Folger Consort’s production of The Second Shepherds’ Play begins performances November 27th. Appearing alongside the talented actors, singers, and musicians on the Folger stage are a number of puppets that help bring this farcical medieval comedy to life. Folger Spotlight chatted with puppet designer Aaron Cromie to find out what goes into making these delightful additions, and what needed to be done to update them for the 2016 production.
When Folger Consort first staged The Second Shepherds’ Play in 2007, it delighted and surprised audiences. Few had heard of this medieval mystery play, a rarely performed piece from a period whose drama is overshadowed by the early modern theater of Shakespeare. The Washington Post noted “[t]he opportunity to experience a play from the mystery cycles of the Middle Ages is such a rare occurrence that for novelty alone, Folger Consort’s staging of The Second Shepherds’ Play qualifies as a lovely seasonal surprise.” Moreover, those that attended were charmed by the playful festiveness of the production, including the use of puppets designed by Aaron Cromie.
“It was really delightful— such good creative fun with an ancient text.” Cromie explains. “What I really like about it is how [adaptor/director] Mary Hall Surface really made it accessible while at the same time being very, very true to the original text in her translation and adaptation. That goes hand in hand with all these visuals.”
Cromie, who also appeared in that production as the shepherd Gib, first became interested in puppets when he saw a production by Philadelphia-based Mum Puppetttheatre in the late 90’s. “I wrote a letter to the Artistic Director, Robert Smythe, who invited me to come and play and it stuck. I spent some time working on several productions in that theater. Subsequently I went to a place called the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater in Northern California and it was there that I learned mask making. I found it was something I could do, and I’ve been designing things ever since.”
In addition to the puppets for The Second Shepherds’ Play, Cromie has done mask/puppetry design for three other Folger Theatre productions: 2004’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 2006’s Measure for Measure, and 2011’s The Comedy of Errors. According to Cromie, “Each of those had its own demands.” For example, “We did puppets for Measure for Measure and we had to be able to transform each puppet into what are traditionally roles played by people.” Measure for Measure went on to win the Helen Hayes award for “Outstanding Resident Play” that year, and Cromie was “thrilled” that his puppets were included in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s permanent collection.
As with many design elements in theater, Cromie’s work changes according to the needs of each show. “I would say that I have certain materials that I like to work with that may be common between the puppets that I make, but each show requires a different design, so I have to be flexible with that,” he explains. “Sometime it’s a show that’s all shadows and I may be working with paper and cardboard and lighting elements, or I might do a show that has three puppeteers operating a single puppet that has arms, legs and head. It all changes depending on the show.”
For The Second Shepherds’ Play, Cromie and Surface “wanted them to look rustic, as though they were made in the time period with the materials given, and to have a very festive approach.” While the puppets will largely be the same as those used in 2007, Cromie anticipates adjustments will be made as Surface explores the play with a new company of actors. Additionally, there is some repair work and updating to be done to the puppets, though Cromie says they “are in pretty good shape because they’ve just been in boxes. They were banged up a little during the course of the show—they’ve been put to good use,—but I’ve refurbished puppets that were definitely abused quite a bit, so I’m glad that these are not too difficult to repair.” For the Wolf mask, which functions as a puppet/costume hybrid, Cromie plans to “go back and forth [with paint] and trying to bring out the eyes a little more, make it a little more sinister. Of course we’re trying to replicate an aesthetic from medieval times, but we’re going to cheat that a little bit just to make sure that things pop dramatically. I think we can be forgiven for that.”
With all of these wonderful puppets appearing in The Second Shepherds’ Play, does he have a favorite?
“Oh, the sheep. Hand’s down—the sheep’s adorable. The sheep’s a big star. Everybody loves the sheep!”
Thanks to Aaron Cromie for speaking with Folger Spotlight!
Come see the sheep and all his friends in The Second Shepherds’ Play, November 27- December 21 at Folger Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.