NOW IN THEIR fourth season, The Collective Face is proving to be ahead of the curve in contemporary theatre—and they're always ready to try their hand at something new and challenge their audience.
In September, they sold out Grey Gardens, their first-ever musical. And now, with The Little Prince, Collective Face is surprising the audience with two big firsts: a play that’s family-friendly, and puppets.
“When choosing the season, I always try to stretch it out in a different direction to see what audiences respond to,” says Artistic Director David I.L. Poole. “This play sort of has both—for the young, and the young at heart. We thought it would be a good act for us.”
Indeed, the novella that the play is based on is a timeless masterpiece, a slim book with delightful watercolors and messages of innocence, love, and the human experience.
Originally published in 1943, The Little Prince centers on an aviator narrator (portrayed by Christopher Blair) who crashes in the Sahara Desert and meets a young boy he dubs “the little prince.” As the Aviator, stranded, tries to fix his plane, the prince shares his life story, chronicling his time on his home planet and his travels between asteroids, where he meets various wayward adults.
It’s a magical and fantastical story. Poole wanted to play up the dream-state of the book in the production—but it did bring up some potential problems.
“The prince himself has to appear, disappear, do things like flips, be upside down on planets,” Poole explains.
That’s when the experienced puppeteer began considering building a puppet to play the prince instead of casting a child actor.
“In this country, puppetry is looked at as more of a children’s performance,” he says. “In European tradition, it’s all adult puppeteers. In Asia, puppeteering is a big part of their cultural understanding.”
While Poole’s quite experienced with puppets, having worked with Asbury Memorial Theatre on Into The Woods, The Savannah Children’s Theatre, for starters, it was a learning experience for The Collective Face as a whole; many actors had never tried their hand at the craft.
“It’s a different sort of world for the actor,” he explains. One of the biggest challenges, Poole finds, is, when two puppets are interacting, making sure to speak directly to the puppet, not to the puppeteer.
“How does this character breathe? How do they move? Is there an intrinsic lilt to their voice?” offers Poole—they’re all factors that actors need to take into consideration while puppeteering.
Three puppeteers will operate the little prince: a main puppeteer handles the head and the left hand, a second operates the right hand, and an apprentice puppeteer is in charge of the feet. Vanessa Stipkovits will both operate and voice the prince.
They will perform in traditional Japanese Bunraku style of puppetry, where the actors are in full view of the audience—think Broadway’s production of The Lion King.
Using a puppet, Poole feels, truly allowed Collective Face to bring The Little Prince to life. “One of the things we talked about in rehearsals is how puppetry can change your perspective; you can use an aerial view in puppetry that you cannot use with humans.”
“Well,” he laughs, “you could if you were in Cirque du Soleil.”
For set inspiration, he looked at certain African deserts depicted in fantastical films like The Fall—landscapes where the sky turns orange and the sand blue. It’ll add to the overall mythical, surreal feel.
Though the play adaptation is very loyal to the original novella, Collective Face’s approach explores some territory that author Antoine De Saint-Exupery didn’t.
“A good script leads you to ask other questions,” says Poole. “For instance, how does he go from planet to planet? One thing we explore is how he does that.”
Though the play is often performed by children’s theatres—and Collective Face has never gone for a family-oriented performance before—Poole is excited for The Little Prince’s imaginative qualities and its complexities.
“That’s the key to The Little Prince,” he says. “Children see it at one level—they understand it on some levels better than adults—but adults understand from a different perspective, because they’ve had lessons that children have not.”
“It’s about imagination,” he continues. “It’s about always keeping that window open, and not becoming, as the little prince says, like the businessman who thinks of nothing but numbers and money. It’s about thinking of relationships and not turning into a mushroom.”
With its allegorical characters and timeless lines, The Little Prince allows people to find their own meaning and form their own ideas of what it is about.
“That’s why I think this novella will last forever and ever and ever,” says Poole. “Their hearts will be broken, and they will laugh, and cry, and it’s just wonderful. I love it.”