Trained dancers wear thirty-plus pound contraptions that, when illuminated by strings of wire lights, make the outline of various creatures.
Puppetry for the twenty-first century
Preparing a three-year-old for a Lightwire Theater experience is no easy task.
“Aunt Katie, where are the dancers?” my niece asked as we settled into our seats. Her wide eyes scanned the entirety of The Manship Theater, hoping to catch a glimpse of one, preferably sporting a pink tutu.
“They are probably backstage putting on their costumes,” I said.
“What kind of costumes? Princess costumes?”
“No princesses,” I said. “We’re going to see The Ugly Duckling and The Tortoise and the Hare. Their costumes will be made out of lights!”
A pause. A furrowed brow.
“What kind of lights?”
Electroluminescent puppetry is what Lightwire Theater calls what it does, but using such a term prior to the show seemed counterproductive. Trained dancers dressed in black velour to mask their bodies, wear thirty-plus pound contraptions that, when illuminated by strings of wire lights, make the outline of various creatures. A dinosaur. A tortoise. An ugly duckling.
The Manship’s energy was especially bubbly that Sunday afternoon. Toddlers younger than my niece to kids pushing middle school age packed into the theater, surrounded on either side by their adult chaperones. Lightwire Theater, with origins in New Orleans, has garnered a national following since their appearance on NBC’s America’s Got Talent. Though the dance troupe didn’t make it all the way to the end of the competition, they did fall within the top eight, earning them a spot on America’s Got Talent post-season live show in Las Vegas. Ian Carney, Lightwire’s co-founder, stayed behind in Vegas with a portion of his troupe while the other dancers continue to tour the country, which landed them in Baton Rouge in October.
Carney and fellow dancer and creator Corbin Popp met in 2002 on the set of Billy Joel’s Broadway show Movin’ Out.
“Corbin and I found a kinship in liking to make things,” Carney explains. Upon concluding their Broadway stint, the two begin creating. Popp discovered the electroluminescent wire that would become the foundation of Lightwire Theater. From there, he custom designed the electrical systems, and the pair recruited a dance troupe, two being their wives, to join this experimental process, molding and crafting until their first character, Darwin the Dinosaur, was fully formed.
Behind the scenes, the cast builds each character’s structure and set, scores the music, and choreographs the show. All of the structures and costumes are fashioned from materials found at your average home improvement or sporting goods store: zip ties, duct tape, soccer shin guards, plumbing supplies. There is a resourcefulness in their approach, and that’s the point. Carney wants his audiences to see that art is the fusion of imagination and craft—that anyone can take a discovery, like the electroluminescent wire, and create art.
Lights, by nature, can be mesmerizing and dramatic. But Carney and Popp know they can’t rely on an audience member’s mere fascination with the physical beauty. For their work to withstand time, it must be substantive. “We try to hold ourselves to a standard of storytelling that is not reliant on how cool you look. Cool gets you five minutes,” Carney says. “If there isn’t substance, it doesn’t work.”
And for the story to work, the dancers must be comfortable staying, literally, in the dark.
“Dancers have to be ready to be in a ninja outfit—” Carney says, “from an ego standpoint.” Making a creature come to life is the payoff. Carney explains that his dancers must be comfortable with the fact that while on stage, it isn’t about them. It’s about helping the audience fall in love with a character. There is also a particular technique that comes along with this form of dance. Dancers’ movements must be very sharp and exaggerated to create a moving character with distinct actions. The absence of dialogue means each show relies on the physical movement to move the story forward.
Lightwire takes traditional children’s tales and modernizes them. Take, for instance, their version of The Tortoise and the Hare. Of course, we expect the hare’s arrogance and eventual apathy to get the better of him. But, in Lightwire’s version, it’s about more than just a nap or carrot-binge. The hare sends and receives texts, plays video games, and becomes glued to his television for long, distracted stints, while the tortoise plugs along, one slow step at a time.
In The Ugly Duckling, Carney and Popp felt that the duckling’s imminent beauty isn’t enough to earn respect and admiration. So, after an evil cat captures a baby duckling, the ugly duckling jumps to action in order to save a life, even after being harshly shunned from the brood. Carney believes that the more life experiences you have, the more powerful the show becomes. Though parents typically expect a show geared for their children, they are surprised at the emotional impact that it has on them. Themes of rejection and exclusivity cross any generational divide and make for a meaningful experience.
Carney believes in the familiar notion, “If the emotion is too big to speak it, you sing it. If it is too big to sing it, you dance it.” There is no dialogue in Lightwire’s performances and rarely lyrics in the songs. The mind is invited to be actively engaged in the story as it strings together each narrative element. “We have a unique opportunity through wordless storytelling to bring kids something that is visually stimulating,” he says. Carney and Popp are interested in having their audience process the story well beyond leaving the theater.
“Our hope is that they fall in love with theater,” Carney says. “We’re up against video games, blogging, tweeting.” Human interactions are taking a back seat to these technologies, and Lightwire models that technology which—when paired with meaningful collaboration—can actually create stimulating and significant art.
“Once you’re in love with art, you’re done for,” says Carney, who hopes that an experience with a Lightwire show can spark that love. “I want to be a part of that,” he says.
Lightwire’s repertoire includes The Tortoise and the Hare, The Ugly Duckling, Darwin the Dinosaur, and Carney says that there are always more creations in the works. Since their run on network television, demand has grown and the troupe is busy attempting to keep up with demand. Carney is proud that Lightwire is a “homegrown Louisiana thing.” “We wanted to represent our city in particular,” he says. “New Orleans is such a weird place anyway…we are happy to be able to represent our city and present a product that New Orleans would be proud of.”
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