Triad Stage’s holiday show this past year was Beautiful Star: An Appalachian Nativity. It was one of their most popular shows from before I started working there, so they decided to bring it back. It had a whole new design though, including some all new puppets. The lion puppets are the first ones I’ll show you.
Robin Vest, the scenic designer, made the drawings for the lion puppets in the photo above. They were for the Noah’s Ark scene, so we needed two. She wanted them to look like folksy papier-mâché puppet heads with floaty silk bodies. I decided to carve a head out of foam to use as a form for Wonderflex.
I used my favorite kind of foam: free. It was polystyrene foam and the pieces were fairly big, so I broke out our hot wire cutter to cut the initial shapes. I pieced it together from a few pieces since it was so big; it also made it easier to maintain symmetry.
The pieces were joined with Gorilla Glue, which works great on foam. The rest of the carving was pretty standard stuff; lots of Olfa snap blades and carving with the surformer. When it was finished, I had a form that I could use to make as many lion heads as I wanted.
Next up was the Wonderflex. If you’ve never used it, it’s a low-melting thermoplastic sheet with an embedded fabric mesh. You can heat it up with a hot air gun and it becomes flexible, but it is still cool enough to shape with your bare hands. I used it because I could quickly form a mask-like shell around the form that would retain its shape but remain light-weight. It also cools down and is ready to paint in just a few minutes, unlike papier-mâché, which can take a few days to dry.
I made the ears out of more Foamies. I still don’t know whether this is XLPE or EVA foam, but it doesn’t matter, it’s great stuff. It can be shaped with heat, too. I curved them over a PVC pipe, heated them up, and they maintained that little curl when they cooled down.
I ended up doing a single layer of papier-mâché on top of the Wonderflex to give it the right texture and to cover up some of the seams. I used butcher paper dipped in Rosco Flexbond so it would remain somewhat flexible when dry. That way, no matter how many times it got pulled in and out of its crate during the show, it would always bounce back to its proper shape.
My assistant, Lisa Bledsoe, cut and sewed the long silk bodies and made a fun mane for the male lion out of small pieces of silk. The show is coming back next holiday season if you wanted to see them in action!