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Portland debut set for monster film project by Maine artists, students

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Portland debut set for monster film project by Maine artists, students

PORTLAND — Figures of Speech Theatre's film adaptation of  "Frankenstein" should appeal to fans of silent cinema.

And puppetry.

And pen-and-ink illustration.

And toy theater.

And even thaumatropes, those Victorian-era, disk-and-string toys that spun to simulate motion in the days before animation.

It's a true mixed-media presentation.

The ambitious project, the culmination of an 18-month collaboration between a group of artists and students from greater Portland, debuts Jan. 3 at Mayo Street Arts to coincide with the city's First Friday Art Walk.

Figures of Speech is the Freeport-based company of John and Carol Farrell, who, between them, have training in poetry, sculpture, dance, costume design, and theater and puppetry of all kinds. They founded the theater in the 1980s.

Eight years ago, they brought on Ian Bannon as a teaching associate. He now serves as director of education, and heads up the Figures of Speech Student Ensemble, or FOSSE, the after-school program that produced "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein."

Eighteen students from Portland, Casco Bay, Freeport, Falmouth, Waynflete and Cheverus high schools contributed to the project. They acted, designed puppets, wrote and recorded music, and more.

"It’s been really fruitful, getting students who would never meet each other, from different towns and different walks of life, to come together and collaborate in such an intense way for a year and a half," said Bannon, who directed the film. "We really wanted to incorporate anyone who could get themselves to our little barn in Freeport; they’re all invited to participate. That includes students with learning disabilities or a lack of social awareness. If someone’s willing to commit to showing up and takings risks with us, then we’ll take them."

Artist collaborators on the project included a puppet engineer, a visual arts mentor, a music director, and a three-man videography team, headed by Barry Dodd, creator of "Ragged Isle," a popular murder-mystery web series set in Maine.

“We picked people who could share something with us and were also looking to learn, both from us and the students," Bannon said. "We weren't looking for people who just wanted to come and teach and lord over the students, so much as get in the sandbox and play together."

Student participants were immersed in art and culture of all kinds throughout production. Bannon showed them the work of Czech puppeteer Jan Svankmajer, as well as the 1930s German expressionist horror film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" to help them understand the silent picture motifs they would emulate in their own movie.

While producing "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," the crew shot five documentary shorts about the creative process, illustrating what students took from the experience and how they wrote the music and built the puppets.

"These aren’t your slapsticky, foam-covered puppets," Bannon said. "They’re intricately hand-carved puppets with a distinct Japanese influence."

FOSSE is also developing educational materials to accompany the film, in hopes that English teachers will use them to supplement lessons on "Frankenstein." Those materials, and the film itself, will be housed in perpetuity on the Maine Learning Technology Initiative's iTunes U website, which collects free digital education resources.

The project was funded in part by grants from the Maine Arts Commission, the Maine Community Foundation and other private sources.

"Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" is divided into seven episodes, each about 8 minutes in length. All of them will be screened at 7 p.m. at the Jan. 3 event, which will be preceded by a Figures of Speech gallery exhibit and followed by a reception and Q&A with Bannon and students.

Past FOSSE productions have included reimaginings of Perseus the Gorgon Slayer, "Alice in Wonderland," and Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," but those were all created for the stage. "Frankenstein" represents the company's first foray into film, and while it's been expensive and time-consuming to produce, it's also been a hit with the students.

"Ultimately, they get to have a wicked cool film," Bannon said. "They can always point to it and say, 'Wow! I made that.'"

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.