Meet First Stage Design Supervisor Brandon Kirkham. If you've been to a First Stage show in the last eight seasons, you've undoubtedly seen his work. From sets and costumes to puppets large and small, Brandon's work is memorable and nothing short of magical.
We recently caught up with Brandon to find out more about his latest project.
What do you do at First Stage?
As the Design Supervisor I personally design at least three production elements (usually costumes, sets, or puppets) each season and oversee the design processes for all of our shows. This includes assembling design teams, organizing meetings, and communicating design information to the shops. I’m also a part of First Stage’s Artistic Team which works to guide the artistic vision of the company.
Have you always wanted to be a Scenic/Puppet Designer?
No. When I was really young I had a whole list of things I wanted to be, including Mad Scientist, Opera Singer, Architect, and Animator (Architect and Animator stuck for a long, long time and I still think these would be very fun careers!). When I was in high school I started acting in plays and at my school there weren’t really designers… you just worked on production elements as you had time/interest. I didn’t even realize that being a theatre designer was a job that existed! It wasn’t until a college acting audition that the idea of being a designer was suggested (As I was leaving the room I offhandedly mentioned that I also brought some of my costume and set drawings … the rest is history).
What was the first puppet you ever made?
When I was really little my Mamaw (grandma) used to have craft days with my sister and me. One day we made puppets out of old socks… mine was a version of ‘Charlie Horse’ from the Sheri Lewis and Lambchops TV show.
Is the Dragon Puppet the largest puppet you’ve designed?
He’s among the largest, though I’ve actually been lucky enough to build and design quite a few of these large puppets. I also designed and built the Bumble (Abominable Snow Monster) for RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER, worked on the crocodile for PETER PAN & WENDY, and built ‘Aunt Beast’ for A WRINKLE IN TIME (all at First Stage). In grad school I designed a nearly-life-sized elephant and some 12’ tall nightmarish professor puppets for shows. I also built a Utahceratops (a dinosaur similar to a triceratops) puppet for the Utah Museum of Natural History in 2011.
What challenges did you face with working on a puppet of this size?
When you’re working on any puppet you need to start by thinking about what the puppet needs to do, how many people are available, and how you’re going to build it given the time and money available. Larger puppets tend to bring up lots of other issues like how much it will weigh, where it can be stored, and how the actor will be able to see. The Lovabye Dragon is one of the central characters in the play and spends most of its time onstage. The script calls for the dragon to fly, sail, play hide-and-seek, and have the ability to show emotion and character throughout the duration of the show.
How does the Dragon Puppet work?
The base structure of the body is an aluminum frame held together by pop rivets. Inside the body is an actor who wears the frame like a backpack. This actor carries all the weight of the puppet and moves the dragon across the stage. That person is also responsible for the wing and arm movement, all controlled by levers on the inside of the body. The aluminum frame is covered with opaque purple stretch fabric on the top and sides of the puppet, and the underbelly is covered with mesh… this is how the body puppeteer can see where he’s going. Two other puppeteers are needed – one for the head, the other for the tail. The neck and tail are a series of aluminum hoops. There’s a pocket/sleeve on the tail into which the puppeteer puts their forearm. The head is a hand puppet attached to the neck that is controlled by the third actor. The mouth opens and closes and the eyelids can close when the dragon’s asleep. All three of the actors have to work as a team to create the Dragon’s movements. Since they can’t speak to each other onstage (and since one is inside the dragon’s body) they’re developing a communication system that relies on their foot motions.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
All theatre - and especially the work we do at First Stage - is collaborative by nature. None of the shows we produce would be possible without the work of the shops, designers, directors, actors, and countless others who bring the project to life. We're very lucky to have a dedicated team of people who care about the project and work very hard to make great shows.
LOVABYE DRAGON, winner of a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation for puppetry featured in the production, premiered at First Stage in January 2017.
Catch more of Brandon's puppets in SPOOKLEY THE SQUARE PUMPKIN at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center beginning October 1, 2017. Visit www.FirstStage.org/spookley for tickets and information.