BRAVING STORMS: Kate Quarfordt, “Tonight, in the Role of the Man-Eating Plant”

Kate QuarfordtYes, in the midst of those dreadful downpours, the floral fireworks may seem long in coming…and yet don’t the ingenuity and endurance that get us through life’s toughest tornadoes always make for the best stories?!


Tonight, in the Role of the Man-Eating Plant

“Well, I sure do agree you’re in a pickle, there,” says the maddeningly chipper phone receptionist. “But our rental agreement clearly states that the puppet needs to be operated by a performer of above-average height and superior athleticism.”

“Right,” I say, struggling not to throw my cell phone across the gym. “But, this kid’s over 6 feet tall and built like a linebacker.”

“Mm-hmm,” says the phone lady soothingly. “Well, let’s troubleshoot. Tell me: How is the young man’s thigh strength?”

We’re eight days from opening night of our school’s annual spring musical. This year we’re doing “Little Shop of Horrors.”

The cast of "Little Shop" around the piano with Dr. Klorpes

                  The cast of “Little Shop” around the piano with Dr. Kiorpes

Compared to other shows I’ve directed, we’re actually in pretty decent shape. Lines are learned, songs are choreographed, costumes are sewn and organized. Parents have worked around the clock transforming the crappy bare stage in the corner of our gym into a professional-looking set. And our lead puppeteer, a talented senior named Keegon—who, let’s be honest, may not be an Olympian but is far and away the tallest and stockiest kid in the cast—has spent the last three months not only memorizing every line, lyric and facial tic of Audrey II, the show’s infamous killer flytrap, but has also learned how to synch his body movements to the plant’s vocals, which are performed by another actor offstage.

Now all Keegon needs is an actual puppet. Turns out, renting Audrey II puppets to schools and theaters is a pretty serious racket, and even the two-week minimum rental fee is enough to knock out half our production budget. But we’re not worried. Keegon is as prepared as a puppeteer without a puppet could possibly be. Once it arrives, he’ll just climb on in and Audrey II will spring to life.

Which brings us to the scene in the gym this morning where over a hundred kids are crowded around, wildly cheering the emergence of the long-awaited plant puppet from its massive packing crate while I confirm delivery with the bubbly phone lady.

She’s still on the line with me as a path clears for Keegon, who confidently flashes double peace signs and a wide grin before disappearing into the puppet’s depths.

Then there are troubling sounds. Muffled grunts. Groaning.

Keegon fumbles inside the puppet and it heaves awkwardly from side to side. I ask my friend on the phone if there are any special operating instructions we should be aware of.

She puts me on hold. A tinny recording of “Got No Strings” from Pinocchio plays and we all watch Keegon wrestle unsuccessfully through a few tense minutes of trial and error. Then the lady comes back on the line.

“So what your performer is going to want to go ahead and do,” she pauses and then continues in her reading-to-an-idiot voice, “is simply stand in a low braced squatting position and hoist the puppet onto his back so as to support its full weight with his thighs whilst pulling back sharply on the straps inside the lower jaw to make the Audrey II puppet move and speak.”


                              Audrey stares down her nemesis Audrey II

I try to open the plant’s mouth so I can relay this information to Keegon, but the top half of the puppet alone is so heavy I can barely lift it. I clear a few inches, shout the instructions into the pitch-black interior and then step back. Keegon makes a strangling sound and heaves himself into a squat as directed. The plant jerks and hiccups. Then he attempts to pull on the lower jaw and the puppet goes into what looks like a controlled epileptic seizure.

He keeps trying.

“How’s it going?” the phone lady asks.

“Badly,” I say.

No matter what position he contorts himself into or how hard he yanks on the straps, Keegon can’t make the thing work. Finally the plant collapses to the gym floor and Keegon lumbers out of it, depleted and soaked with sweat.

“I think I slipped a disc, Ms. Q,” he says, limping toward the gym door. “Not to be rude, but tell that phone lady to get over here and hoist the thing up with her own damn thighs.” He shakes his head. “That’s a freaking heavy-ass puppet.”

The kids, who up until now have been nervously watching, fly into a panic. I tell them not to worry, that we’ll figure something out. The show will go on, it always does.

But the fact is, I’m panicked too. I’m sure there are better-designed Audrey II puppets out there, but these things get reserved months in advance. At eight days out, if we can’t get this one working, we don’t have a show.

So I do what I always do when tech week disaster strikes: I go home and sob the whole story out to my husband Erik.

And at first, he does what he always does: he listens supportively but without any particular urgency or interest. Which I can’t say I really blame him for, since this kind of conversation is seriously old news to him.

Erik and I started dating in high school, back when I was a theater nerd and he was jock. Which means that except for a brief hiatus after we broke up junior year and before we got back together post-college, he’s been listening to theater-related panic stories from me on a regular basis for his whole adult life.

But this panic story is different. Because courtesy of the unintentional genius of the otherwise useless phone support lady, this panic story contains two key words that turn out to be game changers.

They are: “superior athleticism.”

When I get to this part of the story, Erik puts down his fork and stares straight at me, his eyes gleaming with quiet intensity.

It’s worth pointing out here that even though Erik and I are, at this moment, in a pretty good place in our marriage, we’ve recently emerged from a rough patch. Our core issue is simple: we love each other very much, but we are about as different from each other as two people could possibly be.

The extroverted art-girl/introverted jock-boy polarities that plagued us in high school have only intensified as we’ve gotten older. I teach theater at a small school in the South Bronx; he is a corporate attorney at a big firm in Manhattan. I like creative activities with no winners or losers; he’s a long-distance runner with a fierce competitive streak. My happiest places are the stage and the dance floor; he avoids spotlights and crowds like the plague. And although none of these oppositions is a deal-breaker on its own, together they make it hard for us to share experiences as a couple. That’s is essentially what drove us apart as teenagers, and it’s the same reason that even after almost a decade of marriage and the birth of our first child, it can still be hard for us to find ways to connect.


                                           Seymour sings with Audrey II

And that’s why now it’s so strange—startling even—to look up and find that Erik is leaning way forward on his elbows, hanging on every word of my story about Keegon and the plant.

I pause for a minute to get my bearings before continuing.

“So yeah,” I say. “The puppet’s practically immovable—an epic fail in the stagecraft department—but this woman’s got the nerve to be questioning me about Keegon’s thigh strength!”

“His thigh strength,” Erik repeats, unconsciously flexing his own chiseled legs one at a time under the table. “Huh.” There is a little spark of crazy in his eyes.

This is a look I’ve come to recognize over the years. It used to light up his face on the soccer field right before he blasted the ball through the keeper’s hands. Now I see it when he’s leaving for work the day of a huge closing, or when he’s clinking glasses with a friend who’s just strong-armed him into signing up for a 100K relay. At moments like this, Erik’s reserved facade melts and he goes all radioactive and giddy. His nervous system switches into hyper-competitive overdrive and he just can’t contain himself.

I realize with a little thrill down my spine that this is the first time I’ve ever seen him get this look about anything that has to do with “my” world.

We’re both standing up now. Food is uneaten on the table. The air in the kitchen is buzzing with electricity.

The next afternoon Erik leaves his midtown office early and heads uptown on the 5 train. He spends his commute to the Bronx painstakingly highlighting Audrey II’s lines in his photocopied script and listening to “Feed Me, Seymour” and “Suppertime” in his headphones on repeat. Then there is a Clark Kent fast-change in the boy’s locker room where his suit gets swapped out for running clothes and a weightlifter’s back brace. While I work with the cast and the tech crew on stage, Keegon coaches Erik with the plant in the back of the gym.

The same sequence repeats every afternoon for the rest of the week. Erik’s boss and work friends razz him daily about leaving early for “play practice,” but some combination of bewilderment and amusement (with possibly a tiny pinch of jealousy) prevents anyone from putting a stop to it. Meanwhile, my students fall in love with Erik. They call him “Mister-Ms.-Q,” and ambush him with high-fives, fist-bumps and bear hugs every chance they get. Erik blushes to the tips of his ears at this constant outpouring of physical affection, but I can tell he loves it.


                  Erik emerges from the plant puppet at closing night curtain call

Two days before opening night the puppeteers have a breakthrough. They’ve discovered that through the process of helping Erik, Keegon has eventually built up enough strength and stamina to operate the puppet himself through the first couple of scenes. So now the two of them are splitting the role, with Erik doing the bulk of the heavy lifting toward the end of the show. They are elated, whacking each other on the back with mutual admiration and pride before they part ways outside the gym.

Heading back to Brooklyn on the D train with me that night, Erik doesn’t want to talk much. It’s not his default introspection that keeps him quiet, though; he’s just busy memorizing his lines. I don’t know if it’s the physical challenge of the role that’s fueling him, or if the protective armor of the plant puppet has given his introvert’s soul the freedom to explore a more expressive side of itself. Either way, he’s been taking the whole experience very seriously, upping the ante on his performance at every rehearsal, working like a man possessed to get every syllable exactly in rhythm, every gesture perfectly synched. Every once in a while on the train he looks up from the script to ask me a question about the delivery of a particular line, and when he smiles at me, I feel the edges of that decades-old separation between us starting to soften and thaw. It’s enough to bring tears to my eyes.


          The Audrey II puppeteers take a bow

On opening night of the show, I stand in the audience at curtain call with our baby daughter on my hip as her dazed, sweat-soaked father emerges from the giant Venus flytrap. Later Erik will tell me that of all the marathons and relays he’s run in his life, performing the role of Audrey II in “Little Shop of Horrors” was hands-down his most grueling physical challenge. He’ll also say it was one of the most rewarding things he’s ever done.

When Erik and Keegon finally lurch and hobble into the spotlight together and take their bow on closing night, the crowd explodes into wild cheering. I stand on the sidelines and smile. Then I close my eyes and send a silent thank-you to the phone support lady, who unwittingly helped an extroverted arty girl and her shy jock husband find middle ground in the belly of a man-eating plant.


All photos by Alejandro Duran at The Digital Project.


~~~Kate Quarfordt is an educator, writer, director, artist, mama and all-around creative instigator. She is currently at work on a memoir about her ten years teaching musical theater at a school in the South Bronx.

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