Voice actor Bronwyn Reed and puppeteer Jared Kamauu discuss the collaborative performance behind the musical's bloodthirsty antagonist
By their powers combined, music dance theatre (MDT) major Bronwyn Reed and acting pre-major Jared Kamauu created a monster — a mean, green, man-eating monster from outer space, diabolically bent on world domination.
Both students were cast as Audrey II in BYU's production of rock musical "Little Shop of Horrors," with Reed playing the primary speaking and singing voice of the villainous plant and Kamauu stepping into the role — literally, at times — of puppeteer for all four versions of the ever-growing bloodsucker.
"I wasn't just singing, and Jared wasn't just moving around inside a giant plant puppet," said Reed. "We were trying to get the storyline across and really create a character. It wasn't straightforward acting for either of us — it was a challenge, but it was a good challenge."
Reed and Kamauu worked closely together to bring Audrey II to life, but they initially took very different paths to the role. While Kamauu — who had no previous experience with puppets — was originally cast in the ensemble and later asked if he would be willing to take on the iconic character, Reed auditioned specifically for the role.
"I was very focused on the part that I wanted," said Reed. "I generally like to push the boundaries of what my character type is and who I can play. I knew that it would be vocally challenging, but I didn't realize how much depth the character had beyond just being the bad guy. Our director George Nelson and music director Mark Johnson helped me go through the process of identifying those different layers and sides of Audrey II."
Though the puppets didn't arrive until two weeks before the show opened, Kamauu attended music and scene rehearsals with Reed, mouthing along with the lines they had both memorized. In order to sell Audrey II as a living being and not merely a moving set piece, Kamauu needed to know Reed's intonation and acting choices as well as he would if he were delivering the dialogue himself.
"I needed to know how she was singing and saying her lines so that I already had an idea of Audrey II's personality and movement before I even had the puppets," said Kamauu. "One of the more technically challenging things was to get the articulation to where it actually looked like the plant was saying the words instead of Bronwyn on a mic backstage. I had to figure out how to move the plant naturally so it seemed alive, but also still be able to move its mouth fast enough to keep up with some very quick dialogue."
On the flip side, the primary challenge for Reed was to act exclusively through her voice while relying on Kamauu to physicalize her tone and emotion.
"Timing was so important, because he couldn't see me while he was onstage," said Reed. "We worked together to figure out where in the scene I would say things, when he would move and how we would stay in sync. Jared did a great job adding character into the puppet, which is one of the main focal points of the show."
Reed also needed to navigate her interactions with the other characters in the show, particularly Seymour Krelborn — played by Noah Hartwell — the hapless protagonist who brings Audrey II home to the flower shop where he works, unaware of the plant's gruesome appetite.
"It's an interesting thing already to just be acting through your voice, but I also had to interact with Noah completely from the side of the stage," said Reed. "We didn't make eye contact, we didn't touch; I couldn't even see his physical reactions to what I was saying. I had to think about how I was going to convey the objectives that the plant is trying to achieve and make them have weight for Seymour with just my voice and Jared's movement."
Kamauu received additional coaching on the plant's movement range and potential when Matt McGee — the puppeteer who created the plant puppets for the production — came to campus to speak at a Department of Theatre and Media Arts forum and train Kamauu on best practices for working with all four growth stages of Audrey II.
"He taught me how each plant works and how to move in a way that would feel most natural for both the puppet and for me as a performer," said Kamauu. "Having him here to help me learn how to do things correctly made it so much easier to be able to focus on character. He would also throw out tidbits on how he made something, which helped me appreciate puppetry as an art in and of itself."
Both Kamauu and Reed feel that their experience working on "Little Shop of Horrors" helped them better understand theatre — and storytelling more broadly — as a collaborative art that requires care and cohesion in every detail.
"I've been able to hone in on just one part of performing, which I think will benefit me for years to come," said Reed. "Everyone has their job and the things they create, but it all needs to support the vision behind the production and come together in the best way possible. There are so many aspects to a character and bringing them to life in an engaging way — you don't have to be visible as an actor on stage to be a part of that. You can still be a storyteller, no matter your role."