Take in Enchantment Theatre Company’s production of “Peter Rabbit Tales,” and your eyes will feast on giant puppets loping across vibrant backdrops, with actors disguised in intricate, three-dimensional masks.
None of this came to the stage easily.
The journey to creating the immersive visuals of this show involved research and creative work reaching not only across the U.S., but around the world.
“It takes a lot for the whole thing to work together,” says Landis Smith, artistic director with the Philadelphia-based company.
Creating this special production of “Peter Rabbit” began in London.
To fully capture the vivid illustrations and charm of the classic stories by Beatrix Potter, production designer C. David Russell was given rare access to the archives of Potter’s writings and artwork, all stored in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
“(Potter) did all kinds of artwork,” Smith explains. “There’s oodles of materials not even related to the Peter Rabbit books, and we had access to all of it.”
In this treasure trove, Russell found a rich watercolor painting by Potter that would be an ideal fit for scenery.
After scanning the painting, he digitally extracted elements of the piece that were sent to a Swedish company specializing in printing on fabrics.
Using a printer the length of a warehouse, this company printed these elements onto large-scale fabrics the theater company fashioned into backdrops.
“It was a marvel of engineering,” Smith says. “It really is one of the most lovely sets we’ve ever made.”
The most important costume pieces are the actors’ elaborate masks, Smith says.
Including floppy eared rabbits, a sharp-nosed fox and whiskered badger, these were created in many stages.
“They need to fit the actors’ heads so they’re not too heavy and don’t obscure their vision,” Smith explains. “Most of our actors are dancers, and the work is very physical.”
The process began with making a sculpture of each character. Lightweight plastic mesh was then dipped in boiling water and fitted over the sculpture to take on its form.
After cooling, this plastic was cut and fitted with fabric, ears and whiskers.
Many artists helped, including Russell’s colleagues and students at Ohio University, where he teaches.
“The masks are all hand-made,” Smith says.
Russell further painted watercolor renderings of each character’s full costume based off of Potter’s illustrations, which were then created by a Philadelphia costumer.
“The hardest thing is for (Russell) as an artist to soak in the feeling and style of the work and use his artistic judgment to present these things,” Smith says.
The show’s enormous puppets remain the most popular effects.
Crafted from painted foam and poles, the puppets’ true challenge is operation.
“The cat and Mr. Mcgreggor (puppets) each require three people to operate,” Smith says. “These scenes are not easy to do. It’s a matter of making these supersized things conjure up the characters.”
All of this hard work pays off, Smith says.
“Every single part blends together to create the story,” he says. “We create our shows not just for little children, but so everybody is really engaged in them.”