God in the Machine

How a Houston Design Shop is Helping A.D. Players Make Bigger, Better and Livelier Theater

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe comes to life with the help of moving, custom-fabricated puppets by Root Lab.

By Allyson Waller and Cara Maines June 14, 2017


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Fantastically crafted animals brought the Broadway production of The Lion King to life, giving audiences an authentic portrayal of  live lions and zebras and baboons. Now, in the upcoming Houston production of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from the A.D. Players, the inclusion of moving skeletal structures adds a new dimension to another children’s classic. 

Root Lab, a design and fabrication workshop located in East End, constructed lightweight wooden frames to give actors the appearance of real animals. Wooden frames were created for three characters in the play: Aslan, the God-like lion, the centaur, and the wolf. To bring Aslan to life onstage, two actors work together to maneuver an enormous wooden puppet, one at the head and another at the tail. One actor manipulates a similar, smaller structure to portray the centaur, and a third—the wolf—stands on wooden stilts.

According to directors Kevin Dean and Stephen Hurst, Aslan was the most difficult character for the actors to play since two people have to work together to move across different levels of the stage. The directors agree, however, that the wooden puppet makes Aslan a highlight of the show.

“I think the greatest thing is that we can really show Aslan the lion as he’s meant to be,” Dean says. “Aslan is the great lion, he’s this big presence. In the cast production he’s always been played by one actor, so there’s been more of a human element to his look. This really captures the lion aspect of Aslan and the size and scope of Aslan, so I’m really excited about how he’s able to help the story in that fashion.” 

Root Lab designers Francis Giampietro and Logan Beck said they found inspiration for the skeletal structures looking at YouTube videos and examining the movements of animals. They also used the digital design programs AutoCAD and Rhino to create varying dimensional drawings of the animals, with their end results produced with an automated machine.

After assembling the Aslan skeleton, the structure ended up being about 13 feet long and 9 feet tall. The head of the lion was constructed by costume designer Danielle Hodgins and will be made out of lightweight materials and papier-mâché. The two-week project was a new experience for Root Lab, allowing them to tap into a different avenue of creativity.


First full test of #aslan

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“We’re hoping it opens a lot of doors for more unique projects like this,” Giampietro said. “Even with the theater company, I know there’s a lot of stuff they could save time on just if we could do the cutting for them. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there to work with them in the future.”

Hurst hopes that children who see the production will be inspired to explore theater beyond the stage.

“It gives our audiences a different perspective of what theater can really do—not only from an enjoyment side to seeing the production, but to let others know that there’s other things involved to create a production, to create a play,” Hurst said. “Somebody has to build the lion, somebody has to manipulate the lion. Hopefully that will give kids a little more of an excitement and enthusiasm about what they see, and curiosity about what theater really is and what it can be.”

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe runs June 14–July 1. Tickets from $15. Jeannette and L. M. George Theater. 5420 Westheimer. 713-526-2721. More info at adplayers.org.

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