Creating a show for children gives designers a unique responsibility on top of the usual demands: presenting the physical requirements of the narrative, interpreting the director's vision, and supporting the needs of the performers. A designer also has to introduce a new generation to the theatre and hopefully convert them to become regular theatregoers. And in addition to creating a world that younger audiences will enjoy and continue to support as they grow up, they have to engage the parents who, after all, are paying for the tickets.
Go, Diego, Go Live! The Great Jaguar Rescue, currently out on tour, gave the design team even more of a challenge — to translate the world of Diego's successful Nick Jr. cartoon series into a live show featuring characters instantly recognizable to the pre-school set.
Scenic designer David Gallo, whose recent Broadway credits include The Drowsy Chaperone and Company, had no problem getting in touch with his inner child for Go, Diego, Go Live! Gallo was the production designer for previous Nick Jr. tours including Blues Clues and Dora the Explorer, and created Dora's giant pirate ship on her Pirate Adventure tour before taking on Diego. Rather than try to reproduce the cartoon exactly, he evoked the colorful, two-dimensional look of it, while almost inviting the audience to see behind the scenes. He says, “We decided early on that, if the puppeteers were seen, it wouldn't be the worst thing; we're not trying to present the illusion that the puppets are real.” And because kids love puppets, why would they? The action takes Diego, his sister Alicia, and cousin Dora on a quest to find Baby Jaguar's growl through the rain forest, on a river raft, and into an ancient Aztec pyramid.
Gallo describes his approach as, “exploiting all the old-school methods” to create his version of South America, using net drops painted by Joe Forbes at Scenic Art Studios, travelers, and a large, raked platform on wheels built by Virginia Scenic. Four cut portholes are painted to represent the jungle and seven other drops are added as the action demands. Gallo calls the show, “an environmental cautionary tale,” as Diego meets various animals and learns about them, and he threw in a dash of Indiana Jones at the end. Gallo dressed the raked platform as a river with strips of fabric for creatures to peek out of the slits. Diego's raft, courtesy of his Rescue Pack, rides on top of it. The rake gives the audience a big enough angle to see the creatures, and the fabric representing water adds movement. When Diego searches through the pyramid, two drops iris out to reveal a large head, flanked by painted torches lit with blacklight. In an example of art imitating art, the painted torches don't give the illusion of real fire, but are pretty close to the animated fire of the cartoon. Children in the audience will instantly recognize the hang glider that Diego flies — courtesy of ZFX Flying Effects — at the beginning of the show, and the raft, as Diego's Rescue Pack because the props, also created by Virginia Scenic, are orange with Rescue Pack's face on them. The raked platform is re-dressed at the end of the show for a party at the Aztec pyramid with yet more animals.
Some animals, like Diego's sidekick Baby Jaguar and the mischievous Bobo Brothers, are portrayed by actors. Others were created by Martin P. Robinson Productions. Robinson, a puppet designer and the puppeteer behind Sesame Street's Aloysius Snuffleupagus, created 20 puppets for this production and taught the cast how to operate and interact with them. Robinson's production company built most of the puppets with help from Monkey Boys Productions, but the largest puppet, Senor Arbol — a talking tree that is a staple of the animated TV series — Robinson built from scratch. Senor Arbol was created by carving the façade of a tree out of a block of rigid foam, first with a chainsaw and then with an electric turkey knife. Two puppeteers operate Senor Arbol from behind: one animating his eyes which can blink and move, and one opening and closing his soft-foam mouth as he talks and sings. Operators working smaller puppets are harder to hide, Robinson explains. “Puppeteers hide between set pieces and behind trees, and are wearing jungle-colored outfits to blend in, but puppets demand attention from the audience so the humans are not intrusive.”
The animals are at least 20% larger than life to make them visible on stage. Robinson says, “One of the challenges was that the show is set in the rainforest, and we had to have animals up in the tree canopy, as well as on stage and in the river.” To accommodate this, the puppets are operated in several different ways, from a simple hand puppet representing a red-eyed tree frog, to puppets on Fiberglas poles attached to puppeteers by a harness resembling a deep-sea fishing rig with bungee cords at the shoulder to support the weight. Sloths, birds, and monkeys populate the canopy. A howling monkey that comes under attack from a circling harpy eagle moves on 15' poles. The eagle has an articulated head and neck and a 6' wingspan made from plastic to keep its shape. A spring system makes the wings flap, as the operator makes the bird wheel and dive.
Where possible, LD Tom Sturge lit only the puppet, not the operator, but the scene with the harpy eagle required too much action from operators on stage and would have been a distraction to the audience if lit from above. To put the operators in shadow, Sturge placed fixtures on the stage and uplit the eagle, an effect that coincidentally made the creature appear even more menacing. “It's a little scary, but not too scary,” he says.
Sturge is also an alumnus of Blues Clues and Dora tours, and as a former head of the Boston University lighting design program is particularly attracted to the Nick Jr. shows because they help create the next wave of both theatregoers and designers. He says, “It is the first time a lot of these kids have seen a show, so we are bringing live entertainment to the next generation.” As a youth growing up outside NYC, Sturge was so entranced by the theatre that he used to sneak into Broadway shows and find an empty seat during the intermission. After studying electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, he transferred to Boston University for lighting design and later went back to Broadway, but this time he didn't have to sneak in. Sturge designed the lighting for Those Were the Days, the last Yiddish show performed on the Great White Way, and other New York productions such as the original Amazing Grace and Gypsy Passions.
Sturge chose to light Go, Diego, Go Live! with Martin moving lights from Christie Lites for their tourability. “I prefer to use moving lights with color-mixing capabilities,” he says. “I wanted the whole show to look as consistent as possible, which is why I don't use scrollers.” For control, Sturge chose the MA Lighting grandMA to handle the nearly 400 cues in two half-hour acts. He calls its effects and cueing capability “almost artificial intelligence.” He also used the Wybron Autopilot II system with Martin MAC 2000 Wash units because “it gives the leads a ‘pop,’” he says. The rig comprises three 50' trusses, Martin MAC 2000 Profiles and Wash units, Martin MAC 500 Profiles with 23° wide-angle lens, and MAC 600 Wash units with standard wide-angle lens. Conventionals include various ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and PARs, a Robert Juliat D'Artagnan 2500W HMI 9-28° Zoom with DMX Douser, 1kW Fresnels on a rolling stand (lens removed for shadow effect), Altman FC1s (focusing cyc lights), and 6' 30-light MR16 75W FL EYC striplights.
The show presented Sturge with lots of opportunities for fun effects. The action takes place during the course of a day, so he was able to do a pink-and-red sunset, and when Diego passes a waterfall (made from silk) on his travels, the water lands in a spray effect provided by a High End Systems F100 fogger. Some effects had to be nixed to avoid injuring puppet operators. For example, Sturge had planned to place dry ice underneath the moving river platform, but puppeteers working beneath it had an inconvenient need to breathe. Additional effects were achieved by Altman UV-703 400W Blacklight Fresnels, Jem Foggers, and Reel FX DF-50 Hazers.
Possibly the most fun Sturge had was using CITC Li'l Blizzard snow machines to create lava billowing out of a volcano. The volcano is lit in reds and oranges by a MAC 600 shooting through a fan to change the color of the smoke, and the fake snow not only looks remarkably like volcanic ash and lava, but the foam evaporates completely, making clean-up consistently easier for the stage crew than for the front-of-house cleaners sweeping up candy wrappers and worse left behind by pre-schoolers.
One character from the TV show that requires a child-friendly special effect is Click, a camera with a zoom lens who can find lost animals. The designer simply used Click's followspot to redirect the audience's attention to the animal he zooms in on. The same effect was used to show Baby Jaguar's growl — plot spoiler coming up: When the Bobo Brothers sheepishly return the stolen growl to Diego's sidekick, it appears as a flash of light from a followspot flying from a bottle lit by flickering candle LEDs back to Baby Jaguar. With his growl returned, he can officially start the parade.
Go, Diego, Go Live! tours the US through August.