The story of Amos & Boris is really a hero’s journey. An adventurous mouse who feels like a misfit in Mouse Town and yearns to go to sea, builds a boat, sets sail and meets many fascinating sea creatures, but when his boat disappears, he is rescued by a whale named Boris who becomes a firm friend. But like all heroes who eventually find their way back home, Amos, from the perspective of the sea, starts yearning for the beauties of the land, specifically Mouse Town, and one mouse in particular, and returns home. Because of the differing life spans of mice and whales, Amos and Boris assume they’ll never see each other again. But when Boris washes up on the beach one day, Amos and his elephant friends must come to Boris’s rescue.
What’s so exciting about the privilege of directing this new musical are the production puzzles that need to be solved to make the musical as exciting a thrill-ride as possible. And I have a wonderful design team to help solve the production challenges: Francois Pierre Couture designing the set, Susan Gratch designing most of the puppets, Denitsa Bliznakova designing the costumes and several puppets that are worn by actors, Rose Malone designing lights, and John Nobori designing sound.
This production calls for mice, a whale, an elephant and numerous sea creatures. There are seven actors who need to play, puppet or embody all these numerous creatures. And we always knew that puppets would have to be a part of the storytelling, partially because of issues of scale. Add to that the limitations of the size of the playing space, the size of the storage space backstage, the number of actors in the musical and how many other sea creatures are called for, to say nothing of an elephant, are all a part of what has to go into the design brainstorming.
For example, because the main thrust of the story is about the mice in Mouse Town, and it is a very human story of adventure and away versus home and whether it’s right to fit in or stand out, the creators and I decided that humans would play mice. So instead of using puppets, the bodies of our actors will be the bodies of the mice.
Costume design renderings by Denitsa Bliznakova.
In a production in which mice are going to be human-sized, the challenge of how large a whale needs to be to be that many fathoms bigger than the mouse is one of the most exciting puzzles to solve. A single actor will play Amos, and a single actor will play Boris. However, the actor playing Boris will puppet a whale that is 12-feet in length, and over five-feet in height. Originally, Susan, the puppet designer, wanted to make Boris 19-feet-long, which would have been appropriate in terms of relative scale. However, backstage storage and movement around the stage were issues that prohibited that size.
In addition, when Amos is at sea, he meets many sea creatures, some of which are smaller than a mouse, some of which are similar-sized or bigger. When Amos leaves Mouse Town, all the rest of the actors become puppeteers, dressed like the water that sea creatures inhabit. And there are dozens of sea creatures that Amos encounters on the sea. We initially conceived of some of the fish as puppets on actors’ heads, like fish hats. But the scale proved challenging there, as the fish would have appeared to be flying above Boris’s head, given that most actors are over five-feet-tall. We also wanted to be able to see fish go in both directions, so the fish and sea creature puppets needed to be designed, so that no matter which way they were swimming, we would see them as whole creatures.
And then finally, there is an elephant who rescues Boris, who needs to be much larger than the mice and smaller than the whale.
For all these reasons, the absolute teamwork of the entire design team is required in order to solve the design challenges—for instance, what water looks like is a set, lighting, puppet and costume decision together. How the space transforms from land to sea and back again depends partially on how much real estate all the puppets take up of the backstage space.
And in every case, the desire is to solve the challenges of storytelling and scale so that the experience feels truthful, beautiful, whimsical and magical all at once.
Now that’s what I call a delicious design challenge!
Jessica Kubzansky directs the world premiere of Amos & Boris at South Coast Repertory. When she's not at SCR, Kubzansky is co-artistic director of The Theatre @ Boston Court.
A blue whale.
Blue Whale Facts
Amos rides on the back of a giant blue whale named Boris Blue. This excerpt from a National Geographic Kids article explains some fascinating facts about these amazing creatures.
- The largest animals to have ever lived on Earth, blue whales can grow to over 30m long and weigh more than 130,000kg— that’s longer than three buses and heavier than three trucks!
- Pretty much everything about the blue whale is massive. Its tongue weighs as much as an elephant, its heart is the size of a car and its blood vessels are so wide you could swim through them!
- Blue whales can be found in all of our planet’s oceans, except the Arctic, usually swimming alone or in groups of two to four. But in areas where there’s lots of food available, as many as 60 whales may come together.
- Despite their humongous size, blue whales eat tiny shrimp-like crustaceans called krill. But they shift a fair few of these seafood snacks – up to 40 million each day, in fact!
- These marine marvels are a species of ‘baleen’ whale. Instead of teeth, they have baleen, a fibrous material used to filter their food. When eating, the whale lets a huge volume of water and krill into its mouth. It then pushes the water through its 300-400 baleen plates, which trap the tasty grub to be swallowed. Gulp!
- To communicate with each other, blue whales make a series of super-loud vocal sounds. Their calls are the loudest of any creature on the planet, in fact, and can be heard underwater for hundreds of kilometers.
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