My Complicated History With Little Shop of Horrors

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This is the story of Little Shop of Horrors and how I went from being a traumatized child to an enthusiastic fan to an eager participant in a stage production thereof. It is also the story of how my younger brother and I each ended up participating in separate, but related, productions of it. 

I think I was about nine years old when I first saw the movie on TV. At the time, I found it quite disturbing. It was almost more than I could bear, even with the happy ending. I mentioned this once to Frank Oz on Twitter (and it is still so surreal to me to be able to write sentences like that), and he very kindly responded with the opinion that nine years old was probably too young to watch it.

I don’t disagree with him, but there was more to it than that. At the time, I was in the midst of a weird phase that started when I was seven and lasted until I was about 10, in which I was hypersensitive to any sort of imagery that was intended to be scary, and quite a bit that wasn’t (TV spots for Edward Scissorhands, for example, scared the snot out of me, as ridiculous as that seems now). I can’t explain it very well because I still don’t really understand it. Basically, I was exposed to a lot of scary things in short succession, any one of which I probably could have recovered from without too much trouble, but being exposed to several of them at roughly the same time weakened my defenses.

Incidentally, when I say I was exposed to scary things, I mean scary things on TV and from movies, not real-life scary things. Fortunately, because it was just a phase, I eventually grew out of it, but it was still going on when Little Shop came on TV, so watching it probably wasn’t a good idea on my part, but I had no one to blame but myself. It’s not as though I’d had no prior warning; it said “horrors” right there in the title, so I really should have known better. 

At that time, we also taped it off the TV and thenceforth had it as part of our VHS library, but because it lived in my memory as a frightening experience, I avoided watching it for years after that. Then one summer my younger brother rediscovered it and started watching it all the time. I think I was in high school at that point, but I don’t remember if my brother was in high school yet or if he was still in middle school. In any case, at first I was reluctant to watch it with him because I remembered it negatively. Eventually, however, I got kind of sucked in and realized, “Holy crap! This is actually a completely awesome movie!” So I became a fan, and my brother and I watched it together all summer long, learning the words to all the songs in the process.

Probably six or seven years after that, in either 2003 or 2004, my brother played Seymour in a college production of Little Shop. Doubtless, my assessment of the brilliance of his performance will be suspect due to familial bias, but I can tell you that this particular theater department had an established preference for casting theater majors, and my brother did not major in theater, so that should tell you something. I enjoyed the experience vicariously and figured that would be the closest I ever got to a production of Little Shop.

I was wrong. 

It was about three or four years after that, in 2007, that I attended the wedding of a good friend from college. At the reception, I ran into another friend that I hadn’t seen in years, and it was a surprise for each of us to find out that we were both living in Sioux Falls. As we were chatting, she mentioned that she was playing Audrey in a dinner theater production of Little Shop and that they were looking for a “plant operator,” i.e., someone to perform the plant puppets, and asked if I would be interested. Despite having no puppeteering experience whatsoever, I leapt at the opportunity. 

I reiterate that I am not a puppeteer by training or avocation and had had no prior experience. There was also no one around to teach me how to do it properly, so I kind of figured it out as I went along. At the time, I didn’t know enough about it to know what I was doing wrong, but in retrospect, I think I made an embarrassingly bad job of it because with every puppet that I performed (with the possible exception of the smallest one), I had the upper jaw moving up and down instead of the lower one. That wasn’t entirely me being ignorant, though; it was necessitated in part by the way that the puppets had been constructed, or rather, reconstructed. 

By funny coincidence, the director of the production that I was in was himself an alumnus of my brother’s alma mater, so he knew that they had done Little Shop within the last few years. He knew that they’d built their own puppets and they’d turned out well, so he called the theatre department and asked what happened to them. It turns out that the puppets had been sold to a theater rental company based in Omaha or someplace, so our director rented the puppets from them, only to find out that in the interim they had been taken apart and put back together by someone who really didn’t know how. 

The thing that’s funny about it is that there’s one number in which Seymour carries a still immature Audrey II around in a flowerpot. Audrey II is a puppet, and the flowerpot is connected to a fake hand so that the actor playing Seymour can surreptitiously puppeteer the plant. When my brother was playing Seymour, they made a plaster cast of his hand so that they could construct a fake hand that was nearly identical to his real one. I didn’t figure it out until later, but because the production I was in used the same puppets, the fake hand was actually an exact replica of my brother’s. I’d like to be able to say that I recognized it as my brother’s hand, because that would make a much better story, but alas, that would be untrue. 

I had a lot of fun in that production, but I also had a day job at which I was working about 38 hours a week, so time management was a bit of an issue. It probably goes without saying that performing Audrey II was physically demanding as well. In the production that my brother was in, the puppeteers performing the largest Audrey II puppet had been assisted by the use of pulleys, but unfortunately, those had gone by the wayside when she had been rebuilt, so I had to operate her solely by main power. I also had to spend the first 10 or 15 minutes of every show crouched on the balls of my feet inside a wooden box before I even got to touch a puppet, so I gained a great deal of empathy and respect for the contortions required by actual puppeteers in order to stay hidden from view in the course of their work. I learned firsthand that if you’re comfortable while puppeteering, you’re doing it wrong.

So in a way, it was a relief when the run was over, but I enjoyed it while it was going on, and it was very special for me to be able to join my brother in the ranks of Little Shop stage performers since he was the one who got me interested in it in the first place.

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Me (inside Audrey II) eating my friend Molly. As you can see, Audrey II’s lower jaw is resting on the floor, so I had no choice but to open her upper jaw even though I kind of knew better.

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