Skylight Music Theatre Transforms 'Beauty & the Beast' with Puppetry

Mar 16, 2017

While most of us might be familiar with the Disney version of Beauty & the Beast, the opera of the same name is an entirely different spectacle. Based on the original, darker fairy tale, Skylight Music Theatre's staging of the 18th century light opera is a unique reimagining - featuring dance and larger than life puppetry.

James Ortiz, who is the director, scenic and puppet designer for Skylight's Beauty & the Beast, came to Milwaukee from New York to put his talents to the test. Most recently, Ortiz was the recipient of the 2016 OBIE Award for Puppet Design for his critically acclaimed Off-Broadway show, The Woodsman.

Lisa Schlenker and James Ortiz construct the main puppet of the Beast. The armor was made by laying cuts of thick foam on the mechanical structure.
Credit Skylight Music Theatre

Ortiz and Skylight prop director Lisa Schlenker joined forces to build and design the puppets for Beauty & the Beast.

"There aren't that many opportunities for a company of the Skylight's size to really delve into deeply into puppetry as an art form and as a storytelling device. So this is really a tremendous and rare privilege," Schlenker says.

For Ortiz, puppets can enhance a show in a way that human actors cannot. "There's something inherently magical about puppets alone, but I think what's more exciting is when we have characters interacting with them," he explains. "It sort of imbues them with power and it just makes everything more heightened and magical."

Puppetry can transport an audience immediately into a different setting and frame of mind, Schlenker adds. "It's a joy to see that on stage and it's a joy to build that type of prop."

When Ortiz was doing research on the production, he found it was described in French terms as "a comedic opera with dance and music - brawl." He decided to put all that into the Beast, or Azor, puppet. Its design has elements of a goat, gorilla, bird and reptile, as well as baroque architecture and armor.

Azor puppet (the Beast)
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

The Beast puppet is operated by four actors - two in the body and two working the limbs on each side. Using head and torso movement along with mouth, ears and hand extensions, the Beast adds emotions and physicality to the voice heard by the audience. Other puppets include a wind spirit, a boat and a dog.

For Ortiz, the show is ultimately a story about facing your fears, facing change, growing up and "the transformative power of love." But being able to create a new perspective with his gargoyle-like puppet embodies an even more important lesson for Ortiz. "I think since it is about transformation... a lot of it is about embracing otherness...that which is alien, frightening, and something that we immediately feel we should shun."

Schlenker adds that puppetry and opera make a fitting combination. "Opera lends itself to the epic, it lends itself to the power," she explains. "And puppetry also lends itself to the epic fantasy version."

Skylight Music Theatre's production of Beauty & The Beast runs March 17 - 27.