When Ian and Eleanor Carney started Lightwire Theater in 2007, they had no idea that it would take them all over the country and the world -- and then all the way to the moon. But they're blasting off from the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto on Oct. 22 with their newest show, "Moon Mouse: A Space Odyssey."
Lightwire Theater is a unique theatrical experience: Using only electroluminescent (EL) wires bent into various shapes and manipulated by the performers, the cast of Lightwire can create entire worlds. "Moon Mouse" follows Marvin the Mouse, a nerd and an underdog (undermouse), who just wants to fit in. Desperately in love with the head cheerleader mouse and mercilessly picked on by the mean football players, Marvin yearns for a world where he can come out on top. So when news hits that the moon is actually made of cheese, Marvin gets a great idea: He will build a rocket and travel to the moon. When he brings the cheese back, he'll be a hero. But, as with the best laid plans of mice, Marvin ends up on an unexpected adventure instead.
Though this may seem like it's a children's show, Ian Carney insists that there's much more to the story. "Our shows never really were for kids. They are for people," he said. It's a show that hits home for the grownups who have lived their own "Marvin" stories (albeit sans rocket ship), while giving parents a way to start a dialogue with their children about the experiences they will likely have. He related one instance in which a previous Lightwire show, "Dino-Light," gave parents a tool for talking to their children about the impending loss of an elderly dog. "Moon Mouse" opens up the door for conversations about self-esteem, perseverance and bullying, all of which touch children's lives in different ways as they grow up.
The story is also a tribute to the John Hughes films of the 1980s. The characters and the story, though more mouse than man, are recognizable, allowing people to connect with the luminescent rodents and moon monsters and follow along with the emotional arc of the story. If you're not there for the story, you'll likely be drawn in by the "visual feast" created by the EL wire, although Ian insisted that audiences forget about the gimmick and get lost in the world that the wire creates.
"Cool will get you five minutes," he said of special effects that are simply used for shock value. Lightwire's use of the EL wire is all in service of the story and the dance. In contrast to computer-controlled LED lights, which have dots in them that, when worn, make movements seem robotic, the phosphorus in the EL wire creates a consistent line, making the movement of the wire look natural. This makes the characters more believable -- and also makes it easier for the performers to individually manipulate their costumes to create the world of the show.
There are no computers running the lights; everything you see onstage happens at the hands of the performers. When a light dims or a character appears out of the darkness, that's just part of the performer's choreography. This hands-on approach to the lighting contributes to the organic feel of the performance: As performer Tyler Scifres explained, "Every performer is responsible for knowing how to build and operate our own characters. It gives us an even more intimate connection to the show."
The goal, he said, is to go beyond manipulating puppets: You're not just wearing a dragon costume, you're behaving like a "real" dragon. The cast spends hours training to make their movements look natural and their lights seamless.
And yet, if you were to take a look at the costumes in the light of day, you might laugh: How can a show as technologically advanced as "Moon Mouse" be built on the backs of cardboard boxes, skateboard wheels and soccer pads? Eleanor Carney explained that they use ordinary, recycled and found materials to build the shapes that ultimately become the complex characters you see on stage. The weirdest item? She laughed, recalling how they found old lawn signs from a local election and built them into the costumes. Once the lights go out, items from the local hardware store or someone's recycling bin become Marvin, his rocket ship and the world on the moon.
And it's in the darkness of the theater where the magic happens. Though many people may know Lightwire from its appearance on "America's Got Talent," the performers said there's a big difference between seeing the show on television and experiencing the show as a member of an audience. There's something about seeing this futuristic ballet as a part of a group that just can't be recreated on the screen.
Because the story is told through dance, there's an invitation for the audience to participate by layering their own meaning and experiences onto to the characters as they watch.
"Dance is a universal language," Eleanor said. Ian agreed; "The less you tell the audience, the more they want to participate. Movement is the language that the world speaks."
And from that participation and shared meaning comes community and growth. Said Ian, "We love doing these shows for people of all ages because it gives children the chance to fall in love with the arts for the first time -- and adults the chance to fall in love with the theater again." Freelance writer Kaila Prins can be emailed at email@example.com.
What: "Moon Mouse: A Space Odyssey" from Lightwire Theater.
Where: Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto.
When: Sunday, Oct. 22, at 4:30 p.m.
Info: Go to Palo Alto JCC.