Cover Your Eyes, Elmo

Puppets Amongus aims for adult audience in 'Puppet Cabaret'

Puppets Amongus will open its second season at The Playhouse with a Puppet Cabaret on Saturday night.

And it's definitely not for kids.

"People are starting to see puppetry as a great format for adult, sophisticated art that's perfect for multidisciplinary artists," says Matt Cotten, who founded Puppets Amongus with his wife, Sarah.

The company, known for creating its own puppet plays for kids—not to mention crafting the exquisite puppets themselves— tried out the adults-only format earlier this year.

"We did our first cabaret in the spring and it was a lot of fun," says Cotten. But Saturday's show will be its own animal.

"All of the performers for the upcoming one are different, except for the host, which is my character."

The five acts will cover everything from circus arts to yoga to song. One even involves talking cigarettes. But all of them will incorporate puppetry, either overtly or in a more subtle way, he says.

The Tucson Puppet Lady Players, led by the Tucson Puppet Lady herself, Rose Mayer, is using puppets to update an old-time TV show.

"We are going to be doing a 10-minute improvisation based on The Dating Game, with a bachelor, emcee and three bachelorettes," Mayer says. "All five of us will be using puppets."

Mayer has made two new puppets for the show.

"I started doing puppetry less than a year ago," Mayer says, "and I've made about eight puppets in all. They look like the Muppets."

The troupers of WonderFools, by contrast, are definitely not traditional puppeteers.

"We don't generally work with puppets," says Zack Armstrong, a co-founder of the 3-year-old company. "We do a lot of vaudeville clowning and we teach performance and circus arts."

For Saturday's show, the WonderFools will perform what Armstrong calls "comedic object manipulation."

Then there are the talking cancer sticks of the Strange Family Circus. Now based in Tucson after many years in the Phoenix area, the circus will do a sketch called "Cigarettes Kill."

"These two cigarettes, almost human-sized, are really upset that nobody smokes anymore," says the man who calls himself Dr. Reverend Stephen D.F. Strange. "After some bitching about the state of hipsterdom and smoking in America, they decide to go on a killing spree."

The Sugar Beast Circus also does edgy acrobatics and other circus arts. Gabrielle Pietrangelo, a songwriter and yogi, will perform with Puppets Amongus.

otten likens grown-ups' interest in puppetry to the current vogue for animation for adults, which he believes started with The Simpsons. "Plus, I think that people are thirsty for something new, something that's not too expensive or upscale."

Puppet cabarets, often called puppet slams, are popping up across the nation. In October alone, slams are scheduled in at least 11 cities, including Phoenix and New York. A group called the Puppet Slam Network actually tracks the performances nationwide, and connects puppeteers and venues.

The network is a project of IBEX Puppetry, an entertainment company founded in 2000 by Heather Henson, the youngest child of Muppets creator Jim Henson.

Cotten got to know Henson at last year's World Puppet Carnival in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

"We spent a lot of time talking and she really got me inspired to come back and find a space of our own," says Cotten.

The Cottens located a warehouse space on West St. Mary's Road. After renovating it in the summer of 2012, they moved Puppets Amongus in by the fall, in time for a full season of kids' puppet plays. A small theater that seats about 75, The Playhouse is the first artistic home for Cotten since his days with Tucson Puppet Works, an arts collective that had a storefront on East Congress Street circa 2000-2002.

Cotten, also a painter who exhibits locally and who taught drawing, painting and design for 15 years at the UA, has collaborated with a number of Tucson troupes over the years. He's worked at one time or another with all the artists in the upcoming show. Recently, at the Rogue Theatre, he produced the main set piece for Mistake of the Goddess, the Indian play that opened the Rogue's season and just closed a few nights ago. Cotten's 9-foot-tall statue of Ganesh, the elephant Hindu god, presided over the stage.

You might say he has a way with oversized figures. He's a founding director of Tucson's All Souls Procession and for many years led puppet- and mask-making workshops in the weeks leading up to the massive downtown event.

As for Puppets Amongus, it's pretty much a one-man show since Sarah Cotten set off on her own career path, he says. Both of their kids, ages 5 and 10, are into puppetry big-time.

And though Puppets Amongus is now trying to attract an adult audience—another Puppet Cabaret will be staged Nov. 23 and Heather Henson's curated evenings of short puppet films will screen next weekend and at Christmastime—the company has not abandoned its kid audience.

Two original children's puppet plays are scheduled for the fall. Crumpled, based on the popular book A Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, will run in November, and the holiday-themed Winterland, A Puppet Musical, will play before Christmas.

But Cotten is excited about finding new adult fans for performance art, puppet-style.

As Armstrong of WonderFools puts it, "There are so many artistic communities represented in Tucson, and with a variety show you get to see those people come together. It's exciting to see what they are working on and audiences get to see so many things that they might not ordinarily get to see."