and directed The Dragon.

“ …We build fragile castles of cardboard, of wood, and of light, where the actors will exchange words for the others, they will create poetical images and will transmit to their public the metaphor of the human existence, both in its glory and in its fragility; for the joy, the knowledge, the doubt, the love and even the anxiety of experiencing together the greatness of feeling human.” Giorgio Strehler

Many words have been said already about our new version of The Dragon by the press and by the patrons who have come to see the show. I am very touched by the surprise and the enthusiasm with which the public reacts during and after the show. It was a big adventure and a challenge for me to take a team formed by two theatres: designers, fine artists, actors, and musicians, and guide them through the complicated labyrinth of puppetry. I appreciated immensely their courage to take risks, the curiosity, and ambition with which they dove into the work.

This is why I decided to share with you what puppetry means to me, and why I chose to do puppet theatre.

Why puppets – Directing Puppet Theatre

Puppet theatre is for me an itinerary in the world of shadows, imagination and of fiction which re-creates reality. It is my life itinerary. I tell stories which talk about the fragility and the strength of our human condition. My shows express my thoughts about life, my joy, my questioning, my fears, and utopias. I created projects inspired by old myths like Gilgamesh, The Burning bush, The Firebird, by classic writers such as Cervantes, Horacio Quiroga, Dante, and composers such as Mozart, Rossini, De Falla, Stravinsky, and by contemporary writers in Romania, Norway, and Switzerland. I adhere completely to Giorgio Strehler’s words:  “directing means above all loving and understanding.”

I am often asked what drew me to puppet theatre and if I directed other kinds of theatre. I have directed other kinds of theatre and taught directing. But I mostly staged puppet theatre. World puppetry is currently experiencing an exuberant renaissance. I belong to that generation of artists who began this movement. We were the ground breakers who took the puppet out of its booth and placed it next to the actor. This gesture gave birth to a new conception of the space, a new use of proportions, and a new relation between the puppet and the puppeteer, bringing a new range of theatricality and meaning.  I was fascinated by object animation and the illusion of life that is given to the object. I explored the source of wonder and I discovered that for me, the magic relies on the capacity of the puppet to transmit emotions, which practically means the relation between the puppet and the puppeteer. It is the actor and puppeteer manipulating in view or hidden, who projects and invests oneself in the puppet. Without the actor, the puppet is just a sophisticated object.

I approach puppetry in its diversity of forms; I draw inspiration from traditional sources and I explore new forms which break the boundaries and bring together puppets, actors, singers, musicians, dancers, shadows, and sometimes virtual imagery. The choices I make are guided by the quest to create the best environment for the story to unfold. The puppets of The Dragon are inspired by German expressionism. I wanted their faces to express how they feel, rather than how they are. In my shows it is generally the puppet which bears the destiny of the hero. The puppet leads us into an imaginary world, which becomes for a moment, more real than reality itself.

The most difficult moment in my directing is when I choose my orientation in relation to the text, music, or another kind of dramatic material I stage. This choice will determine all the other choices. For it I associate my imagination and my critical rigor.

And the puppeteer in all that

For me, the puppet has a tragi-comedy essence, because it is always tied to the visible or invisible hands of the puppeteer because it is the metaphor of the human condition. The puppeteer has to master the technique of manipulation, which is their main tool; but the technique alone will never be enough to create the magic moments. Animating puppets has its mystery, but we sustained it with training and experimentation on how to extend oneself into the puppet. How do you make a puppet talk? How can one be present and invisible at the same time?  The relation between the puppet and the puppeteer is a permanent source of inspiration. It adds to the effect of innocence and irreverence, with which the puppet charms us.

The relation between the puppet and the puppeteers is essential for the puppet to transmit an emotion. The puppeteer works with the fragile border between animate and inanimate. They learn to project oneself into the puppet amd through a puppet. They work with movement and immobility, words and silence. In The Dragon, this relation is ambivalent. The act of manipulating in view, as well as the interdependence between the puppet and the puppeteer are a source of meaning. The visible presence of the puppeteer, as well as the relation between puppets and musicians, and between puppets and actors are sources of contrast and of tension. Working on The Dragon, we touched on the complementary relation between puppet and puppeteer, and we gave life to the expressive world the designer and I planned and built.

Who is who?

It is clear to everyone that Lancelot and the Dragon are actors and the citizens are puppets because the citizens are manipulated. The Dragon is a metaphor standing for all evils which determine our fears; in this play the social-political evils as well as our hidden ambitions for power. Fear is human and submission is human. But why are the citizens afraid? Why do they submit? Could they survive differently?

If the Dragon is the manipulator and Lancelot is the liberator and potential manipulator, who are the puppeteers? I left this question to the end because the answer is ambiguous. We wanted it this way: the people in black are serving the Dragon, taking the puppets to them, but they are also the shadows of their characters. They are hiding behind their little puppets, dissimulating their faces under the black hats. Who are they?

”Everybody should know freedom,” says Lancelot. Will they? Will Lancelot become a manipulator ? Will people’s compliance transform him into a Dragon? These are the questions that I hope my staging of The Dragon will raise.

How I First Met a Puppet

Roll back in time with me. It is early March 2010. I am in St. Louis attending the Midwest Theatre Auditions located on the campus of Webster College. This is not my first time at this audition conference, but I am still full of nervous excitement. However, this year was different than the past two. I knocked my audition out of the ballpark.  To change it up, I decided to do something ballsy and sing a song completely out of context. This has now has become my norm. Songs like Poker Face, Bibbidy Bobbidy Boo, Tik Tok, Total Eclipse of the Heart…you get the idea. So needless to say, I had a healthy plate of callbacks to attend. And I was planning on making it to them all. I wrote down all of my callback information, gathered my belongings, and was on my way…

So, I’m doing my little callback thing when the story really begins. I am sitting in the hallway reviewing some material when a couple of gentlemen walk by and recognize me. “Hello, MJ,” they say. “How are your callbacks this year? You had a great audition!” I greet them and thank them. These guys called me back last year for their company in Missouri. They peruse my list of callbacks as we briefly chat. Then, one of these dudes exclaims, “Oh! Madcap! Have you gone to that one yet?” I reply, “No, not yet, but I am planning on it.” The fellow continues, “The lady who is running that callback is crazy and such a good time. She sat behind us in the auditions. You will love her!!!” With my interest peaked, I headed straight for my callback with Madcap Puppets from Cincinnati, where I met the one and only, Mel Hatch Douglas.

Now for those of you who don’t know Mel very well, crazy might actually be the best singular word to describe her. But Mel is not crazy in the typical sense. She is crazy in the most endearing, lovable kind of way possible. Mel is passionately fond of all kinds of diet soda, has a huge mane of curly long hair usually found in perfectly crafted braids, she wears a watch on her ankle, and has a way of showing love and compassion to almost every single person she meets. None of this means that I had a good callback…

I sucked. Let me reiterate…I SUCKED! I walk in and immediately notice all of the hand-in-mouth puppets. They seemed to be everywhere. These are the puppets that we, as Americans, are most familiar with because of shows like Sesame Street and Avenue Q. We start the audition and I, quite frankly, could not get a damn thing right. I started with a voice that was too harsh. Mel stopped me and started laughing as I began to cough. Frequently, I would speak for the puppet without moving it’s mouth. Often, I would not even look at the puppet at all as I moved it around. Mel was gracious and kind…but let me be the first to say, I wasn’t ready for puppetry yet. Or so I thought.

I arrive in Cincinnati a mere six months later as the resident actor here at Know Theatre. Eric informs me that I will be working on a show called The Dragon. He explains that this will be the last show of our season and it will be a collaboration with another company in town, Madcap Puppets. Somehow or other, I did not make the connection right away. I knew we were going to be working with puppets and having virtually no experience in the field, I was wary.

The day of the first workshop arrived. I sit upstairs patiently awaiting the work. I see what appears to be a costume rack with long wooden figures hanging from it with strings. “These must be our little puppet guys,” I think to myself. We are just about to start the workshop when none other than the good ol’ Mel Douglas comes trudging up the stairs and into the theatre. Little did I know we would be working together after all!

I have to say that though my first experience with Mel and puppets was very poor, my second one, working on The Dragon, was quite the opposite. Though the style of puppetry is very different from that of hand-in-mouth puppets, I think I have come a long way since my days of callback misery. In earnest, it is being around trained puppeteers such as Mel and John that has informed everything I have done and everything I have learned. They are brilliant artists. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn a craft that I would have never tried otherwise.

Adding Machine Afterthoughts

Bing! The image of a light bulb over one’s head evokes a sense of realization. I, myself, have recently come to a realization. Scenic design and lighting consists of more deliberate intentions and implementations than are realized by the typical audience member. Up until now, I thought the set and lighting only involved notes in the script such as “move table here” and “dim lights” when, in fact, it consists of much, much more. To effectively communicate a message, every aspect of a production must harmonize to create one fluid piece. This unity, however, does not always come natural. Each element must be thought out and then carefully positioned within the play as a whole. Scenic design and lighting are no different.

Let’s take a gander at some of these intentions scenic designer, Andrew Hungerford, and director, Michael Burnham, took to Adding Machine: A Musical’s production. “Rather than simply creating scenery, we were in pursuit of a world in which we could play. That led to a setting that is, in itself, a machine,” says Hungerford, “Scene changes are carried out by actors actually doing the work of cranking winches, shifting skeletal window units, and flipping open trapdoors. The look and construction is inspired by technology that ranges from the mechanisms of the original Victorian Adding machines through the electrical glow of early vacuum tubes.  There’s also a bit of the Bauhaus aesthetic in the shifting window units which initially form a back wall. The plan was to create a mechanism that evokes history without being fully tied to a single period: it’s been around for a while, and will continue to be here for a very long time indeed.” From the mobility of the physical set to the actors’ set interaction with it, the scenic design in Adding Machine effectively delivered connotations of technology.

Scenic design and lighting go together like peas and carrots. For each to look good, you need the other. “From the beginning, this was a scenic design created with lighting in mind: there are gratings in the floor to provide dramatic footlight and uplight positions, skeletal window units that track across the stage, and practical bare light bulbs that fill and surround the playing space.  Those are elements that call out to be treated or exploited in some way,” says Hungerford. Lighting helps set the mood, place, and time in a scene and must be carefully planned and executed, especially for important moments in the play.

For example, the character Daisy has a fantasy sequence that feels something like a classic movie musical number (the song continually references the movies and their “flickering lights”).  “To help evoke that feel, a light on a roving boom operated by an actor as a rudimentary followspot while another ensemble member spun a specially prepared umbrella in front of the light to theatrically create a flicker like an old projector.”

In another moment, when Mrs. Zero attempts to connect with her husband on the night before he’s executed, a single light bulb on a stand is placed before her.  As she begins the number, she leans into the light bulb, singing into like a microphone, her lips glowing in the light of the bare filament. These pictures create memorable, theatrical, and lovely images which capitalize on the actor’s delivery. Deliberate intentions. A professional theatre company’s season is packed full of deliberate intentions; one that requires a creative team, committed actors, and effective implementation. Next time your watching a play (preferably one of our shows) I ask you to make special note of the hidden secrets and imagery housed in the set and lighting design. I certainly will.

Oh the Places Know’ll Go

Not to sound like one of those hokey one liners from a fairy tale, but one of my dreams has come true…kind of. My voice is on a cast recording! Sure, it’s not a Broadway cast or even an original cast recording (that’s where the “kind of” part comes in), but it’s a cast recording. What is this cast recording I speak of? Don’t lie. I know you’re asking yourself this question right now. So here, I’ll tell you. It’s only the new super amazing all star cast recording of “Calculus: The Musical!” What?!

I got the email asking for participation in the project last November, and of course I jumped on it. For those of you who don’t know, I lived with this show on the road from Feb.-May of 2009. It holds a really special place in my heart not only because it allowed me to be multiple characters in the course of 50 minutes and let me take the best road trip of my life thus far, but mostly because of the amazing response this show gets from high school students all over the country. And, let’s be honest, these songs are just plain fun to sing.

Going into the process, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  I have never been in a recording studio other than to visit my voice instructor, and in the version of the show I was a part of, my role wasn’t really the “singing” role; it was more of the instrumentation/acting role. I honestly didn’t think I was going to get much singing material thrown my way…but I did! I don’t want to give away any juicy details, but not only did I get to belt my face off on my absolute favorite song in the show, but I also got to lay down some vocals on a bonus track that isn’t in the show. What song, you ask? Well, you’re going to have to listen to the recording to find that one out!

My favorite moment during my recording session, besides the new track and the belting my face off like a 21st century Janice Joplin for “Under the Curve,” was being able to back myself up on another one of my show favorites, “L’Hopital.” At first, this concept really freaked me out. I hate hearing myself sing, not because of my vocal ability, but because of self criticism. I always have that little voice in my head telling me a vowel placement could have been better, or that a single  note in a phrase should have had a brighter quality. You know the voice I’m talking about; we all have one for some reason. So when I was told the background track I just laid down was going to be streamed into my headphones so I could more easily lay down the lead vocal track…I’m not gonna lie, I had a one second long panic attack. Literally one second…I know. I timed it. But the second the track started, the panic was gone and I experienced the most surreal moment I’ve had in quite some time.   I was singing a duet with myself.  And the sound designer made my recorded voice sound good!  Never in my life did I think I would be able to say those words.  It was in that moment that I really realized what it was that I was becoming a part of.  Soon, my voice will forever be a part of an amazing educational tool, and I know it’s going to sound good!  If I got chills just from hearing my own voice being played back to me, I can’t wait to hear all of my other friends on the album and for all of the people around the country who already know and love this show to get a chance to hear this amazing collaboration full of new takes on “old favorites” and a brand new song thrown into the mix.

I have yet to hear any other vocal tracks other than my own, so even I don’t know what the finished product is going to sound like.  All I know is with the list of people who contributed to this recording, it’s going to be a great finished product.  The thing I’m most curious about is hearing all of our voices together.  I was all alone in my recording session, so it’s going to be a treat for my ears to hear a track with all of these other voices that were recorded at different times all mixed together to create a great song.  You know there will be more from me when that epic day arrives!  But until then…

Cheers!

-b