The Story Behind the Photo: "Mr. Popper's Penguins"

Tania Thompson
 | Feb 12, 2021
Mr. Poppers Pengins
Puppeteers Miles Taber, A.J. Sclafani and Scott McLean Harrison with Alex Miller and Marlene Martinez in Mr. Popper's Penguins (2016, Theatre for Young Audiences Family series). Photo by Debora Robinson.

About ​​Mr. Popper's Penguins

Mr. Popper loves Antarctic adventures. So he’s thrilled when a penguin named Captain Cook waddles out of a mysterious box on the doorstep. The zookeeper donates a female companion and soon—the patter of 20 baby penguin feet! They’ll sing and dance their way into everyone’s hearts in a musical version of the classic children’s book.

Director and choreographer Art Manke has been part of more than a dozen productions at South Coast Repertory. As a director, he helmed shows ranging from Bach at Leipzig to Noises Off and Peter and the Starcatcher on SCR’s main stages and Mr. Popper’s Penguins in the Theatre for Young Audiences Family Series. He grew to love the penguin puppets created for Mr. Popper’s tale—all 24 of them—and selected the photo above as a memorable moment from that play.

What moment does this depict?

Mr. and Mrs. Popper incorporate the penguins into their vaudeville act.

How did you work to make this moment happen?

Bringing the penguins to life was an incredibly collaborative process involving the cast and SCR’s highly inventive Props Department all under the direction of master puppet designer and coach, Sean Cawelti.

What’s the power about this moment?

One by one, the penguins—each with its own personality—scaled the blue ladder in the background, jumped onto the adjacent teeter-totter, sailed through the air and assembled into this pyramid shape. It was a moment of sheer delight and accomplishment for these birds, who are known more for awkward waddling than graceful flight. So, for the children in the audience who might consider themselves less-than physically adept, this moment gave them hope that they, too, might fly through the air and land with grace; and of course, it taught them the value of team work.

Anything else you’d like to say about the photo or the production?

Over the course of their development, the penguins took on such life that I often found myself giving direction directly to the puppet instead of to the puppeteers. It was a constant source of embarrassment—and at the same time—hilarity!