I, Stephen Smith Stout, have been asked to write an encapsulation of what it's like to be a member of the great acting ensemble of Puffs, Or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic, currently enjoying an open run at NYC's New World Stages. We're 17 actors strong with swings and understudies, pretty much all of us play multiple roles with incredibly specific quick changes and juggling over 200-ish - we stopped counting - props during our relentlessly paced runtime.
Are there anecdotes that underline our camaraderie? Yes.
Are there surprises that come with working together with the same group over a two year period? Certainly.
Are there tales of daring last minute saves by talented individuals who, through sheer gumption and improvisatory intuition, save the show with the audience none-the-wiser? Of course.
But what "The Pros" won't tell you, and what I am here to let you in on, is that sometimes, in the course of a very lucky, very fun, very long run: you will found a shadowy transcontinental organization.
It is with great personal risk that I now unveil the true focus of at least half of the Puffs Ensemble: Baby Oil Industries or, as our founders were known, The Baby Oil Boys.
B.O.I (or B.O.B.) has, in some form, always existed. Some have suspected we are an off-shoot of the Illuminati or connected to the Freemasons or some ancient and terrible strain of humanity that practises magicks dark and eternal. I am sworn to neither confirm or deny the rumors swirling around our plentiful businesses: spanning Public Relations (Baby Oil Communications), Food and Event Management (Baby Oil Hospitality), Rocketry (Baby Oil Aeronautics), entertainment (Baby & Oil Productions LLC), progressive think tanks (Baby Oil Solutions), and a small side business (Baby Oil Waste Management).
I am also not authorized to confirm the official titles or secretive financial holdings or involvement of Mike Axelrod, Langston Belton, Nick Carrillo, AJ Ditty, James Fouhey, Alex Haynes, Jake Keefe, Zac Moon or myself.
However, I am authorized to speak to what is now at the forefront of our activities: MarioKart Double Dash on Nintendo Game Cube.
Indeed, I am here to confirm that most Fridays through Mondays...in the depths of New World Stages...a decently-sized consortium of Professional Actors (some with alleged "ties" to "the occult") bond over VERY COMPETITIVELY playing a nearly 18-year old video game in their dressing room pre-show, post-show and in-between matinee and evening performances.
Turtle shells red, green, and blue are hurled with abandon; bananas small and comically large are placed with the delicacy of a spider slowly ensnaring its prey; mushroom boosts are begrudgingly accepted and the dastardly bombs of WaLuigi suddenly appear without warning. This is accompanied by fierce trash talk, post-show cocktails, and, eventually, sweet, sweet victory. After which we all disperse into the night, some towards home, some to further cocktails, all bent on returning the following day for more Kart-ing.
You may be thinking "What the hell? I thought this was supposed to be about being a part of an acting ensemble." I assure you it is. I wanted to highlight the depth and breadth of the in-jokes that can occur when you've been developing and performing a show for nearly 2 years across multiple venues with more or less the exact same group of people.
You start speaking your own invented language consisting wholly of bits, affectionate ribbing, references to mid-show mistakes made months prior, and fake latin mottos like ours: nos adepto ridiculum.
It Was Only Supposed To Be 5 Shows, Or How We Got Here
Matt Cox's Puffs, Or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic, is a comedic love letter, send up, critique of a Certain Incredibly Famous and Influential Story About a British Boy Wizard Book & Film Series that also serves as a celebration of those of us who, in a phrase we've oft repeated, don't get to be the hero. We just sit next to them in class.
Most of us had collaborated on a succès d'estime: the 4 1/2 hour long Toonami/video game/teenage lesbian cyborg explosion of the monomyth that was Kapow-i GoGo. We loved (and continue to love) it dearly and on our opening night, when we were chatting about what we might do next, Matt had mentioned the seed of Puffs.
We did some readings and pitched the show to Kevin Laibson, then AD of The Peoples Improv Theater, and he booked us in for 5 shows in the artistically cozy environs of The Striker Stage on 24th Street. Colin Waitt and myself produced our initial run. After our first show, the website Hypable did a quick write up of us and within the week we went viral in a specific subset of the internet. What followed is a combination of sheer luck met with hard work.
We sold out our December run, got some great write ups, eventually extending to August and were picked up for an Off-Broadway transfer by John Arthur Pinckard and David Carpenter of Tilted Windmills Theatricals. Tilted sent us down to the School of Theatre and Dance at the University of Florida, Gainesville where we did a workshop to smooth out the transition between The PIT and our eventual new home: The Elektra Theater. We opened Off-Broadway last October, received another nice bunch of notices, and extended again and again through the summer. We discovered our theater would be closing and we took that as the opportunity to make the best, most fully realized version of Puffs at our new-new home, New World Stages.
We have restaged this show 3-5 times; continually honing the story. Matt's added new scenes and jokes. Our director, Kristin McCarthy Parker, has pushed us to be smarter and more true as well as funnier. Our designer, Madeleine Bundy, has continued to refine and expand her vision of a universe whose aesthetics are very well known (to the tune of hundreds of millions of $$ spent in films, theme parks, etc.) and distills those images down to handcrafted props and an easter-egg-filled dedicated set.
All of us have thought about this show a lot since August 2015.
We've told the same jokes, done the same impressions, and needed to dig deep down into both our discipline and our ingenuity to make sure things are fresh and polished and lived in. Our ensemble adapts swiftly; accepting cuts and changes and revisions with good humor and doing our level best to make the show as funny and as moving as possible on a daily basis. I'm very lucky to be counted among their ranks.
Along the way, we've picked up a growing group of super amazing fans. They've seen the show multiple times; some have given us cookies or other treats; some have created fan art; I got a custom made t-shirt for one of my character's 'ships. We make it a point of trying our damnedest to get to know them and do right by them.
Our Backstage Life, Or Why I Did That Whole In-Joke Opening
Our backstage life goes a long way towards our, I believe, visible on-stage comraderie.
There are a lot of music cues in the show so naturally there is an enormous amount of corresponding backstage dancing. When that song you know from the '90s plays? Chances are at least 3 of us are behind a flat getting down.
The aforementioned (and much feared) Baby Oil Boys? The direct result of placing a variety of quite nerdy actors in an intimate dressing room for months on end. You will develop incredibly confusing schemes for world domination and a convoluted mythology. Author's Note: I'm certain this a universal experience applicable to all theatrical endeavors.
Onstage, we relish in the sections of the play that are improvised at each performance. Nick Carrillo has a sequence as Zach Smith that leaps from his ID on a nightly basis. Sometimes he deep dives into wizard minutiae, sometimes he recounts the entirety of the plot of the Fast and Furious movies, sometimes he just tells a profoundly dirty joke. It's always improvised and always, always, always hysterical. I'm blessed/cursed with being onstage and shamefully convulsing with laughter.
Our swings are saints. They've internalized incredibly complicated tracks involving thousands of nuances and accents and impressions and perform them with frightening ease. Our most rockstar story was when Anna Dart had to take over for Ellie Phillips mid-show. Ellie had injured her ankle, Anna was watching from the house, saw something was up and next thing I knew we were on stage with an entirely different actor without missing a beat.
We are a team. We have each other's backs. We set up each other's jokes and we drive the hilarity as best we can. The show moves too fast for us to mourn any botched punchlines or dropped cues. We celebrate each other, laugh at each other, and help push each other in the right direction if an adjustment has been made or a swing is on. Each performance is a trust fall - it's cheese-y I know but we do catch each other nightly.
Anyone involved in a long running show faces the same challenges and the same rewards that come from near-constant exposure to your cast mates in close quarters. I love 'em all - I'm so proud and humbled to have gone on this journey alongside them.
Friday, Or Let The Karting Begin
As I draw this to a close, I'm looking at the clock. It's a Friday afternoon and I'm counting down the minutes until we begin our pre-show ritual of playing the Double Dash level Baby Park until we have to put on costumes and pretend to be wizard teenagers for 90ish minutes. We recently upgraded to a Wii. As with everything Puffs-related (or Baby Oil Boys-related), I'm still excited to see where it's all headed. The games aren't a distraction - they're how we warm up. They're how we come together as a unit each night.
Sometimes you make shows with your friends.
And sometimes those shows end up transferring and running for over a year.
Many ensembles become friends and family over time. We were lucky to start as friends and slowly build something that's now our primary job. Our ensemble (acting, artistic, production, and producing) is the truly the source of our luck.
I'm just so happy to be paid to spend time laughing with them.
And. Y'know. And plotting global domination from the comfort of our dressing room.