Tuesday, July 13, 2010

They Call Me "Mister" Noel

I am writing my last post from Nigeria. It's almost 11:00PM. In the comfort of my hotel room (the very posh and elegant Protea Hotel Ikeja), it's the last twenty-four hours here; this time tomorrow night, I should be on a plane heading back to the U. S. of A. after eleven days with the new production team for Sesame Square.


This has been a truly amazing trip. The vibrancy of Lagos and its people. The food (and let me tell you they do NOT skimp on portions here; these folks know how to eat); the culture and the pride wrapped around it. The music, the languages, the styles of clothes and fashion that completely run the gamet. All unforgetable.

But it's those brand new "dollie-wrigglers" I've trained that I will remember and be grateful to. It's all due to these four puppeteers I chose to perform these twocharacters that helped me enjoy being so far from home and hearth. Trust me, it would have been a lot harder if they weren't getting it, or not trying, or just complaining. (And dear God, there is nothing worse then a whiney puppeteer.) But they are the opposite. These four individuals who, just six days ago had never even met, let alone held up a puppet, have developed a true chemistry with each other and are collaborating to enhance scenes given them, all on their own. When I came in this morning they had gone ahead and not only started work on the scene I assigned them, but made it better! All on their own! Aside from focus, lip-sync,keeping the puppet straight,performing lines, handling props, and doing it all on little rollies (those round slightly cushioned seats with wheels to slide along the floor on).

And they've picked up on all this in just SIX DAYS.

"You're leaving tomorrow?" one asks.
And he retorts, "Why?"
"Because," I say with a smile, "I have a life."

They don't want me to leave. Very flattering. The puppeteer who asked the question calls me "Mister" Noel. I found out that this is a form of respect for someone who is ...um.... well.... ...... older. Fine. I've reached that. But it is nice that they want me to stay and to learn more from me. The photo of me holding Kami is when I was checking something on the monitor for her. These are both beautifully made puppets by the Henson Workshop NY. But they do belong to Tekalani Sesame, the South African version. And these are the actual puppets from that production; it was thought they would translate well for this version. However, THIS Sesame deserves it own characters and I've already given them an idea for one for next season that is completely Nigerian when they see it; We'll see (money pending). But it is time for me and them to move on.

What I regret about leaving is not being able to see them in studio. It got pushed a week to let them all get up to speed. And that was a very wise decision on the producers part. But they are going to be so good. And each day they will just get better. And take care of each other. And bust each others' chops. And give the children of Nigeria such happy memories to look back on.

"Oh I remember that show from when I was little. I loved that show," someone will say years from now (after watching YouTube cause that sure as heck is not going away).And what a great responsibility to have; creating memories.

Odabo. (Good-bye)

OK.......... We got time for three quick Nigerian jokes before I go. And having survived Lagos traffic, I get these more than ever.

Q: What is the most important part of any moving vehicle in Lagos?

A: The horn

Q: What is another name for a pedestrian?

A: Risk taker

.... and finally.....

Q: What is another name for a traffic light?

A: Wishful Thinking

(Trust me NY; if you can make it HERE you can make it anywhere!
See you soon my little family!)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

THIS is Lagos

So after being here since July 4, I FINALLY get the day off. And as promised the executive producer treated me (and the producer from Sesame Workshop) to a grand tour of Lagos. After all, when she offered I said, "Absolutely. You have a lot of rumors to dis-spell." Well,... mission accomplished.

Once again, this is the clear case of "this-is-NOT-the-place-from-CNN." Everyone here is NOT sending out scam emails to idiot Americans. Everyone is NOT trying to blow up an American naval craft. (In fact, the jack-ass who tried that wasn't even Nigerian; he was just born here.) There aren't pirates roaming the beaches; there aren't gangs of kidnappers prowling the streets. Nope. Sorry to disappoint.

Lagos (which is Portuguese and pronounced "Lay-gus" and also called "Èkó" in the Yoruba language) is a city. It's a big city. It started on Lagos Island where all the government offices were because until 1991. Abuja was designed to be a "capital city" in the same way Washington D.C. was; it was all thought out. But Lagos is "organic," it's grown out from that original island to the mainland. Ikeja, the area we're staying and where the production office is, was founded by colonials who wanted to be nearer to the new airport nearby. This city is busy with people doing what all people in big cities do; live a life. Just like we do in New York.

Yesterday, after a morning session with the puppeteers (who are getting better each time), I went prop shopping and wrangler supply shopping with the two ladies who will be handling the job (one of whom is the right hand assistant for "Kami"). And we went to Lagos Island to.... the mall. YES people! An actual mall. And guess what I saw. Brace yourself. People, no, entire families shopping. Can you imagine? Here? Well, yes.

And today's tour took us to Victoria Island next to Lagos Island. This Island reminded me of shots of Miami beach and Beverly Hill with all the palms and all the (very) rich homes behind the gates. We got to visit Bogobirt House. (www.bogobirilagos.com)This incredible bed-and-breakfast hotel has an extensive art collection, all available for purchase and rooms all themed after Africa; so much tile and wood carvings adorn the walls of your guest room and the chairs you sit in. And outside was a man with the most gorgeous hand made garments for men and women. (I of course bought a shirt.)

Then it was onto Terra Kulture. This center for art and performance has a gallery, bookshop, boutique and a stage. It's where I was treated to a performance of "The Jero Plays" writen by Wole Soyinka. Mr Soyinka (whose full name is Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka) is Nigeria's foremost playwrights. "The Jero Plays" are two combined into one: "The Trails of Brother Jero" and "Jero's Metamorphosis." They concern the charlatan preacher who uses religion to his own advantage. And it's based on actual fake prophets and preachers who roamed Bar Beach. They were written in the early '60's but going by Bar Beach after the play and just a block away, we saw some!

We passed the first Anglican Church built in Lagos, traveled over two of the "Three Bridges" connecting Victoria and Lagos Islands to the mainland. And we passed many neighborhoods, some very rich and some very not-rich. And as we drove by one area, I saw a four story building that had seen better days and in the doorway was a woman. She was sitting and tossing her baby up and down. And they were both laughing. See? Two people just living their lives just like you and I.

Tomorrow it's back to the fleecey grind-stone before taking off this Wednesday. Better get to sleep.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Prepare Yourself

The National Theater of Nigeria is in Lagos. This building in the shape of a general's hat, was home to some of the most superb theatrical performances and concerts ever seen in Nigeria. Upon entering the building, you look up and see this beautiful carved wood, representing the hat's "band", wrapping around the facade.It was built in 1977 as the chief forum for the International Festival of Black Arts and Culture,and was the prime center for performing arts in the country.

But that was a long time ago.

Now the building is a shadow of it's former self, in need or repair and care. So why am I telling you about a former "Nigerian queen" who's beauty has faded to a memory. Because that is where Sesame Square is. Or more actually where the set is being built. That's where I went to today; part of my morning meetings to weigh in about the set and the studio stage.

So I and the producer for Sesame Workshop and the producer for the Square get out of the car and meet the set designer who then leads us inside the theater to the scenic shop. We start off entering and walking through the under ground garage of the theater. Very dark. Very deserted. Very.... wait.... is that piles of wood? That looks like set pieces against that dark corner. And as we approach the wooden frames of what looks like houses, I suddenly realize; this doesn't lead us to the scenic shop. This IS the scenic shop.

We did have a successful meeting figuring out how to fit the little structures in the very limited-spaced studio. I was pleased that my suggestion of "false perspective" (the biggest one closest to camera and scaling down the rest away from camera) was welcomed and accepted; especially since the designer has theatrical experience I knew he'd get what I was talking about.Luckily he also used his computer to reference the design just has the lights went out for about 15 (long) seconds.

Next, it was onto the studio itself, to check out how much or how little space they are going to have. Well, once it saw it, it's the latter. It's sixteen feet wide by twenty-one feet long, with a ceiling height roughly ten, at the most. Yeah. But this was the best and by that cheapest studio they could get. See, here Lagos is the capital of Nigeria's entertainment industry known as "Nollywood." There are loads of productions, such as their versions of soap operas, going on all the time. Some productions have even built their own studios and won't rent them out to anyone. So independent ones take complete advantage of this and hike the price since there is no other game in town.

But they will somehow, God bless them, make this work. They are going to make ALL of this work.

When we got back to the offices, I made my way upstairs to the rehearsal room to see what the puppeteers had done without me. See, before I left, I gave them this assignment: read the script, block it (meaning go through the motions of where you have to be and when within the scene), rehearse it, and then tape it to show me the best two takes they'd be proud to show me.Not only did they do it but they did an ALTERNATE they came up with themselves.So instead of two takes, I got to see FOUR! And it was all GOOD! Really GOOD!

So we moved onto another scene and during the course of it, Zikwe, just before showing his surprise to Kami, ad-libbed the line, "Prepare yourself." This phrase, not only cracked me up in his reading when he said it but, sums up so many aspects of this adventure for me and for them, especially.

Saturday? Well, not only do I get to work with the new puppeteers but now I have to make time from that to now show the wrangler/prop person what props puppets can use by going shopping for them with her. Including key components for the wrangler's kit (the things needed to not only prepare the puppets for camera but any upkeep on them needed) that was NEVER shipped over.

"Prepare yourself."


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Good. Let's Do It Again

Thunder woke me up this morning. I looked out the window and it was pouring rain. And Lagos does not do well with rain.

In general, here are the three things you begin to notice about the streets in Lagos:

1.) No traffic lights. Instead certain, I mean, the rare, intersections has a police booth where an officer will step out to direct traffic.

2.) No sidewalks or crosswalks. Really. People just walk along the edges of where there should be one along side......

2.) "Drains." Actually, two feet wide, two feet deep trenches. Some areas are exposed and you step over them and some areas are covered over by slabs of concrete or (along the side streets)planks of wood to walk across to get to the shop of your choice.

So adding rain to this and the traffic congestion does not make for a smooth morning commute. Luckily I wasn't driving.

So when I arrived at the office, three of the puppeteers I just cast were late. I wanted to speak to all of them and show them a surprise but had to wait. I downloaded a couple of Sesame bits from You Tube (oh what did we do before You Tube?)as references of performance and pacing to show everyone and looked over a script with the director until they finally were all assembled."Well," I said to them, "Welcome to Sesame Square." And after I showed them the clips, I brought out the "surprise." Up to now, they've worked with rehearsal puppets. But in the case I was opening, that just arrived, was "them;" the real "Kami" and "Zikwe." The four of them melted; they loved seeing them and especially trying them on. "And if you're very good," I said, "You get to play with them." At the end of the week. Meanwhile, let's get back to work ...... and have some fun.

Back up to the make shift rehearsal room upstairs and I had them practice again in front of the camera and use the monitor. It started yesterday to help me make my final decisions of who could do this. Everyone of the final round tried it and suddenly going from a mirror to the camera was,...... SURPRISE!...... every movement is the opposite. So today I had my brand new puppeteers do the following: Kami comes into frame in the foreground calling for Zikwe and, starting from the back, he walks up to her. They recite the alphabet together and then walk off. And how long did this take to do? This took three hours. But wait; remember these are people who never did this before today, who began learning this Monday,just two days ago. And each time it got better and better. It happened again after lunch having them practice the classic Sesame song "Sing."

Both these exercises help them with their camera work, their pacing, their ability to take direction and their stamina ("Shake it out. Good.... Let's do it again."). And it also helps them get to know each other. After all, the puppets already have "chemistry;" now the puppeteers need to have their own.

Tomorrow? Working with actual scripts and scenes.



Monday, July 5, 2010

Welcome to Nigeria!

As I got off the plane, walking through the connecting tunnel, the lights went out and flickered back on a second later.

"Welcome to Nigeria!" the attendant at the other end, happily declared.

It's that sense of humor about themselves and their country that you get from Nigerians. They know everything that is wrong; they know it's far from perfect, if it ever will be. They even admit that they were never meant to be "a country." Nigerians are tribal and the three main tribes that still exist comprise the west/south west, east/south east and north. It was, once again, the brilliant minds of the British and French and others, who decided how to carve up and slice out Africa (for themselves first). And it's stuck.

That's enough history. Let's deal with the present.

I'm here to audition and train puppeteers, to consult with the director, and basically help in anyway I can the newest Sesame Workshop co-production, "Sesame Square," Nigeria's very own "Sesame Street." This is the latest version to be added to Sesame's global franchise; think Starbucks with a curriculum. It will be a half hour with inserts from our Sesame with voices dubbed in; in English the official language of Nigeria, by locals to give Ernie, Bert, and Grover Nigerian accents. But the beginning, middle links and the end of the show are on the set of the Square.

The Square's stars will be Kami and Zikwe. Kami is basd on South Africa's Sesame character who lives being HIV positive, as a way to educate, not just kids, that ANYONE HIV + is NOT contagious, dangerous, or a freak. Zikwe is her bigger burly friend with a hear of gold, blah, blah, blah..... You know, the usual. What's interesting is that his name won't be Zikwe here.... maybe. They've run a contest to have him named and the winning name is to be announced at midnight.... of the day they begining shooting. YES! The puppeteers will have worked with scripts and practiced saying Zikwe and then when they walk in the first day, "Oh by the way his name is now 'Master Abercrombe Fitch, Esq.' Cheers!"

That might not seem much to you or I (and it's still a pain)but these are people, not just brand-new-puppeteers, but EVERYONE, who have NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE. Entire production teams for these co-productions, in cases, are people (writer, directors, producers,camera and sound operators, etc.)who have never tried to entertain and then educate; educate through entertainment before, let alone put on a puppet show.I spent over two weeks last year in India just working with their writers to get them up to speed on how to "write Sesame." Here I will work with the director on the best camera angles to shoot Muppets. It's amazing how Sesame has to teach others how to do "Sesame" before these people can begin to teach their country's children.

You don't appreciate "schtick" until you see people who've never had it.("Laugh! There are children in India who've never had vaudeville!")

So yesterday I started the auditions and saw twenty-four potential puppeteers out of whom, three were good. And women. Maybe not a big deal to you but for those in "puppetdom," you know how it can be quite the "boys'club." But here, these three kickd the guys' butt. They were very good and coming back again today to continue. So "Kami" will be set. Now we got more guys in coming for "Zikwe" (or whatever his name is; check your watch). And because the rehearsal space in the office building wasn't ready yet, I did the auditions in front of a mirror in the building's lobby. Yup. And that's fine. It still worked and I still saw what I needed to see. And when it comes to "going with the flow," well I will take this moment to brag.... after my first trip to South Africa, I AM THE MASTER.(But that's another blog.)

More details tomorrow.