How to Stage Classic Sitcoms...With Sock Puppets
|Sock puppets and those who control them|
The dozen or so people gathered at Atwater Crossing on this Wednesday night are watching the first episode of Friends. You remember how it goes: After ditching her fiance, runaway bride Rachel starts a new life in Manhattan with the help of her friends -- uptight Monica, ditzy Phoebe, smarmy Chandler, skirt-chasing Joey and perpetually sullen Ross. Folks laugh and even sing along to the theme song as if they're watching a rerun on a giant flatscreen.
Except ... there's no TV in the theater. Nor are there any actors -- at least not flesh-and-blood ones wearing costumes. Instead, this staple of NBC's Must-See TV has been reincarnated by sock puppets.
Glamor Puss (brown sock) and Frenchie (white sock, French accent), who introduce the show, are the fur-covered alter egos of Mark Hayward and Charley Knapp, socketeers and producers of the Sock Puppet Sitcom Theater. Beginning in April with Three's Company, followed by I Love Lucy in May, the two have been staging monthly puppet performances of popular sitcom pilots at the Atwater Village complex, which also houses a gallery space, restaurant and bar. Roseanne, Hogan's Heroes and The Golden Girls round out the rest of the season.
By day, Hayward, 42, is head of a mobile technology start-up, while 43-year-old Knapp is a customer-service trainer for an industrial supplier. Sitting in the complex's noisy courtyard after the show, they explain the concept.
"People don't treat socks very well," Hayward says.
The duo's desire to combat people's cruelty toward the accessories, coupled with their love of puppetry and even deeper love of classic TV, inspired them to begin staging puppet shows five years ago at such places as the Downtown L.A. Art Walk and local spaces.
"I'm ashamed to admit how much TV I watched when I was a kid," Hayward says. "But I watched a lot of TV. And those are the shows that were drilled into my head. I've seen Three's Company over and over and over. The criterion was less about the most important sitcoms and more about the ones people have watched the most. I Love Lucy was a natural. People have been watching that for 60 years."
Not surprisingly, the company's production is pretty DIY: socks, buttons, paper, pipe cleaners and felt (Rachel is a Calvin Klein sock and requires extra felt for her famous shag). The performers jostle around on the theater floor behind a makeshift wall covered by yet more black felt, held up by binder clips. The space between the wall and the theater's stage is the size of a tiny closet.
But in addition to a small production team, Hayward and Knapp oversee 10 puppeteers, all of whom are working actors, some who've done prominent voice-over work. (Sock-tress Alicyn Packard is one of the voices behind Cartoon Network's The Mr. Men Show and PBS's Copy Cat, while Keith Ferguson teaches at the Puppetry School in Sherman Oaks.) Each set can contain upwards of five rooms, and each actor assumes up to three characters, sometimes switching gender roles.
Hayward and Knapp go the extra mile for authenticity. For I Love Lucy, they wore only muted colors for the show's black-and-white look. They also use a three-piece band, Those Darn Socks, to play period music and commercials: On Friends night, it was Mentos, Huggies Pull-Ups, Green Day, Soundgarden, Offspring, etc.
But what really took the audience back to 1994 was the breaking news of the freeway police chase involving O.J. Simpson's white Bronco SUV, made out of paper, just like the helicopter prop hovering above.
A stern-looking Peter Jennings delivered the news. He was later joined by Barbara Walters, complete with gold pipe cleaners for hair and trademark speech impediment, which sounded more like Gilda Radner's famous "Baba Wawa" impersonation on Saturday Night Live. Blame it on the generation gap: Only a few in the mostly young crowd laughed.
"We threw in Friends for the younger audience," Knapp says.
Hayward and Knapp chose pilots, rather than the more memorable episodes, for reasons of simplicity.
"They do a good job of introducing the characters, their relationships, where the drama is going to happen, the tension, the conflict," Knapp says.
"Even if you've never seen Hogan's Heroes," Hayward adds, "everything you need to understand about [the show] you get in the pilot."
Their chosen sitcoms all exemplify what Knapp calls "the surrogate family," be it roommates, nosey neighbors or even prisoners in a World War II POW camp. This is something the husband-and-husband team, who met in Chicago and have been living in L.A. for seven years, knows all too well.
"The whole point of Friends was the surrogate family," Knapp says. "And that's what Three's Company was about. I Love Lucy also had a very unusual family situation: It had mixed cultures; she was the first woman to be pregnant on TV. These are some groundbreaking things."
After October's Golden Girls pilot episode-- the only episode in the show's run without cheesecake -- Hayward and Knapp plan to do a rendition of A Christmas Carol, starring Roseanne as Bob Cratchit, the Golden Girls as the ghosts and Fred Mertz as -- who else -- Scrooge.
They're also tossing around the idea of having their Facebook followers vote for upcoming sitcoms, as well as writing an original one with recurring characters. Maybe sock puppet improv.
In this age of fractured digital entertainment, with viewers getting what they want to watch at the hour they want it, Hayward and Knapp are just hoping to make watching television -- even it is played out by sock puppets -- a communal experience again.
"There's something powerful about taking TV and making it live," Knapp says. "Bringing it out from the boob tube and out from the living room into public and interacting with those characters that you identified with or fell in love with or hated. There they are, in the same room with you."Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.