Through the Looking Glass with Jasper McCann
One couldn’t ask for a more well-mannered and insightful interview than Jasper McCann, performer and one half of production duo Lily Verlaine & Jasper McCann present. I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with Jasper on several occasions this year; recently he shared some behind the scenes details on Through the Looking Glass: The Burlesque Alice In Wonderland, opening April 28 at Seattle’s Triple Door. The fantastical re-imagining of Lewis Carroll’s novel is in skilled hands with Jasper and Lily- they are also the creators of the annual Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker. Grand scale artistic endeavors with polish and panache are pretty much their hallmark.
To follow is Jasper’s take on distilling a complex tale with dozens of cherished characters- as well as the inner workings of his long-standing creative partnership with Lily Verlaine- in the making of The Burlesque Alice In Wonderland:
(Burlesque Seattle Press): This will be the third year for Through The Looking Glass, correct? Your first was 2009?
(Jasper): Yes, our inaugural run was March 24, 25, and 26 of 2009.
And then you did it again in August of that year, but never in Seattle since? If so, it’s been a long time coming for this revisiting…
Yes, we were lucky enough to get a call from the Triple Door for an August 2009 date that got canceled, and they asked if we’d like to do it, and we said “sure”. We had to juggle some cast members (neither Kitten La Rue or Ben DelaCreme were with us that time, so we replaced them with Ruby Mimosa and Patty O’Furniture, respectively). So yes, this is the first time the show has been in Seattle since August of 2009. As with anything that Lily and I do together, we strive to provide a rich entertainment experience for our audiences, and therefore we strive to make all of our products better. This show has really evolved over the course of the past two years. The changes that will be most obvious are the addition of Paris and Trojan Original to the cast (they both perform various roles), and an entirely different Mad Tea Party sequence. The Chandeliers are doing more in this outing, and there are some other surprises that, well, I’d like to keep as surprises.
When we met for a chat last summer, you told me the story of how the show came into being, sparked during a long road trip. Care to recount this story? Was it a quick jump from the page into idea as you traveled across the country, or did the realization unfold over time?
As you know, Lily and I drove (approximately) 5500 miles across the U.S. during the summer of 2008, and we read aloud to each other for entertainment. First we read Kerouac’s On The Road, and then we read portions of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but put that down in favor of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. So imagine us, speeding through the barren waste of western North Dakota, doing character voices for Humpty Dumpty and the Mad Hatter, and pretty much cracking ourselves up until it got too dark to read, which is when we would switch on Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers or The Beatles and hoped to find a place do get a decent drink (which, sad to say, is a difficult thing to do in North Dakota). When Lily and I started reading, it quickly became apparent that “Alice” was an obvious choice for our next large-scale show. After this decision, the ideas started coming, but nothing really got solidified until January of 2009.
How did you go about actually adapting the story for the burlesque stage?
Of course, the characters that you see in the show today have changed considerably from the first brainstorms on our road trip. I suppose that we said things like “Oh, I’d like to play the (insert character here) and then fitting our favorite performers into the roles that we thought they could best bring to life. However, from our original idea, only two people are playing roles that we originally thought were the right fit: Lily as Caterpillar and Kitten La Rue as The Queen Of Hearts.
How did you make it your own? One obvious aspect that I recall is the interesting styles you borrow from: jazz, exotic music, dance, and burlesque. There’s also of course, the nightclub aspect of the story…
The Indian Raga-Pop music was Lily’s thing, and I discovered the middle-eastern jazz stuff with some research. I think we really wanted to take “Alice” back from that big company whose main property is a Mouse with a falsetto… that vision of the work is so pervasive in our society. We were trying to give a different musical context to the characters so the audience could forget about the “Alice” they’ve been forced to get to know, and meet these new ideas of the characters with an open mind. Sure, The Queen of Hearts still loves beheading people, but that’s dark stuff. The original book, retitled, should be “Through The Looking Glass and all the jerks Alice met there”. The Mad Hatter and the March Hare are NOT jovial, happy-go-lucky sing-song characters in the book. They’re horrible. And so are many of the other characters… they’re pompous, rude, indifferent, contrary, and aggressive. So take that, and boil it down, make it glamorous and shiny, and you’ve got yourself a show.
The Nightclub thing was important for two reasons: first, it allowed us to frame the story easily. Second-and more importantly- it allowed us to portray Alice as an adult. Especially with all of the conjecture about Carroll’s personality and addictions, it was important for us to convey that none of the characters in our show are children.
What is the division of labor between you and Lily in creating and making this show a reality? (You certainly do inspire each other creatively in coming up with ideas and making them into reality! What a rare and highly effective partnership).
We bang out ideas together, and decide on a general skeleton for the show. We choose characters, cast, colors, ideas. And she’ll say “I really want to see THIS” and I’ll say “But what about THIS” and then we do pluses and minuses for everything. Then Lily starts on choreography and costumes and I start on the script, stage directions, and the technical side of things. When we’re at our best we see what’s missing in the other’s work and fill in the blanks, so we’re sort of each other’s finishing director. Sometimes we butt heads on things, but ultimately I feel like that’s a big part of what makes our partnership rewarding… we make each other better and we really motivate each other to do bigger and better things.
You & Lily- as Lily Verlaine & Jasper McCann Present- have an amazing home with the Triple Door, and your grand productions are perfect for that stage and fanciful room. Any thoughts on this, or on the spaces you inhabit in your productions- and how this informs your work?
We are very fortunate to have the sort of relationship we do with the Triple Door. The room is great, the staff is great, and the luxuriant atmosphere really helps to create an all-around experience with the sort of shows we do. While I feel like our shows translate well on other stages, the Triple Door adds an extra level of magic that just makes everyone in the audience feel festive, and that in turn makes them even more receptive to our particular brand of entertainment.
The casting is so dreamy! I love the play of Lily as the Red Queen, versus Kitten as the White…two very strong ladies playing two strong characters. There’s also the two Alices, played by Inga and Lou…and you and Lily as a Production team and as performers. Any thoughts on the duality of the book, and how you interpreted the characters and chose to cast them?
As I touched on earlier, our original ideas for the casting of the show are quite different from where we ended up. Certainly, we had an idea of who we wanted to work with, and so then we had to fit them into roles where the would shine. The challenges came as the story began to develop and we realized that some of our initial ideas might not work within its confines. The whole Chess Queens number is a reflection of so many adversarial duos in the book, but also a tongue-in-cheek nod to the fact that Lily & Kitten are both big-time producers that have a healthy competitive streak (I guess I lucked out in that regard, not having an obvious twin… (laughs)). The bifurcated Alice character was a decision based on how talented both Inga and Lou Henry are, and how we wanted them both to be Alice because we love working with them, and so instead of choosing between them, we decided to make Alice into “Alices”. Every time I see the scenes in the Mirror with the both of them, I’m so glad we made that decision. There’s so much conflict in the text, but just as in the book, Alice eventually wins out. In this case, however, the “becoming one with oneself” is not only metaphorical but also literal, as Inga turns from her reflection at the end of the show. From the moment she pushes everyone over, the arc of her character is complete.
Indigo Blue is our new Mad Hatter, and she’s perfect for it. Waxie Moon’s Cheshire Cat is such an embodied character; just another example of what a genius Waxie is. In the beginning, the emcee character was going to be the Cheshire Cat, and our idea was to have Waxie play The White Knight, and Babette La Fave was going to be White Rabbit (on a pogo stick, no less!) But when we realized that a costume made of armor (even plastic armor) would be a nightmare to work in let alone maintain and were forced to consider the safety concerns of a pogo stick, Waxie became Cheshire Cat, the obvious next choice for the host character was White Rabbit, so Babette ended up as Jabberwocky, and I became White Rabbit. Everyone really lives in their characters in this show. Ben DelaCreme and Polly Wood are totally Eat Me & Drink Me when they get in make-up. When Kitten puts on the Barbie-Head-Dress, she starts scowling like the Queen of Hearts. And when that hat hits my head, I am White Rabbit.
Can you tell me about your particular part as The White Rabbit? It involves a bit of hosting, dancing, singing, and speaking parts, correct?
Yes on all counts, well, I guess I’m not really dancing much. White Rabbit (or “The Bunny” as our stage manager, Heather A. Mayhew calls him) is something I’m very proud of. He is a true character, and I have really tried to find him physically by trying to evoke a movement vocabulary that is rabbit-esque (did I just say that?). In your reality, I’m actually me (the real me) playing a character (Jasper McCann) playing a character (White Rabbit), hosting a show (The Looking Glass Floor Show) within a show (The Burlesque Alice In Wonderland). I love having extra business that not only drives the show but helps to flesh out the rest of the characters and the scope of the world, while not being a literal “introduction”, White Rabbit is a part of what’s happening in the story, and I really like that break from the more common format of emceeing. That’s one of the things that we really wanted in this show: have a stronger narrative through-line. So that’s why when Lily and I looked at each other and said “There are 32 major characters. The audience will expect to see at least 21 of them. How do we DO it?”, we have the little nods, like the Humpty Dumpty bit with the egg, because if we didn’t, it wouldn’t be The Burlesque Alice In Wonderland, it would be The Burlesque Spartacus or The Burlesque Lawrence Of Arabia.
Regarding sets and costumes- who are the primary contributors to this, and how long did it take to get it all stage-ready?
Costumes were done primarily by Jamie Stratton (Lucky Penny, Honey D. Luxe). Mark Mitchell did Lily’s Caterpillar Dress and Butterfly Costume. Danial Helman also did some work on this show, and I see him doing more for us in the future. He’s also currently collaborating with Lily on a dress for her competition at Burlesque Hall Of Fame Weekend. The big set pieces were designed by Madeline Ripley.
How long? Wow. We pre-produced Land Of The Sweets in six months. We pre-produced Alice (the whole thing: costumes, sets, script, choreography, rehearsals, EVERYTHING) in six weeks. Then we slept.