UNION, N.J. — Caroling worms, dancing poinsettias, Nutcracker soldiers, mischievous mice and an evil rat king are all part of Lightwire Theater’s performance of “A Very Electric Holiday” at Kean University’s Wilkins Theater on Friday, Dec. 13.
The show combines puppetry, dancing and electroluminescence to tell the story of a bird named Max who gets left behind at the North Pole when his family flies home to New Orleans for the winter, and chronicles Max’s adventures on his own journey home.
Lightwire Theater, based in New Orleans, travels internationally to countries including Brazil, Columbia, China and Singapore, and was featured on America’s Got Talent in 2012.
“We’ve really been able to tour the world, so it’s pretty powerful, putting yourself in front of that many people what television can do for you,” owner Carney said in a Dec. 6 interview with LocalSource.
Carney and her husband, Ian, are both professional ballet dancers who launched their first performance with Lightwire Theater in 2007. They have been performing “A Very Electric Christmas” since 2013. The couple was inspired to start Lightwire Theater when Ian was working on the Broadway play “Movin’ Out,” and was introduced to EL wire, electroluminescent wire that gives off a neon-like light, and began sculpting creatures with it.
“He used to take them to Central Park, and one time, he got taken aside by the cops,” Carney said. “We started building these creatures and, being from the background with ballet, you create these wordless stories.”
Changes have been made to the Christmas performance every year, including adapting the scenery for international audiences. For example, in a performance in Brazil, the character Max travels home to Rio de Janeiro instead of to New Orleans.
The Carneys are involved with every aspect of the production process, including building puppets and costumes, and buy most of their supplies from stores such as The Home Depot or Sports Authority.
“Not everyone has a lot of money, but it just takes creativity,” Carney said. “It’s not like we have some costume factory. We do everything in-house. We build everything, from the electrical down to the boxes. We build the puppets, creatures … and (my husband) sculpts them out of wire. The electroluminescent wire is what makes them glow. There are a lot of people who have worked for us for years who are in the cast.”
Some of the puppets are traditional rod puppets, some are worn on the dancers’ bodies, and some are held. In addition, each performance can have up to 22 dancers, who come from a variety of backgrounds, from contemporary dancers to gymnasts, and all must learn how to perform in the dark, learn to operate costumes as part of the choreography.
“You show up, you know what the choreography is and you need to know how to operate the costume,” Carney said. “We’ve had some amazing dancers come in, and there’s a learning curve.”
Lightwire Theater uses the EL wire to erase the human form and create imaginative creatures, but it’s the dancers, she said, who bring the creatures to life.
“If the dance is difficult for you to get, it’s really hard to operate the costume. It takes a highly skilled dancer or mover to be able to pick it up quickly,” she said. “There’s a choreography that goes on behind the backstage as much as it goes onstage. If we use our own lights, it’s very dim. You need to know who’s exiting and entering. You need to know who can be seen by your performers. … “We have a saying that, ‘Our stuff is cool to look at. But cool will only get you 10 minutes.’ We’ve very heavily based in storytelling and it’s important that our characters will be invested in storytelling.”
Christmas is only one of the Lightwire Theater seasons — the group hosts six different performances throughout the year.
“We go to China every year, so we’re very fortunate in that we’re a year round touring company,” Carney said.
The husband-and-wife duo wrote “A Very Electric Holiday” to celebrate the importance of returning home for Christmas. Like many professional dancers, they were always working during the holidays because of “Nutcracker” performances. They created a character who could tell his own story but, according to Carney, “the music wants to tell a story. It’s wordless.”
“The way your process works, you do your storyboard, then you’re building your characters, then you’re scoring it, then you’re doing your choreography. It’s endless amounts of music. We made a list: what fit with what scene, what made sense.”
“A Very Electric Christmas” has changed since it was first created, Carney said, adding, “The core of it is still there. We’ve added different effects. We’ve added laser affects. You’re always tweaking, you’re always changing. You’re always adding a character. You’re always taking away a character. … It’s so much like dance because you’re putting your movement on an object. Being able to tell wordless stories has been able to take it all over the world, because people understand the language of movement.”