Scott Cook owes his career to a man-eating plant.
OK, let’s back up a bit. Scott Cook owes his career to a play about a man-eating plant.
Let Scott explain it:
“It was the very first off-Broadway show I saw,” Scott said. “It blew my mind. I walked away saying to myself, ‘I will do musical theater the rest of my life’ and, knock on wood, that’s all I’ve ever done.”
The mind-blowing production Scott saw was Little Shop of Horrors, the early-‘80s off-Broadway smash based on a 1960 B-movie thriller. The musical, which kept the original film’s plot line but added campy rock ‘n’ roll and doo-wop tunes, reached a wider audience with the 1986 movie version. The movie starred Steve Martin, Rick Moranis and the thunderous voice of the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs as the perpetually hungry plant, Audrey II.
When Scott directed a production of Little Shop of Horrors in 1997, he bought all the props himself, “for a minimal price,” he adds. He had no idea that he’d just made a sound investment.
Scott said he bought the props “for nostalgic reasons … out of love for the show.” Once the show ended, the props went into Scott’s garage. “Six months later, people are banging on the door wanting to rent them,” Scott said.
Scott began to suspect he had a business opportunity. That suspicion quickly proved to be undeniable. The props are almost always in use. “They’re gone all the time,” Scott said.
They’ll be spending the month of April in Tampa when The Straz Center’s production of Little Shop of Horrors is presented in the Jaeb Theater. The show runs April 6-May 1.
The major prop is, of course, Audrey II. There are actually four Audreys, each more complex and horrifying than the previous one. The four puppets track Audrey II’s growth, from barely-hanging-on potted plant to the six-foot monster capable of gulping down a grown human.
When the first set of puppets wore out, Scott built a second set which he said has a “Muppet feel to it.” The third set, “the one people always want,” is “more menacing … . They’re so textured, and when they’re under lights, it’s utterly amazing. Light changes everything on stage and when it hits these textures … they’re beautiful.”
The third set was designed by Rick Gonzalez, best known as the makeup artist for director George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead). Gonzalez, Scott said, “called me out of nowhere and said, ‘I’ve never worked designing the Audrey II puppets and if you ever need anybody, please just give me a holler.’”
Scott is meticulous about keeping the puppets in excellent shape. When they puppets are returned following a rental, “I put them through a rehab process and cleaning process before they go back out,” Scott said. “That’s one reason I think I do so well because I do take care of the puppets.”
He describes himself as “hands on” with the puppets. Rentals include detailed, in-person instructions from Scott. “I come and do a training period, at least three hours,” he said.
Each of Audrey’s stages, or pods, have different requirements of the puppeteers. While Pod 1 is a small and sickly potted plant, Pod 2 is much larger and is carried by one of the actors throughout the scene. The puppet includes a fake arm, as the actor’s arm is inside the puppet, operating Audrey’s mouth and trunk.
Puppeteers operate Pods 3 and 4 from inside. Sitting on a stool inside the Pod 3 puppet, the puppeteer manipulates the upper jaw with their head and chest while working the lower jaw with their hands. Their legs are covered with root pants which allows even more animation by kicking. The even larger Pod 4 is counterbalanced toward the rear so that the puppeteer can more easily operate the front of the puppet, namely Audrey’s mouth.
The show’s original puppets “were grounded to the floor. They couldn’t have a lot of movement,” Scott said. “We wanted our plants to be able to be more mobile and move and vamp, especially Pod 3.”
The training sessions are vital. “You take an inanimate object and you are required to bring it to life and make it the star of the show,” Scott said. “That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone who normally doesn’t do puppeteering.
“This helps not only the client, but also me, so I know the plants are being handled safely,” Scott said. “They’re not going to come home broke because you didn’t know what you were doing. It’s important to me that my clients are happy and they know what they’re doing.”
Scott is artistic producer of Theater Works Florida, a professional theater company in Polk County. “We are in our 15th year and back on stage after this pandemic mess,” he said. He’s also an adjunct professor in Florida Southern College’s theater department.
“Most of my living comes from Theater Works,” he said. Renting the Little Shop puppets, at $1,200-$1,500 for the first week, provides a nice supplemental income.
Scott sounds genuinely affectionate when talking about his Audrey II puppets, an extension of his love and gratitude for Little Shop of Horrors.
“I call them my girls,” Scott said with a laugh. “When I rent them it’s like sending your child to college. I think about them all the time and I want to call and see if they’re all right.
“I really do love them but I think it’s because I love the show so much,” Scott said. “It was instrumental and bringing me into the world of theater. I have Audrey II in my life, and I have a professional theater company. I have so much gratitude for this show.”
If you’re interested in renting Audrey II from ImaginationWorks, visit www.audrey2.com.