One puppet has a blue felt face, glasses, blond fur hair, and an orange mini egg nose. Imagine Grover from Sesame street with yellow fur, a red bob hairdo, and a pink dress. Or Cookie Monster with carrot colored fur, royal blue eyebrows, and two horns poking out from a tuft of blue hair. Or a cardboard box with googly eyes.
Dave Mort designs puppets for children’s theater shows. His hand puppets are roughly the size of a small child, three to four feet tall. “David has a natural comedic instinct,” says John Schmor, head of the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Oregon. Mort is the artistic director of Hand to Mouth Puppet Works, a puppet production company he founded.
Mort discovered theater as a freshman in high school. He acted in school plays, studied theatre at Wright State University in Ohio, and graduated with a BFA degree. After graduating, Mort worked as an actor in Chicago for five years. “I quit being an actor when my wife got pregnant,” Mort says. He taught acting to junior high school students for a year, then moved to Eugene and started working at the Lord Leebrick as Development Director in 2008.
In summer 2011, Mort worked with Schmor in an acting workshop on the Meisner Technique, an approach to acting developed by theatre practitioner Sanford Meisner that became popular in the 1980s. “The Meisner Technique gets actors to believe the imaginary is more convincing than the real,” Schmor says. In the workshop, Schmor instructed his actors to practice the repetition exercise, in which two actors comment on his or her partner, and the comment is repeated back and forth between the actors until it changes naturally.
Mort was an experienced actor when he took the workshop, but, Schmor says, he had trouble expressing anger in scenes. He would avoid displaying real wrath. So Schmor cast Mort as the argumentative character Cassius from Julius Caeser to challenge him. The Meisner technique of acting is based on the idea that actors find their most profound expression in behavior that comes out of the actor’s real human response to situations and other people. Belief in the imaginary and suspension of disbelief is part of the delight of theater—and it’s important in Mort’s work today.
Hand to Mouth Puppet Works took on its first big project in 2011 when Mort was hired to build puppets for Lord Leebrick Theatre’s production of Avenue Q. The play ran for two months at the Lord Leebrick from September through October 2011. The popular puppet play has been performed at the Hult Center by Broadway in Eugene and at the Actor’s Cabaret of Eugene. Mort named the company Hand to Mouth Puppet “Works,” not “Studio” or “Theater” because he wants to keep the future of the company open. Now, he builds puppets on contract for individuals or schools, but he wants the company to produce original shows. “Right now we are designing and developing characters. The company is in an early stage,” Mort says. The actors and puppeteers in Hand to Mouth Puppet Works are often on the road, Mort says, so organizing meetings can be tough.
In addition to building puppets, Mort performs as a puppeteer. In Avenue Q, the actor and puppet perform side by side. Mort demonstrated how he matches the puppet’s expressions and head direction while operating “Kate Monster,” a character from Avenue Q. “When you’re acting with a puppet, you can get lost in the character,” Mort says.
While working on Avenue Q, Mort modified the puppets to reflect the puppeteers. In the original design by Rick Lyon, the character Trekkie Monster had “angry” eyebrows, but Mort changed them to “sad eyebrows” to reflect actor Colin Grey’s performance. Mort says director Craig Willis gave him freedom to interpret the original puppet designs how he liked.
When designing a puppet for a client, Mort makes a sample puppet out of soft inexpensive foam, fur fabric, plastic, and experimental materials such as ping pong balls. Small puppets cost 60 to 70 dollars in supplies. Larger puppets cost about 150 dollars in supplies and require up to 80 hours of labor. To make puppets look “childlike,” Mort says the distance ratio of eyes and nose should be a wide upside down isosceles triangle, so the vertical distance from the nose to the eyes is shorter than the horizontal distance between the eyes. It’s easier to see in pictures than it is to describe it.
Mort thinks his puppet shows will be a hit in Eugene because the area doesn’t have many professionally produced shows for children. “The Asian Folklore program has put on puppet shows, but for a narrow adult audience,” Mort says; “and kids perform theater at The Rose Theater, Upstart Crow, Mad Duckling, and sometimes The Shedd. We want to produce children’s theater performed by adults who know their craft. Our goal is to give youth a quality theater experience produced by professionals and show them how fun theater can be.”
Mort is currently working on adapting American folk fables and Shakespeare’s The Tempest for puppet theater. He remembers when the 1996 Romeo and Juliet movie came out and was popular. The reason for its popularity, he says, is the dialogue was modernized and the movie referred to current issues. “I wondered, what if we edited a Shakespeare play for a young audience?” Mort’s puppets for The Tempest will be in the similar Sesame Street influenced style.