Actors and crew from UAA’s theater department performed "Bring Back the Sunshine" Wednesday evening for a preview audience. The play, directed by professor Fran Lautenberger and co-written by Lautenberger and Jon Minton, combines live actors and puppets. “Bring Back the Sunshine” tells the story of Elena, a woman who befriends and confronts various animals on her journey to rescue her husband from evil. The play, which opens Saturday, March 29 at the Harper Studio Theater in UAA’s Fine Arts Building, is for audiences of all ages.
Lautenberger says many of the animal characters were originally based on people in her life, her “women professor friends,” as she calls them. I caught up with her Thursday to learn more and to hear about the challenges of incorporating puppets into a play. Below are some excerpts from our conversation.
Focal Point: Where did the idea to use puppets come from?
Fran Lautenberger: I started this play about four years ago. It started between a student and I. It was a joke. We thought we should do this play and make fun of everybody I work with. So I started writing the play, and then it sort of evolved into sort of a metaphor for my life in Alaska with my husband. The joke was I had to get him out of here before he died.
The bad joke is he actually did die. My husband passed away two years ago. So then it wasn’t fun anymore. I was like, “Ugh, I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do puppets.” So, (eventually) I thought, ‘Well, if I could find someone else who could look at what I had done so far, maybe they could help me finish it.’ I was just kind of stuck.
So I asked Jon Minton, who is so talented, to finish it with me. He read it and he came up with all those crazy ideas. It sort of evolved into something else and it brought back the fun we originally started with.
What’s your attraction to puppets?
I went to the University of Connecticut, which is only one of three schools in the country that has a puppetry program. And although I didn’t study puppets, I think after you watch them you’re like, “Oh, I really want to do this.” It’s so much fun.
It’s really a challenge because you get to channel yourself through a puppet. It’s a little bit freeing experience for people. It’s just a lot of fun. And I think it challenges your audience. It takes that theatricality one step further. Not just imagine this person is someone they say they are, imagine this thing that they’re playing with is something and it lives.
How challenging is it for the actors?
A lot of times actors don’t realize it, but they act with their faces and they have a lot of trouble incorporating their whole body. And with puppets it’s actually more like dance. You’ve got to be aware of what’s going on with the whole puppet and not just your voice. It’s a little bit hard for people who haven’t done it before, or seen a lot of puppets.
Tell me about the puppets.
We have shadow puppets. We have marionettes, which is the string puppets. We have hand puppets. We have life-size puppets.
If I had my druthers, I would have some more elaborate puppets, maybe more puppets. We had a discussion – is the troll going to be a mask? Is he just going to be makeup? We went through that for a long time, because I don’t have a lot of skilled help in puppet-making. It comes down to how much can we actually do.
But (the troll’s) head is one of my favorite things. I have not made anything quite like that.
You made that?
Oh, yeah. I’m personally responsible. I think the only puppet I really didn’t work on was Bob the Fox, because Scotty (Heverling) wanted to build him all himself. But I would say everything else. All the rats. I farmed them out once we figured out how to make them.
Is everybody that’s operating a puppet trained as an actor?
No. The set crew runs up and does other things. But some of them are singing, because it turns out we have good voices. I like to make sure my set crew feels like they’re part of the action. They’re just as important as the actors. You cannot do a show without technicians, so don’t anybody even look at them like, “Oh, I’m the actor an you’re not.” You couldn’t do it without these people.
You mentioned it stopped being fun back in writing phase when your husband passed away. Now that you see a complete production, what do you think?
This is really close to what I originally pictured when I started writing.
"Bring Back the Sunshine" opens Friday, March 30, at the Harper Studio Theatre in UAA’s Fine Arts Building. Performances continue on Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday’s through April 22.