About a year ago, I began rehearsing at the Swazzle Workshop for a live production of The Little Prince by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar, based on the children’s book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. I couldn’t possibly have known this on the first day of rehearsal, but this project would transform me as an artist.
The play featured a blend of live actors and puppetry. We puppeteers were visible onstage, our facial expressions illustrating the emotional life of the characters. To amplify this relationship, the puppeteers were costumed in flowing earth tones to blend with the desert setting. Fun fact: the gorgeous, minimal set was designed by Brett Snodgrass to fold up and stow in the back of a Mercedes Sprinter van.
I was cast as the Rose, the Snake, and the Fox. To differentiate the character voices, I selected various archetypes to help anchor me in the characters. For the vulnerable, demanding Rose, I took Marilyn Monroe as my inspiration.
For the alluring and deadly Snake, I brought to mind Angelina Jolie on that particular Oscar night, when she kicked out a mile of leg and purred, “Good evening.”
It was trickier for me to find the voice for the Fox, who for me served as the heartbreaking center of the play. But as the rehearsal process unfolded, I came to understand that the closer I played the Fox to my own heart, the truer the character felt.
Patrick and Sean Johnson of the Swazzle Workshop assembled a dream cast and crew for a compact little tour. The title role of the Little Prince was played by the D.C.- based Paige O’Malley, who I can safely say is the most gifted performer I have ever worked with. As my tour roommate, I was soon to learn that she is as sweet and delightful as she is talented. We also had the distinction of playing the same performer track on Dream Carver, an original Swazzle production, on two separate tours.
Ray Castro, Jr. portrayed the Aviator with a wonderful sensitivity that directly correlates to who he is as a person. I had previously worked with Ray on the PBS show Mack & Moxy, and I was excited to do another show with him. Fun fact: he really loves soup.
Rachel Herrick rounded out the puppeteer ensemble. We were Stage Managed by Rachel Burson, who pulled off the difficult trick of being very affective at her job while also being well liked. Her previous experience includes Cirque de Soleil, and we were honored to have her with us. Josh Anderson of Arkansas served as our Technical Director, driving the company van, supervising the safe load-in and load-out of our set, and always game to discuss our mutual admiration of the S-Town podcast.
We began the tour with a long weekend at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, and then did a week-long stint at the Smith Center for the Arts in Las Vegas. After a break of a few weeks, we went on a three week tour of theaters on the East Coast.
When it came to the performance in Allentown, PA, we had quite a few distinguished guests in the audience, and nerves were running high. Paige’s mother came to the show, as did the playwright/composer Rick Cummins. And it was my great privilege to welcome the producers of Season 11 of Mystery Science Theater 3000, on which I had puppeteered the previous fall. I was so genuinely touched that they came out to see me in a play, that I still don’t have the words to express it.
But mostly, yeah, I was nervous because my own parents were in attendance as well. The morning of that show, I looked out the window of my hotel room, and I saw a bright red cardinal bird, just like the ones I would see outside the kitchen window when I was a child. I took it as a sign that the performance would be great. However, I still had to spend a few minutes calming my nerves before Rachel Burson called, “Places!”
I did put all that nervous energy to good use, in my Rose and Fox scenes where I had to cry. (This show is a weeper, by the way.) That performance turned out to be one of our best shows of the run, and we had a wonderful meet-and-greet with all our special guests in the lobby afterwards. The playwright was thrilled with the integration of puppetry in his play, and it seemed like there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was after that performance that I felt a transformation happen.
It goes like this. I was taught in acting classes how an actor should research, and learn their lines and blocking, and then when they step onstage, never think ahead to anticipate their next cue. You simply speak and move about the stage like the character, because you are the character, and what comes out of your mouth is automatically the correct line. I have always found this concept absolutely terrifying. I never knew that such a thing could even be possible. And yet, I found myself doing performances of The Little Prince like this. It’s an exhilarating feeling. I don’t know if I will have this experience when I do other plays in the future, but at least now I know this way of working is attainable.
Towards the end of the run, Ray left us to officiate a family wedding. His understudy Jonathan Kidder stepped into the role, playing his own wonderful interpretation of the Aviator, and giving new energy to the production. Throughout the tour, he cast continued to find new meaning within the lines of this play that reads like poetry and contains infinite wisdom about the nature of life, death, and love. The run ended and the company parted ways, bonded over the richness of our shared experience.
Later that summer, to celebrate my birthday, I went with some friends up to the Animal Tracks Wildlife Preserve. I got to meet and hold a fennec fox, which was the type of fox that Antoine de Saint-Exupery tamed when he survived a plane crash in the Sahara Desert long ago. This experience was the inspiration for his book, The Little Prince, published in 1943. I have always felt a deep connection with the author, with whom I share a birthday. When I held that trembling fennec fox, I knew my journey had come full circle. My heart was full.
tour photos courtesy of Swazzle, Inc.