Bringing life, humanity to ‘freaks;’
Oscar-winner Dave Elsey explains complex effects of Playhouse’s ‘Side Show’
Matthew Patrick Davis plays the Geek in La Jolla Playhouse’s “Side Show,” with assistance from special makeup effects and prosthetics by Dave and Lou Elsey.
By Jim Hebert
November 22, 2013
Hollywood is not exactly foreign territory for La Jolla Playhouse: The theater was co-founded by no less a movie luminary than Gregory Peck. But it’s safe to say the current production of “Side Show” is the first time two Oscar-winners have worked on the same Playhouse musical. One of those artists is the show’s director, Bill Condon, who won an Academy Award in 1999 for scripting “Gods and Monsters” (and was nominated in 2003 for the screenplay to “Chicago”).
The other is makeup and special-effects artist Dave Elsey, who won his Oscar in 2011 (with Rick Baker) for “The Wolfman” and was nominated in 2006 for the final “Star Wars” prequel.
Not only had Elsey (like Condon) never worked on a stage musical before, but he’s not sure live theater has ever seen quite the kind of creative experiments he worked up with his wife and business partner, Lou, and the Playhouse costume team for “Side Show.”
The 1997 musical, which the Playhouse has revived and revamped, is inspired by the lives of the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who worked the Depression-era carnival circuit before hitting vaudeville.
In the show, the twins travel in the company of the circus “freaks” — including such figures as the Dog-Faced Boy, the Reptile Man and the large-headed, gawky Geek.
The Elseys were brought in to help bring these singular people to life — and to do so in the bustling, non-CGI environment of live theater, with actors who often have just minutes to transform from one character to another.
In several cases, they did so with complex, painstakingly crafted and yet quickly removable silicone “appliances” that borrow from techniques and technology normally seen only in movies.
We talked with Dave Elsey about the tricky process of bringing realism and humanity to the fascinating inhabitants of “Side Show”:
Q: To start with, what do you even call the special-effects pieces you created for the “freaks”?
A: I don’t really know what to call them, to be honest with you. They’re a sort of hybrid. I knew Bill (Condon) wanted these things to be as realistic as we could possibly get them to be.
Ordinarily, we would’ve made prosthetic makeups, and had the actors sit in makeup chairs for three or four hours while we carefully glued them in, and did it the way we normally do it on a film.
That seemed like a fine idea, until I discovered the actors were all playing multiple roles. And there are times in our play when one of our “freaks” walks offstage, and comes back a few minutes later (as someone else).
So what we’ve done is create a hybrid — these very high-end prosthetic masks. We cast the actors’ heads, and made these things to fit them. They would never fit anybody else.
And we made teeth and stuff to distort their faces underneath the mask, things like this. But what to call them, I don’t know yet!
Q: I’d imagine that in movies you also don’t have to worry about obscuring actors’ voices — you can just dub them in if necessary. But here the “freaks” sing live. Was that a big issue?
A: You’re absolutely right, that was a major concern. The actors are singing and dancing and acting, and doing all the other things they’re doing, and they have to be able to do them perfectly. There’s no cheating on that — they really are doing it.
We didn’t want their voices to sound muffled, or sound as though they were coming from within the mask. The mics were attached in exactly the same place as everybody else’s — over their ears, albeit over their rubber ears in this case.
And they’re doing it. I’m really happy with how that turned out. Especially because some of them are dealing with big dentures as well.
Q: Can you compare your work on “Side Show” to any previous projects?
A: I’ve never done anything like this before. And the time on this was so short, it was unbelievable. I mean the show was in full swing when we finally agreed to work on it. A lot of the costumes were done, the actors were already cast, that sort of stuff.
So it was very late and we just kind of skittered in sideways at the end and turned up and hoped that everything would work. And thank God it did.
But the very first (project) I ever did, funnily enough, was (the movie musical) “Little Shop of Horrors,” back in 1985. So we’ve sort of come full circle to this musical.
Q: How did the collaboration work with costume designer Paul Tazewell and the Playhouse’s costume department?
A: We completely overlapped. A lot of costumes (incorporate) what we did — they are literally one piece now.
The very first thing (the show’s producer) had shown us was the costumes Paul Tazewell had designed. And he had drawn them as complete characters, and drawn heads at the top that I liked the look of.
They weren’t fully realized, but you could tell the power of what that character was going to look like. Let’s say the Geek, for instance: I kind of felt his character before I’d even read the script. I felt as if he had to be very sympathetic, almost like the Scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz.” That was my kind of feeling for him.
We did the life cast one day, and then the next day I blocked something out for (him) to play and sent the pictures off to Bill Condon and said, “What do you think?” And he said, “That’s him!”
If this were a movie, we could’ve spent a month designing one character. But with this, we designed and built all the characters in the time it would take to design one.
Q: Does the experience make you want to work in live theater again?
A: It does. I loved it. We worked incredibly hard, seven days a week, trying to get it done. But the people at La Jolla Playhouse are wonderful to work with.
I know there’s a lot of CG being used these days, and I do embrace all that stuff. I use it to design things, for instance. But when you’re actually there, and you’re trying to do a scene, (having the real thing) just raises the bar for everything.
And as far as stage work goes, it’s still necessary.