Two titans of family-friendly stagecraft, Redmoon and Chicago Children’s Theatre, join forces this April to produce The Elephant and the Whale—an original fable set in Chicago, about an unlikely friendship between the title characters. Known for its spectacle theater, Redmoon traditionally goes big with elements such as puppets, bizarre bikes and beautiful mechanical contraptions. This show delivers, with the exception of size: Enormous mammals notwithstanding, there are no giant puppets.
Instead, the production illuminates story chapters with different performance styles. One involves a series of boxes that open to reveal dioramas and flat toy puppets; another combines live shadow puppetry with animation. Meanwhile, explains assistant director Will Bishop, part of the story was inspired by fact: A circus owner “ships tons and tons of seawater via boxcar from Florida to Chicago—which actually happened in the early 20th century.” In the play, that’s how a baby whale ends up here.
Although the audience will only see four performers on stage, more than 20 artists have been working for months on the show’s various elements. We recently spent an afternoon touring the city, from Pilsen to Bucktown, to get an up-close look at the creations in process.
At Tom Robinson’s Bucktown gallery, a small crew cuts and assembles wood for stick puppets and story boxes. One three-foot cube opens to reveal a watery scene. The play’s director “wants the waves to move so they look real,” Robinson says—so he connected the rows of waves (still unpainted here) via unseen mechanics below. By moving one lever on the side, the waves undulate, seemingly independently.
Outside the box
In some instances, Robinson and puppet builder Tara Smith make multiple versions of a character—such as Quigley, the villainous circus owner. Robinson, a former furniture maker, works from detailed drawings from other designers, but “I have carte blanche to make the mechanics work—mouths that move, mustaches that twitch or what have you.”
“I draw the scenes and the characters, then cut them out with an X-ACTO knife,” Everman says of her finely detailed works. “I scan those original paper cuts, and laser cut the finals.”
“For this show, we’re doing something different,” says shadow artist and builder Andrea Everman, who began her 2-D designs last summer in her Pilsen studio. “We’re filming the shadow show on a light table, and then we’re going to edit our footage into a shadow-show animation. The onstage performers will have a couple moments where they get behind the screen and into the projection, acting with the animation.”
Dive into the friendship of The Elephant and the Whale at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, April 10–May 26.