BWW Interview: Actor/Puppeteer Alexander Sheldon's Hands On (& In) THE HITCH-HIKER
The Wallis Studio Ensemble's latest production THE HITCH-HIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY will open at The Wallis June 6, 2019. Established in 2016 by theatre director and choreographer Madeleine Dahm, WSE (in partnership with GRoW @ The Wallis) strives to share the arts with audiences of all ages. One of WSE's four original company members Alexander Sheldon will be performing multiple roles onstage and off in HITCH-HIKER. Alexander made some time available to answer my queries between his never-ending multi-tasking for WSE.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Alexander!
This is a reprise of Wallis Studio Ensemble's 2018 production of THE HITCH-HIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. What criteria factored into Wallis Studio Ensemble's decision to produce HITCH-HIKER last year, and again this year?
Every year the Wallis Studio Ensemble looks to mount a work that is socially conscious and relevant. Naturally, that can lead us down very dark paths, but after a series of dark dramas and very avant-garde devised work, it was good to make a drastic change and do a breakneck- high-speed, sci-fi comedy. But HITCH-HIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY also fits our mission because it's a biting, political and social satire that has a lot to say about environmentalism and how humans mistreat our environment. Author Douglas Adams himself was a huge environmentalist. I think it's good to show that you can say something important while also making folks laugh and have a good time. It endears them more to the message. Hitch-Hiker is a beloved story with a multi-generational fan base, and one that both our Artistic Director Madeleine Dahm and I have loved for many years. The Wallis Studio Ensemble's original run of the work last year was very successful, but also very short. So there was a lot of life left in this piece and a lot of Hitch-Hiker fans who deserved to see a theatrical treatment of the story. Remounting it also helps to cement us as a company as well, providing us with repertoire that we can revisit and develop over subsequent years.
Any tweaks between last year's and this year's HITCH-HIKER?
The current production is both a remounting and expansion of the original with some new elements added. I'm doing a lot of work on improving the puppet and mask characters, giving them more life, as well as building some new masks. Just look out for those Vogons! In terms of content, we're adding in some scenes that were originally cut. I think fans may be pleased to know, for instance, that we are adding in the space cops Shooty and Bang Bang. We're also fleshing out scenes with more pantomime vignettes, lazzi, etc.; so that there's never a dull moment.
You created the entire cast of mask and puppet characters of HITCH-HIKER. How many pieces do you end up making?
It's so hard to keep count! I'm still in the process of building new ones, even though some of these might never see the light of day and others may yet be added. I can say that there are at least 10 characters represented as puppets and masks, with some additional prop elements of my making.
How long do you usually take to fully assemble one mask or one puppet?
Masks are quicker. I've been making masks for years, so I've got that process down. I'd say each mask takes three days of actual work, with additional days of drying time between each step. For puppets, it is usually a much longer process. They differ wildly in size and complexity. For more complex puppets, like the Vogon Captain and the Sperm Whale, I'm discovering the process, and learning as I go. For those two, for example, I learned how to carve foam. Each one uses different materials. Each one is a new learning process. The longest taking a couple months.
I have seen Wallis Studio Ensemble described as "physical theater, innovative, visceral, provocative, avant-garde." How would you describe your Ensemble?
I would describe the Wallis Studio Ensemble as a perfectly unique company in the L.A. theatre scene. We are often times a blend of dance and theatre. We add theatrical artistry to physical works, and add physicality to traditional plays. There is a wide variety of skills among the ensemble members, which include actors, dancers, musicians, photographers, writers and even mask/puppet makers, like me. The genius of Madeleine, our director, is that she incorporates all of our skills into the work we do. I also take pride in the fact that we are a very diverse company, in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation representation - and that is sorely needed in every field. There is no discrimination, no class hierarchy, just a group of diverse individuals, young individuals (we're all in our twenties), looking to put up great work that is relevant to our lives.
Reading your resume, you're quite the Renaissance Man - actor, mask-puppet maker, fight choreographer, illustrator, sculptor and playwright. What did you first want to be growing up?
I was lucky, because growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a film director. I wanted to tell stories, specifically, visually. Although my vision has changed somewhat with experience, that broad base of 'director' means involvement in every facet of design, so it got me in the mindset of trying a great many different mediums.
Which discipline of education/training did you initially embark on?
I studied film in high school, and took a wide variety of courses in college. For years, I also took summer Shakespeare classes on the side at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum. Little did I know that the classical training I would get there was top-notch, and would sow the seeds for my other interests. For example, it's where I learned stage combat with swords. That's also where I made my first mask. I wrote my first plays with groups of friends in a class at Theatricum as well. It was the Shakespeare that did it; classical education at Theatricum sealed the deal for my future.
Who were your various role-models and icons you looked up to in your different fields of interest?
Despite all of my theatrical work, most of my influences come from film. I always say I can attribute the essence of my being to Lord of the Rings; those movies just captivated me as a kid. I watched them endless times, and knew I wanted to create things that would give me that feeling again. Fast forward - I get older. My tastes get more defined. I become more aware of how much I love, love, love monsters. Then there's Guillermo Del Toro. He's got the best monsters and builds the best, most twisted stories around them. He's my favorite film director, closely seconded by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet for his sense of fun and original world building. For writing, it's Shakespeare. No one beats The Bard.
I suppose I can attribute so much more of my design influence to the monsters themselves. Horror has been huge in my life. The monsters of Silent Hill and H.R. Giger, especially his designs for Alien, are such a source of glee. The list goes on and on.
I see you listed both as Alex Sheldon and Alexander Sheldon. Which do you prefer to be credited as? Alex for acting and Alexander for technical talents?
I prefer for all of my professional credits to be under the name Alexander, but those who know me call me Alex, informally.
What achievements of Wallis Studio Ensemble are you most proud of?
My personal favorite show that we've done is THEBES by Gareth Jandrell. A Greek epic and a monumental tragedy, it's chock full of battles, family drama and politics. It was the perfect marriage of a great classical story, the Wallis Studio Ensemble's brand of physical work and a completely modern message. I also love to play a villain, and few are better than Creon.
I'm also super proud of the Wallis Studio Ensemble taking it first original show WORD OF MOUTH to the Crisis Arts Festival in Italy, right out the gate, which is a testament to Madeleine's vision in bringing together such a skilled group of artists. In addition, I'm super proud of us making THE HITCH-HIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY work for the stage. It pushes our technical skills to the limit, pushes my design work further every time, and is entirely different from our previous body of work. I'm so glad we took a chance on a story that happened to be a childhood favorite of mine.
What goals of creativity have you set for yourself, Alexander Sheldon?
Oh, there's so much I want to do. The reason I became a puppet/mask maker was because I was already in theatre, but wanted to tell the kinds of sci-fi/fantasy stories I've always loved so much in film. There're a great many tales I want to adapt for the stage. In fact, I am working with my writing partner, Jordan Rodriguez, and director Madeleine Dahm on an original, female-centric adaptation of BEOWULF for the stage that's full of classic monsters, stage combat and movement. There are other myths and fairy tales I want to tell, many of which are original. In tandem with these projects, I'll be starting my own mask shop, where my original characters will exist for your buying pleasure. My ultimate goal, of course, is to one day direct.
Any particular audience response from your 2018 HITCH-HIKER that took you by surprise, or touched you the most?
What touched me the most was seeing audience members show up decked-out as sci-fi characters during our costume-night performances. Here we are, in the heart of Beverly Hills, in a well-respected arts complex, and you've got folks dressed in neon and chrome as their favorite robots and aliens, snapping pictures and saying how much they loved our show. Giving the dedicated HITCH-HIKER fans, not just the traditional theatre audience, a fully-realized experience made me happy. Doing justice to a work and genre that is amazing was also incredible.
What emotions or thoughts would you like Wallis audience to leave with after HITCH-HIKER's curtain call?
I want people to come out of the show having rediscovered their sense of wonder. We are pulling you through outer space with a non-stop, fast-paced barrage of that biting British humor. If folks come out of this show feeling like a child again, with their sense of fun intact, then we've done our job.
If you're interested in what's happening next in terms of my design projects, look no further than the Wallis Studio Ensemble's next production at The Wallis in November: WATERSHIP DOWN, directed by Madeleine Dahm with lighting design by Bosco Flanagan. I'll be designing masks and puppets for that show as well!
Thank you again, Alexander! I look forward to experiencing all your various artistry in your HITCH-HIKER.
For ticket availability and show schedule through June 9, 2019; log onto www.thewallis.org