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Interview: Sue McLaughlin of FROZEN at Saenger Theatre

BWW talks with McLaughlin on FROZEN's magic

Interview: Sue McLaughlin of FROZEN at Saenger Theatre
Caroline Bowman as Elsa in FROZEN North American Tour
Photo by Deen Van Meer

Disney's staged version of FROZEN, set to arrive at the Saenger Theatre February 10-20, brings the world of Arrendale to life with jaw-dropping pageantry. One of the biggest (and smallest) reasons behind the magic goes to the two non-human roles of reindeer Sven and snowman Olaf, created through the designs of Michael Curry.

Sue McLaughlin, key dresser and puppet supervisor for FROZEN, is a member of the show's creative team and helps ensure they are brought to life each night. For 20 years, McLaughlin worked on the puppets for the Broadway production of The Lion King and is an original member of The Lion King-Gazelle National Tour. FROZEN is her second production working with Curry-designed puppets. sat down with McLaughlin to find out about her work, how she used her Lion King experience on FROZEN, and what it is about a puppet that can make something feel especially magical. To give a brief overview, what is the purpose of puppetry in theatre?

McLaughlin: When something like Disney animation is transferred to the stage, you have a lot of characters that are not human that are very much a part of the story, and you need those characters to move the story forward. And there are characters that people fell in love with in the films they expect to see onstage, but they're not human. So that's when Disney turns to puppetry to convey those characters and bring them into the world they're creating onstage.

It's really kind of magical... you're not going to be able to train a reindeer to be onstage, so how are you going to have Sven, who's a big part of the FROZEN story onstage? And that's where Michael Curry steps in and designs a really magical unbelievable puppet that is a reindeer that is interictally beautiful by itself but then when the performer gets in it and brings it to life; it's completely magical.

Interview: Sue McLaughlin of FROZEN at Saenger Theatre
Collin Baja (Sven) and F. Michael Haynie (Olaf) in FROZEN North American Tour
Photo by Deen Van Meer

BWW: In the past, you'd see puppets in niche shows like Little Shop of Horrors, but there's been a trend of puppetry being utilized in big shows and in big ways. What's fueling this puppet renaissance?

McLaughlin: I feel like when I was growing up, puppets were considered for kids. You went to a kiddie show that was puppets, and there were puppeteers, and at some point, people realized there was a much bigger way to utilize them. They took performers that were at the top of their craft. They took very good actors and very good dancers and taught them puppetry rather than teaching puppeteers acting or singing or dancing, and in that way, they were able to incorporate them into telling a bigger story.

You know, Lion King, which is almost 25 years old now, being brought to Broadway, seeing it wasn't just for kids; it was effective in telling a story. It was effective in bringing an audience into another world. The idea that an audience could see a puppet and a person's face playing the same character, and they could participate in putting those two things together. I think all of that made it more accessible.

I've seen puppets used in ballets; I agree it's been much more accepted, and I think it was sort of an evolution where people realized, 'oh no, this isn't just for children.' It doesn't always mean hiding the actor behind the puppet, and I think those two things opened up a whole world of possibilities.

BWW: How is it decided when a character needs to be portrayed by a puppet? What does a puppet bring to a character that a human can't on their own?

McLaughlin: I think there's an other-worldly element to a puppet. That goes beyond putting a human into a snowman costume from head to toe. The puppet can have a different stature; he can have a different silhouette than a human can. He can move in ways that a human just can't. There are just elements to a puppet and how a puppet moves that humans, as much as they try to emulate a four-legged creature or a snowman, they just can't achieve because of their anatomy, essentially.

So, I think that's part of what makes it magical. And Olaf is a little snowman, so size-wise, he needs to be a little bit smaller than the humans around him. He's nice because you can see the actor behind him, and so the actor's expressions help to bring Olaf to life. Olaf the puppet has a wide range of expressions using his eyebrows and his mouth and his body, but also you can see the actor's face, and that sort of imprints on the character. And that combination and the way the audience participates in melding those two things together make it engaging.

BWW: What sort of care goes with handling the puppets onstage and off?

Interview: Sue McLaughlin of FROZEN at Saenger Theatre
Mason Reeves (Kristoff) and Collin Baja (Sven) in FROZEN North American Tour
Photo by Deen Van Meer

McLaughlin: I do about eight hours of maintenance a week just to make sure they're all working properly, and they're safe, and their paint is touched up, and they're clean. So that's the maintenance end of it, and then onstage you have a reindeer, and it's beautifully portrayed by two different actors that alternate the role, Evan Strand and Collin Baja, and when they're in Sven, they are a big animal backstage. Their sight and hearing are very limited, so we have to be careful to make sure they're guided backstage and that everyone else is aware that they're there and needs to be out of the way. There are big antlers, and there's a big animal backstage.

And for Olaf, he has a big carrot nose that sometimes gets knocked to one side. So, he's very careful...he's super aware of maintaining him and taking good care of him. I'm always very close to Sven, especially because of his limited sightlines, and then I check in on Olaf periodically. He doesn't have a lot of free movement because he is attached to the puppet. We are always there to take care of the people and take care of the puppets.

BWW: After working on The Lion King for 20 years, how did you apply your experience on that show to FROZEN?

McLaughlin: These puppets are designed by Michael Curry, the same person who designed Lion King. It was nice to bring all of that experience of the materials and the mechanics and have a little idea of how these puppets would work. I had some idea of how they would attach to the humans, had some idea of what the mechanics were for moving the eyes and ears on Sven's head. And all in that, in general, made sense to me because I had done so much work on Lion King. Because it was the same designer, you have an idea of what you're looking for, how they're going to be designed, and how they will work.

I was super excited to be working with Curry puppets again because they're just stunningly beautiful. The hand painting, hand-dying, and careful attention to detail are stunning. Then they are so aware of the performer and how a puppet interacts with the performer and how the performer interacts with the puppet that they create things that a performer can use to be so expressive and magical. I know I keep using the word magical, but that's what comes to mind. I was super excited to be doing this kind of work again.

BWW: What can you tell me about how the puppets were constructed?

McLaughlin: They are made out of a carbon fiber, which is a high-tech material that is light and strong. And that's what keeps the puppets as light as possible. For Sven, you have an aluminum armature and steel armature inside. There are stilts that are crafted out of metal and carbon fiber, and then the parts people see, the carbon fiber is painted, so it looks like fur; the eyes look like real eyes. The antlers are beautifully hand-painted just to get your attention. And then the rest of him is covered in silk fabric that's all been hand-painted and hand-dyed and cut so that when Sven moves, there's a certain amount of movement in his fur that helps bring him to life. His ears, which are just foam and painted, are on swivels so that as he moves, the ears have a little motion to them. His head is counterbalanced, so just him walking begins to bring that character to life. And then he has controls over blinking the eyes and moving the ears, and that's how he creates his expression a lot of the time. There are cables that run from the actor's hands up into the head construction that moves the eyes and the ears. Lots of thought is put into constructing these, so they are as light as possible but still very strong because they need to do eight shows a week.

BWW: What is life backstage like for the puppets?

McLaughlin: It's physically very demanding because as light as we try to keep the puppets, there's a certain amount of weight. Olaf, for example, it's out in front of his body, and he uses his right arm and hand to manipulate the mouth and the eyebrows. It's very physically exhausting because he's out there singing and dancing and puppeting all at the same time. So, he'll come off after his big number and hop out of the puppet and take a little break because that goes right into intermission for him.

And the Svens will come offstage, and depending on the length of their break, they rest at what we call a puppet station, where they can sit up straight as a human. Then Sven's head gets hung on a hook above their head, and they can take a rest and get some water and breath outside of the costume. For their longer breaks, we take them out of their front hooves and their head, and they have a rolley stool they can relax on and move around a little bit. Their costumes are so intricate that they prefer to stay in most of them, especially because they want to keep their bodies warm and healthy. They don't care to get out of everything because it's too much of a temperature variance for them.

BWW: Which has been your favorite puppet to work with?

McLaughlin: This is always such a hard question because it's like asking who's a favorite child. I have a deep affection for Scar because that's one of the very first puppets I've worked with years and years ago. Starting back in 1998, that was one of the first ones. I have a soft spot in my heart for that puppet. But honestly, it changes day to day. Because some days one puppet will give you a little bit of trouble, a little bit more than what you wanted and some days they're just magical. It depends on the day. I love them all; they're all special to me.

BWW: Anything else you'd like to add?

McLaughlin: The puppets themselves are works of art, but when the performer brings them to life and makes them a part of the Arrendale community, that's what brings it from being pretty and beautiful to being magical. It's the combination of the puppets and the performer. It still takes my breath away. Every once in a while, I'll kind of peek out onstage, and I'll see Sven, or I'll see Olaf doing his number, and it's just like, wow, that is magic. I get the privilege of working with these puppets every day. I clean them, check them, and touch up the paint. I love the puppets, but they're not a full-blown character and part of the community until they're onstage. It is magical. And I'm so excited to be back at the Saenger. I was at the Mahlia Jackson and the Saenger Theatre at different times through New Orleans with The Lion King, so I'm super excited to be back there.

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