What is the most thrilling part of rehearsing for Beauty and The Beast, especially knowing that you will be getting different suggestions from the audience every time you do the play? How do you prepare for a play that is improvised?
There are so many thrilling parts to rehearsing! It’s hard to pick just one. As an actor with a writing background, I was especially drawn to the improv aspect of this play because it allows me to use both my actor’s brain and my writer’s brain at the same time. Improv represents the perfect balance of my interests and skills, without having to choose or solely focus on one. It is a little more challenging than preparing for a scripted role, but in my opinion the payoff is greater, too. On the one hand, it’s great knowing we don’t have to memorize any lines (except for the songs). The challenge is remembering to stay as close to our skeletal structure as possible so we don’t veer way off course of the message we are trying to convey, because it is, after all, meant to be an educational play with a strong specific message for our young audiences. This is really hard for improvisers who have been trained to say “yes, and” to everything and habitually dive deep into offers even if they’re tangential. That said, going to rehearsals has been an amazing experience each time, because it really feels like we are building this play together. In one rehearsal, the characters will be in a treehouse in a forest, and in the next they’ll be in a spaceship, but each story will have its own version of certain elements from the underlying story of Beauty and the Beast that we have collectively decided to keep in one way or another. As far as improvising with puppets goes, I think the best preparation for an actor is to take on a method acting approach, to go home and put my character in unlikely situations and discover what kinds of responses she would have in order to get an idea of how she lives her daily life, becoming her as much as possible, short of turning blue and transforming into a puppet myself–which, if I could, I totally would! As long as I could turn back into a human after, of course.
What kind of character work do you need to do when you’re working with puppets?
Since this is my first time working with a puppet, I’ve learned that having the puppet on me as much as possible has been key to discovering her personality. She’s become a part of my life. I introduce her to new people as often as I can, and have her interact with them. Because she is naturally curious and adventurous, she loves meeting new people! She probes a lot (sometimes too much), and the reactions and questions she gets bring out different sides of her. The more she interacts with people of all stripes and ages, the more I learn about her. I have to admit, people tend to fall in love with her instantly, she just has to open her mouth and people fall to their knees. She’s starting to feel like a daughter. Good thing I’m not one of those jealous-mother-types because she can be quite a charmer, and make me forget I am there. I think there is something magical in that though, in that it allows people let their guard down more than they might without a puppet there. That’s why I think puppets are so special. They can potentially be conduits for accessing the truth of a situation.
On a few occasions, I’ve also let those near and dear to me try her on, and watching them work with her puts me in the shoes of the audience. For instance, when my brother tried her on, he had her rock out to some background music headbanger style, which not only was a delight to witness, but also gave me even more to add to my toolbox. Now I know she can rock out like nobody’s business!
What does it feel like to play an iconic character like Beauty? What are some inspirations you have to keep you percolating within your role?
Getting to play Belle has been even more fun than I could imagine, sometimes too fun for words, but I’ll give it a shot. I feel like I have been carrying a little bit of “Belle” inside me all of my life, ever since I saw the Disney version as a little girl. That’s the part of me I’m tapping into when I am playing her, as the 7- or 8-year-old version of myself that is absolutely enthralled by her. Like Belle, I longed for adventure, I loved the far-out landscapes of storybooks and was happy marching to the beat of my own drum. I connect with her deeply because like Belle, literature is the great love of my life. I love reading books and sharing their magic, and I appreciated how adventurous and strong-willed she is, while also being empathetic and sensitive. However, as an adult, I can look back at that story and pick out the unsavory parts of it that probably even a young person would be able to pick out today. And the Disney story along with the myths its based on are very much products of their times. I don’t think any father today would trade his daughter to save his own life from a beast with serious rage issues. And I don’t think a woman, no matter how much of an empath she is, would volunteer herself for the job either. Although there are many parts to the Disney story (which is the one most are familiar with) that have to be let go or modified, there is still much to be saved in a story that prioritizes empathy and understanding over appearances. It is a challenge to maintain enough of the story so that it is recognizable, while also translating it for modern audiences, so I spend a lot of time playing with that, and also let myself be inspired by the strong female protagonists from children’s films in recent years, particularly those in Brave, The Little Prince, Frozen, and Akeelah and the Bee, to name a few.