Austin Phillips is responsible for the Nutcracker head that will appear in Portland Ballet’s production. Photo courtesy of Austin Phillips

If you go to Portland Ballet’s “A Victorian Nutcracker,” look closely at the title character, and you’ll see the work of production manager Austin Phillips.

“I build props, do the sets and get the show on the road,” he said, adding that he sometimes refreshes a well-loved prop. “I had the opportunity to make a new Nutcracker head. I’m into puppets, so a wooden thing with a mouth that moves is right up my alley.”

While studying theater at the University of Maine at Farmington and later at the University of Southern Maine, Phillips, 29, of Buxton, would make dummies in his dorm room and sell them on eBay. “And then I mentored under the best craftsman alive doing this,” he said.

Making the Nutcracker’s head was a dream come true – and about 90 hours of work.

“You sculpt it out of clay, you make a mold, you cast it out of fiberglass and then you refine it, sand it and carve it,” Phillips said. “Make sure it will work on the performer’s face – that it’s breathable and that the dancer can see through the eye holes. It also needs to be able to be installed and removed rather quickly. It was a lot of engineering in such a basic-looking prop. And then there’s the finish work and wigging.”

His workshop and store – Phillips Puppets by State Theatre in Portland – is packed floor to ceiling with puppets of all ages and stages. He’s got antiques from the 1800s, vaudeville-era restorations, automatons under repair and custom works in progress.

“There are very few people doing this,” he said. “A lot of my mentors aren’t here anymore, so it’s up to me to keep this going. I eat, sleep and breathe ventriloquism.”

Performances of Portland Ballet’s “A Victorian Nutcracker” are Dec. 17 and 18 at Westbrook Performing Arts Center and Dec. 22 and 23 at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. For tickets, go to porttix.com.

— AMY PARADYSZ


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