1:15 pm Jun. 4, 2012
Puppetry might seem like a marginal form, but both War Horse and Avenue Q were buoyed into mainstream theater by popular acclaim from smart, edgy audiences.
At Labapalooza!, this weekend's Puppet Lab showcase, based in St. Ann’s Warehouse, there was a similar sense of the art form's sophistication and maturity: no prank phone calls, no kids' stuff. In some cases, there were no objects that you could call puppets at all.
Instead, the eight shows presented featured experienced puppeteers and first-timers alike pushing the limits of puppet- and object-based performance. Labapalooza! is the annual capstone on a nine-month workshop where puppeteers and other theater artists hone their construction techniques and stagecraft. The resulting pieces this year ran through atmospheric, funny, and sinister themes, and included everything from miniature dioramas to elaborate creatures to balloon-filled plastic bags to a fighting uterus. While they utilized different mechanisms, the pieces all relied on action from the performers to mobilize them, whether manipulating body parts and faces or opening doors on miniature sets.
“The festival is a lot of fun but its kind of secondary to the process that happens for the whole nine to 10 months,” said lab director Matt Acheson. That process helped creators to continue and perfect works in progress, from perfecting a cartoonish brain puppet to completing an urban fable set in the East Village in the '80s. The artists, mostly from Brooklyn with a few outliers from the other boroughs, were selected from an application process that asked participants explain why puppetry is essential to their work and commit to the entire process of the lab.
Acheson said he is a 15-year veteran of puppetry, and most recently designed a model of Anne Frank for the 2011 theater adaptation of Compulson. He said one of the attractions of puppetry was the “super low-tech” and D.I.Y. mentality that the form embraces, bringing balance to a slick, overly produced world. Perhaps that's why puppets seem to come in and out of fashion.
“It’s funny how the spotlight shines on them and pulls away and shines on them again,” Acheson said. He wasn't sure if it was the art form's unique assets or a form of nostalgia that explained the cycle.
“But I think what’s really effective about it—and what people might not expect from puppetry—is how effective it is in an adult imagination, and how it can kind of, for some people, retrigger a whole loop of imagination that we all had when we were children. The puppet work can be very sophisticated, very moving, and also very raunchy and very funny, all at the same time.”
Acheson said there’s a growing puppetry community of fans and practitioners in New York, and that St. Ann’s Warehouse is one of several local institutions that help with puppets. Others are La Mama and the Here Arts Center.
“If you have an interest in anything there’s a club and there’s a group of people that are doing it as well ... it’s been bringing more and more puppet artists to New York and I don’t exactly know why, but it’s been pretty great,” Acheson said.
The puppet show was one of the last shows St. Ann’s will host before the building is redeveloped into a high-rise and the theater moves down Jay Street to a new location. (Earlier last month, St. Ann’s hosted a final gala for the space with some attendees hitting piñatas shaped like the building itself.)
“As soon as the puppet lab comes down on Sunday night, Monday morning the demolition teams come in and start taking the theater apart at the same time everybody at St. Ann’s is moving into the [new] space.”
Over the next few years, the nearby Tobacco Warehouse, now a shell, will be renovated for a future performance space.
But the sounds of set construction still filled St. Ann's late last week as finishing touches were being put on the show and musicians were doing their final rehearsals. I spoke to several of the directors about their inspiration.
Emma Watson's The Radium Play, inspired by Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of all Maladies, involved a scientist who invents a time machine to find and bring to the present day a radium-sickened woman from the past. For Watson, 24, a first time director, the play ushered in a lot of responsibility.
“It’s a push off a cliff, and I think inherently I kind of knew that,” she said. Watson went on to explain that she’s long been interested in the medical world as viewed through theater.
“I read this story and thought glowing women and watch factories and all these things were cool images and interesting for puppetry, but I also, as I started researching, realized that a lot of artists sort of find that story in particular and make, like, really bad historical fiction and poetry about it.”
Another director, Elizabeth Ostler, 35, based her segment, The Yellow Wallpaper (pictured at top), on the Charlotte Perkins Gilman Victorian-era proto-feminist story of the same name. Using mat board, she recreated a diorama with illustrated, 3-foot tall paper dolls and depicting the small room where the main character slowly goes insane.
For Ostler, the flatness of the characters was instrumental in bringing out the feminist message.
“She’s a two-dimensional character in a two dimensional world, but she knows in her heart that she’s three dimensional,” she said.
Ostler said the visual medium was a perfect, if challenging, way to extend the themes of the book and get away from the hokeyness of live actors.
“First and foremost I’m a director and a storyteller," she said, "so it’s finding the right tools to tell that story, and not every story should be told with puppets. But then there are some stories that need to be told with puppets.”
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