Special performers put on a special performance of Black Light Puppet Theatre next week
By Denise M. Watson
July 5, 2016
Michael Mast motioned to Antonio Harris and both moved from behind the imaginary stage curtain.
Harris, 38, needed only a little prompting from Mast, the education stage manager with the Virginia Stage Company. Harris waved his arms, pretending to be the wind as he followed Mast across the stage. Harris, and his friends, were rehearsing for their big debut next week.
Harris has wowed a crowd before – he nailed a dance routine in a March talent show at Eggleston, which supports adults with mental and physical disabilities.
“I liked that, Antonio,” called out Grace Davis, the resident teaching artist running the rehearsal. “That’s so cool!”
Harris smiled and was ready for his next cue.
Virginia Stage Company has partnered with Eggleston to create a performance of Black Light Puppet Theatre at the Governor’s School for the Arts on July 16 and 17.
The art form uses a pitch-black background, including dark curtains, stage and people dressed in black. The light in this show will be puppets glowing from fluorescent paint and LED twinkle lights on the performers’ costumes.
Ron Newman, the director of education and community engagement for the Stage Company, came up with the idea because he wants more than the puppets to shine.
He wanted a vehicle for people with a different set of abilities to have a place in the spotlight. The 30-minute performance will include two songs and a story, and will have a narrator.
“We’re creating art for a population that doesn’t normally get a chance to do so,” Newman said.
“If you don’t have verbal skills, you are manipulating a puppet that becomes your voice and movement. It’s just so magical because it’s music and movement. If they don’t want to talk, they don’t have to.”
Each of the five Eggleston performers will have a trained “shadow” who dances and helps them operate the animal puppets like an electric- blue monkey, a neon-yellow rabbit and an orange fox.
Newman has wanted to develop an inclusive art program for years as theater became a way for him to deal with his own disability.
Newman is dyslexic, which affects the way the brain processes spoken and written language. Newman was a child of the 1960s, when there was little research, he said, to support dyslexic children.
He was smart, but unable to read, write or spell on grade level. He had caring teachers in his special education classes, but his self-esteem still suffered.
“There was a stigma associated with that as well from self-doubt, being overly aware that I struggled with the simplest of tasks,” Newman said. “And there were often times in which my parents had a lot of difficulty understanding the depth of my learning problems.”
Newman persevered and became a teacher, working with special education students and also in theater education for close to 40 years. He spent 27 years at Norfolk Academy, where he served as director of the fine arts program.
He joined the Stage Company last year. He knew from research that black theater and its use of visuals and movement could accommodate all types of actors. Newman said he scoured the internet for resources but couldn’t find any companies in the United States performing it. Most are in Europe, where it originated.
Newman connected with Eggleston, which has several locations in the area that provide recreational opportunities, residential homes and job training. Five adults, who work together on a regular basis, were selected.
He wanted to start with a small group of actors for the first show. He plans on expanding the program with more actors and shows, depending on the capabilities of the performers.
During a recent rehearsal, Newman marveled at how the performers added their own attitude and personality to the show.
Harris was now operating the monkey puppet and making it play with the rabbit, being bobbed by John Waff.
Harris pulled the monkey’s strings and made its left paw rub its belly.
People around Harris chuckled, including Newman.