Constellation Theatre spoke with Matthew McGee, who we first met on stage in Taking Steps, for which he won a Helen Hayes Award. This
May we find him in a puppeteer role for Gilgamesh.
First and foremost, congratulations on your Helen Hayes Award for Best Supporting Actor in our production of Taking Steps! It was a super performance and very much deserved.
Matthew McGee – Why thank you! I am still trying to find time here and there to actually let it sink in. It’s still hard to believe.
Tell us about your puppets! How did this job come to be and what does it entail?
After I started working on Taking Steps Allison became aware of my background in puppetry and contacted me to see if there could be any use for puppets in Gilgamesh. There were a few more puppets discussed in production meetings that were going to be built, but as rehearsals progressed it became apparent that certain elements were unnecessary. So now I have been responsible for one big, menacing bull puppet that the actors have to fight with. Keeping that in mind, my job entails not only building a large bull head that is light enough to be carried by an actor, but structurally sound enough to endure some physical stress from “actor encounters.” I’ve been working with a lot of cardboard, masking tape, aluminum foil, and paper mache. To some, these are pretty crude, inefficient materials, but I have a tendency to use stuff that is really easy to come by (and generally recyclable) because they are surprisingly versatile and get the job done!
How did you work with Allison and the design team on the puppets? How are the puppets used in the production…i.e. is there a puppeteer behind the curtain?
We spent a lot of time figuring out how the bull puppet would be able to move through the space, which meant corresponding with Ethan, the set designer, to make sure there would be enough room to allow for that. We also had to figure out what additional actions would be required in the scene that the bull would need to perform so I would know how the puppet would need to be built. After a few design drafts the bull is now mainly a giant head with a fabric covering that two actors use to “suggest” a life-sized bull (much like Chinese dragon dancers).
Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be involved in puppet design.
I grew up with a background in puppetry since my father was (and still is) a storyteller/ventriloquist. As a child I would sometimes travel with my family and do shadow puppet shows at elementary schools throughout California. In the summers I went to festivals and saw many different kinds of puppet theatre and learned how to make different types of puppets from seasoned professionals. By the time I got into high school I had begun building my own puppets for various projects I was involved with. By college I had put together my own little business and performed professionally in California with a little puppet show that I took to libraries around the state. When I moved to DC I didn’t touch puppets for over a year, but seeing as there are not a lot of puppet designers out there I reached out and contacted some theaters to let them know I was around and what I had to offer. Eventually it opened some new doors.
You mentioned that you were doing puppets for a local children’s theatre company…tell us a bit about that.
That was one of those doors! I contacted Imagination Stage last summer and told them I was a puppeteer new to the area looking to see if I could be of assistance somehow. They eventually brought me in for an interview and I got hired to design and build puppets for their current Roald Dahl Rep. of James and the Giant Peach and The Magic Finger, playing now! So, needless to say, the last month or so has been nothing but PUPPETS!
What is on the horizon for you – where can we see you next on stage?
The next thing you will be able to see me in is Studio Theatre’s Rocky Horror Show this summer. [McGee will play the role of Riff Raff] After that? Who knows!
Have you ever made a puppet that looks like you? 🙂
Haha, I don’t think so, but I tried making a rag doll that looked like me once!
Check out Matthew’s puppets at Gilgamesh, opening Thursday, May 2 and running through June 2