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How to Stage Classic Sitcoms...With Sock Puppets

Sock puppets and those who control them

Drew BarillasSock puppets and those who control them

The dozen or so people gathered at Atwater Crossing on this Wednesday night are watching the first episode of Friends.

You remember how it goes: After ditching her fiance, runaway bride

Rachel starts a new life in Manhattan with the help of her friends --

uptight Monica, ditzy Phoebe, smarmy Chandler, skirt-chasing Joey and

perpetually sullen Ross. Folks laugh and even sing along to the theme

song as if they're watching a rerun on a giant flatscreen.

Except

... there's no TV in the theater. Nor are there any actors -- at least

not flesh-and-blood ones wearing costumes. Instead, this staple of NBC's

Must-See TV has been reincarnated by sock puppets.

Glamor Puss

(brown sock) and Frenchie (white sock, French accent), who introduce the

show, are the fur-covered alter egos of Mark Hayward and Charley Knapp,

socketeers and producers of the Sock Puppet Sitcom Theater. Beginning

in April with Three's Company, followed by I Love Lucy

in May, the two have been staging monthly puppet performances of

popular sitcom pilots at the Atwater Village complex, which also houses a

gallery space, restaurant and bar. Roseanne, Hogan's Heroes and The Golden Girls round out the rest of the season.

By

day, Hayward, 42, is head of a mobile technology start-up, while

43-year-old Knapp is a customer-service trainer for an industrial

supplier. Sitting in the complex's noisy courtyard after the show, they

explain the concept.

"People don't treat socks very well," Hayward says.

The

duo's desire to combat people's cruelty toward the accessories, coupled

with their love of puppetry and even deeper love of classic TV,

inspired them to begin staging puppet shows five years ago at such

places as the Downtown L.A. Art Walk and local spaces.

"I'm

ashamed to admit how much TV I watched when I was a kid," Hayward says.

"But I watched a lot of TV. And those are the shows that were drilled

into my head. I've seen Three's Company over and over and over.

The criterion was less about the most important sitcoms and more about

the ones people have watched the most. I Love Lucy was a natural. People have been watching that for 60 years."

Not

surprisingly, the company's production is pretty DIY: socks, buttons,

paper, pipe cleaners and felt (Rachel is a Calvin Klein sock and

requires extra felt for her famous shag). The performers jostle around

on the theater floor behind a makeshift wall covered by yet more black

felt, held up by binder clips. The space between the wall and the

theater's stage is the size of a tiny closet.

But in addition to a

small production team, Hayward and Knapp oversee 10 puppeteers, all of

whom are working actors, some who've done prominent voice-over work.

(Sock-tress Alicyn Packard is one of the voices behind Cartoon Network's

The Mr. Men Show and PBS's Copy Cat, while Keith

Ferguson teaches at the Puppetry School in Sherman Oaks.) Each set can

contain upwards of five rooms, and each actor assumes up to three

characters, sometimes switching gender roles.

Hayward and Knapp go the extra mile for authenticity. For I Love Lucy,

they wore only muted colors for the show's black-and-white look. They

also use a three-piece band, Those Darn Socks, to play period music and

commercials: On Friends night, it was Mentos, Huggies Pull-Ups, Green Day, Soundgarden, Offspring, etc.

But

what really took the audience back to 1994 was the breaking news of the

freeway police chase involving O.J. Simpson's white Bronco SUV, made

out of paper, just like the helicopter prop hovering above.

A

stern-looking Peter Jennings delivered the news. He was later joined by

Barbara Walters, complete with gold pipe cleaners for hair and trademark

speech impediment, which sounded more like Gilda Radner's famous "Baba

Wawa" impersonation on Saturday Night Live. Blame it on the generation gap: Only a few in the mostly young crowd laughed.

"We threw in Friends for the younger audience," Knapp says.

Hayward and Knapp chose pilots, rather than the more memorable episodes, for reasons of simplicity.

"They

do a good job of introducing the characters, their relationships, where

the drama is going to happen, the tension, the conflict," Knapp says.

"Even if you've never seen Hogan's Heroes," Hayward adds, "everything you need to understand about [the show] you get in the pilot."

Their

chosen sitcoms all exemplify what Knapp calls "the surrogate family,"

be it roommates, nosey neighbors or even prisoners in a World War II POW

camp. This is something the husband-and-husband team, who met in

Chicago and have been living in L.A. for seven years, knows all too

well.

"The whole point of Friends was the surrogate family," Knapp says. "And that's what Three's Company was about. I Love Lucy

also had a very unusual family situation: It had mixed cultures; she

was the first woman to be pregnant on TV. These are some groundbreaking

things."

After October's Golden Girls pilot episode-- the only episode in the show's run without cheesecake -- Hayward and Knapp plan to do a rendition of A Christmas Carol, starring Roseanne as Bob Cratchit, the Golden Girls as the ghosts and Fred Mertz as -- who else -- Scrooge.

They're

also tossing around the idea of having their Facebook followers vote

for upcoming sitcoms, as well as writing an original one with recurring

characters. Maybe sock puppet improv.

In this age of fractured

digital entertainment, with viewers getting what they want to watch at

the hour they want it, Hayward and Knapp are just hoping to make

watching television -- even it is played out by sock puppets -- a communal

experience again.

"There's something powerful about taking TV and

making it live," Knapp says. "Bringing it out from the boob tube and

out from the living room into public and interacting with those

characters that you identified with or fell in love with or hated. There

they are, in the same room with you."

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