No Strings Attached

Local Artists Find New Inspiration In The Ageless Craft Of Puppetry.

IT'S A SATURDAY night downtown, and the cool crowds are out. A crop of twenty-somethings gathers for a live performance in a narrow storefront gallery on Congress Street. They're fashionably dressed in shabby chic for cold weather, baggy pants billowing out from under dark jackets. Women in spiky crewcuts and men in flowing ponytails crowd into little chairs set up in front of a stage, and they clap and hoot enthusiastically as the show goes on.

The only thing odd thing about this picture of the alternative arts scene is this: These ultracool young adults are watching a puppet show.

Granted, it's not Punch and Judy or even the Muppets. What they're entranced by is a science-fiction double feature written by Dennis Eustace, a 29-year-old local puppeteer, musician and artist-of-all-trades. Part One is his musical play The Plastonauts, an entertaining critique of capitalism and consumerism that has foam-and-cloth puppets singing about the exploitation of temp workers and Americans' increasing reliance on disposable goods. At the end, the disposables win. The Plastonauts, pro-plastic aliens with milk-jug heads, arrive in a silver space ship to take away an earthling newly converted to plastics.

"I used to fight it, fight it," the new consumer sings in a catchy little Eustace ditty. "But now I like it, like it."

Part Two, Cosmic Seed, is a trippy wordless show set to instrumental music. Black lights spill out onto colorful dancing objects. The main character, a beach umbrella painted in fluorescent primary colors, opens and closes gracefully, while white cloths on poles float through the blackness. Audience members peer through "prismatic spectacles"--plastic prisms--to turn the colors on stage into kaleidoscopes.

"Puppets are a great way to express yourself," Eustace, a bone-thin six-footer, had said before the show. The proprietor of the troupe Band O'Poppets, he's been doing puppetry around town for half a dozen years, performing in street fairs, teaching in the schools. His puppet movie, The Cledd Continuum, premieres at the Screening Room this Saturday night. "All my art comes together with the puppets," he says, "sculpting, painting, writing, performing, music."

Eustace is not alone in practicing new-wave puppetry oriented as much toward adults as children. His home base is Tucson Puppet Works, a newish collaborative of some seven local puppeteers in the heart of the downtown Arts District. Matt Cotten opened Puppet Works last February in the old Fred Huntingdon Gallery, with an unusual twin mission of staging puppet theatre and exhibiting alternative art.

The current art show, Puppets of the World, exhibits a panoply of 50 creations gleaned from Tucson collections. The show gives an object lesson not only in different national styles, but in the widely varying definitions of puppet. A silver-and-black Indonesian lady on a pole can dance gracefully--"She's the real beauty I have," Cotten says--while some crude hand puppets are the German version of Punch and Judy. A stringed marionette from Czechoslovakia represents Puss in Boots; China checks in with a long lion meant to be worn in the streets by several puppeteers.

Cotten, who runs the Big Head Puppets company, manages the place, but everyone takes turns putting on the shows, making puppets out of a wide variety of found objects and generally helping each other out. Every Sunday afternoon at 3, one or more of the Puppet Works puppeteers presents Puppet Church, a show written by a member and usually based on an uplifting myth or story. Live organ music helps create a suitably spiritual atmosphere. But the offerings are hardly sanctimonious.

This week for Puppet Church Cotten staged a ribald Turkish tale, with the help of a visiting puppeteer from North Carolina. Turkish stories, Cotten notes, are "short, funny and entertaining." For the show, he used shadow puppets made from flat cut-and-painted plastic, and illuminated them behind a screen. The tale involved one silly man fatefully hiring another to guard his beautiful wife. There's usually a moral at Puppet Church, but this week the lesson, delivered at the end by a nun hand puppet, was simple: "Always make sure to have fun."

"We have our devotees," says Cotten, "kids who come every week. Ages 4 to 9 really appreciate it. Older than 10 they're too cool. By the time they're 20, it's cool again."

The audience for the Turkish comedy bears him out. A half-dozen tykes watched wide-eyed from the floor, but the chairs were crowded with 14 adults, most of them unaccompanied by kids.

THIS NEW PUPPET space is not the only one in town, any more than its two puppet troupes are the Old Pueblo's only companies.

Around the same time Puppet Works opened last winter, longtime Tucson puppeteer Barbara Mocking found a new home for her 20-year-old New Kiva Motions Puppet Theatre. After years of performing on the run, Mocking now puts on weekly puppet shows at the Red Barn Theater in the downtown Dunbar/Spring neighborhood. Her shows are at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. A devoted puppetry fan could catch her show and then run downtown to attend Puppet Church.

Mocking comes out of the alternative theatre scene in late-'60s Chicago. "I was interested in theater and in animation. One day at 19 I woke up and said, 'Puppets are live animation.'" Yet her kids' shows are more traditional than Puppet Works' fare. On the Sunday afternoon after Eustace's sci-fi double bill debuted, Mocking is doing a one-puppeteer play, A Really Bug Show, designed to teach children to love nature and to respect its dangers. But embedded into its lessons are the kinds of progressive morals taught over at Puppet Church. Mother Nature plays against type as an elderly African woman; the brown roach asks pointedly if people dislike it for the color of its skin.

The roach turns out to be the star of the show. A fine foot-long affair in brown painted foam, it belts out a plaintive blues song, written by Mocking.

"I don't know why people don't like me, I've got the 'I'm a Cockroach' blues."

Age 48, Mocking has been doing puppet shows in Tucson "since around the time of the Bicentennial." She got her start in town at the Arizona Historical Society, which until 1980 employed puppeteers full time to do historical shows in a Kiva theatre blessed by a Hopi holy man. She's paid her dues on the birthday party circuit and she's made big-head puppets for festivals. For years, her giant rattlers, 45 feet long and borne by a dozen people, were staples of the Rodeo Parade.

She even had her 15 seconds of fame, in the movie Boys on the Side, the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle filmed in Tucson. Mocking organized a 20-minute Day of the Dead pageant complete with big-head skeleton puppets, and pronounced herself pleased with the quarter-of-a-minute screen time.

"People tell me in movies that's pretty good," Mocking says.

Right now her Red Barn shows are for kids, but she first learned her craft in Chicago at Puppet Place, where most of the shows were for adults. She still sees puppetry as an art form for all ages. "When I got involved it was never 'I love children, I'm gonna do puppets,'" she says. "That's like saying 'I love children, I'm gonna do dance.' Puppetry is a form of theatre. Some puppetry is for children."

And she's delighted that the old art is newly appealing.

"Certainly in Tucson there seems to be a resurgence of puppetry going on," says Mocking, "Our fortunes have ebbed and flowed. Right now we're on an upswing."

TUCSON, OF COURSE, has long hosted puppet shows for the kiddies at the libraries and elsewhere. Such artists as Gwen Ray, Tucson's puppeteering eminence, have been teaching and performing for years. But something else is afoot of late. Puppets are finding their way into unexpected domains. And as Puppet Works proves, puppetry is newly fashionable among young adults, bred on Muppets and Mr. Rogers since the cradle.

Both Eustace and Cotten, ages 29 and 30, experimented with childish puppet shows as kids--Eustace with paper-bag puppets behind the couch and Cotten with stuffed animals on his bed. But both of them cite Jim Henson's TV-screen puppets as a major influence.

"I loved The Muppet Show and Frazzle Rock," Eustace remembers. "The Henson things were wonderful."

Echoes Cotten: "Jim Henson transformed children's entertainment. Nothing was the same once he started his Muppets."

One of the oldest of art forms, with roots both in medieval European carnival and indigenous American ritual, puppets have long been a staple of children's television, from Howdy Doody in the '50s to Miss Piggy in the '80s and beyond. But the cool new versions have even penetrated into the most commercialized domains of Hollywood and Broadway. The critically acclaimed Disney play, The Lion King, enthralls audiences with life-size animal puppets worn by actors. Last winter's hit flick Being John Malkovich featured John Cusack as a street puppeteer who rendered the sensuous story of Abélard and Héloïse via breathtakingly beautiful string marionettes.

Puppetry has lately found its way into alternative festivals, such as Burning Man in Nevada and the All Souls Day Procession in Tucson (more on that later) and into lefty political protests. Puppets even played a role in this most surreal of presidential elections.

Back in August, with the Republicans convening in Philadelphia to select their presidential candidate, overzealous cops intent on clamping down on protest raided a "puppet warehouse" on the city's west side. Not only did they arrest some 75 puppeteers, on the murky grounds that the materials for making puppets were actually explosives, the cops pitched some 100 of their creations into a trash compactor. Puppets of skeletons, cockroaches and balls-and-chains, variously representing the criminal justice system, racism and the like, were chewed to bits, while their makers lingered in jail instead of parading them through the streets.

The case, now making its way through the courts, brought attention to the fact that today's young political protesters have taken to wearing giant puppets to make their points. Big Heads have popped up in the Battle in Seattle and elsewhere in protests against the World Trade Organization. The puppets bring much-needed humor to the nation's bitter political debates, but police often consider them the equivalent of the Trojan horse, fearing protesters will hide weapons inside their puppets. Not so, says Cotten.

"Protesters use puppets because they're a powerful tool of communication," he says. Adds Mocking, "These people are re-discovering the use of puppets in pageants and demonstrations. Bravo! I think it's great. I support their politics. My shows are not politically overt, but my politics informs what I do."

Michael Schwartz, a Tucson artist actively engaged in community organizing and political demonstrations, says that puppetry's use in political protest in the U.S. dates at least as far back as the hippie days of the '60s, when Bread and Puppet Theatre of Vermont got started. Bread and Puppet is still going strong and it's spawned some successors, helping give puppetry a resurgence in the new street protests of the late '80s and '90s.

"Puppeteers are becoming politicized and politics are getting more creative," Schwartz says.

Locally, Big Head Uncle Sam puppets, worn on backpack frames, have energized protests outside Bank One downtown. In the most recent election, Green Party legislative candidate Jack Strasburg hired two Puppet Works members, Chris Hogrelius and Charles Swanson, to enliven his campaign. The pair of puppeteers canvassed door to door with the candidate, going up people's walks wearing Big Head puppets. Musician Ted Warmbrand came along too, strumming on his guitar. Strasburg won no offices, but "it was a lot of fun," Hogrelius says. And, not surprisingly, "it was effective--people came out of their houses."

Even at the Tucson Pima Library, puppets have been commandeered for political action. For the last four years, librarian Terry Nordbrock has staged gay-themed puppet shows at the OUTober Fest, an annual gay pride festival, operating as the Out Puppets Out troupe. Nordbrock says her colleague Rich DiRusso hit on puppets as a way to deliver the message to gays that "the library is a safe place for you," she says. "We will serve you like any other group."

Nordbrock's shows tend to the historical. The first year was The Stonewall Riot, enacted by Barbie and Ken dolls, followed up in the second year by sock puppets portraying the life and death of Harvey Milk, the gay politician slain in San Francisco. The third year "we went back to Barbie" for Gays in the Military; and this year the librarians solicited the help of Gwen Ray to make more sophisticated pâpier-maché puppets for a comedy called Queers in Space.

The crowd loved it, Nordbrock reports, delighting in the tale of an alien space crew that's entirely gay. They come to the benighted homophobic earth and find "a young gay Earthling who's about to kill himself. He gets beamed up to a spaceship and saved."

Activist Schwartz concentrates nowadays on mural projects, though puppets made by his Tucson Arts Brigade used to show up in protests against the Mt. Graham telescopes and the like. He's delighted that puppetry is moving into new realms, both in political action and in community building.

"It's being renewed as an aesthetic form and in rituals in the United States," he says.

A native-born Tucson ritual, the magical All Souls' Day Procession, has relied on puppets from the start. This year Puppet Works' Big Head Puppets landed in the New York Times in mid-October, in a story that previewed the unusual procession. Founded a decade ago by artist Susan Kay Johnson, the procession is a ritual remembering of the dead, with roots both in European Christian tradition and Mexican Día de los Muertos ceremonies. The procession, held November 4, grew this year to its largest size ever. People wearing some 24 gigantic backpack puppets, some pulling floats, wended their way through wet streets downtown. They ended up in an evening-long celebration at Mat Bevel Institute.

The procession almost got rained out, but just before it started, the skies cleared.

COTTEN, NOUVEAU PUPPETEER, looks a bit like a puppet himself, along the lines of a big Pinocchio, the puppet boy come to life. He wears a pointy wool cap above a wide-eyed face, and sports pants cut precipitously off below the knees, like a boy's breeches of olden days. When he speaks about puppets, you listen.

"She's my latest," he says, admiring a Big Head Virgin Mary. "I do the face in clay, make the breasts with balloons and then cover it up with pâpier maché. I use pizza boxes for the neck and shoulder." He uses an electric knife to carve the lifelike hands of his puppets out of foam discards from A Foam and Fabric Place.

He's down in the basement of Tucson Puppet Works, a century-old commercial building. Fresh from their outing in this year's All Souls' Day Procession, a lineup of giant puppets of surpassing beauty lean against a dark cellar wall, quietly holding their breath, waiting to come to life once more. There are Moroccan ladies, Mexican skeletons and devils, an evil-looking Hindi Kali, crafted by Dennis Eustace. Lashed to backpack frames, these 8- and 10-foot creations soar to heights of 15 feet or more, depending on who wears them.

Cotten's Virgin Mary is a luminous beauty with big dark eyes. A vision inspired him to create her and her companion, the Angel Gabriel. He was walking by San Agustín Cathedral, he says, when he saw an image of the Annunciation--the announcement by the angel that Mary was pregnant with the Christ Child.

"I had a vision of the Annunciation in plaster at the cathedral," he explains. "The message was the Annunciation was about conception and fertility. The sense of the dead (at the All Souls' Procession) needed to be balanced with images of birth and fertility and conception."

Cotten's been in the procession six years now. For him it's a more authentic festival than mainstream American Halloween. "I'm not into the violence of Halloween. I'm bored and sick of the gory Halloween culture. My own efforts are to transform it into what it was--walking with your ancestors."

Sickly as a child growing up in Binghamton, New York, he came out to the dry air of the West for college. After studying ceramics at Northern Arizona University, he took an MFA in painting at the University of Arizona. He taught art there for five years, and was so entranced by the fantastical collection of Mexican masks at the Arizona State Museum that he often brought his students there to sketch. The masks, wild carved turtles and devils and conquistadores, are worn in dances in Mexico, and are believed to transform the wearer into other beings. Puppets, Cotten says, are closely linked to masks.

"My biggest interest is in making masks, in the process of transformation and in rituals. The masks got bigger and bigger until they became these huge Mardi Gras style puppets." His Virgin Mary, for instance, weighs 25 pounds, and can soar into the sky about 18 feet when worn atop a 6-footer like himself.

In grad school, Cotten met up with people doing street performances around town, including the flame handlers of Flam-Chen, and he started performing himself. He still paints, but gradually his interests in masking and performance merged to create his Big Head Puppets.

Fellow puppeteer Eustace finds the All Souls Day Procession as entrancing as Cotten does. He dressed as Kali this year, "the goddess of death. She personifies time and the ending of time." With a friend, he made a float that illustrated the cycle of life. Painted images of an embryo, a little boy, an old man and a skeleton revolved continuously as Kali and crew pulled it along.

"This procession is my favorite thing in Tucson," says Eustace, a Boston native who traveled the country for two years before settling here. "It's art and community coming together, a big ritual. Nowadays there's not much ritual that builds community."

PUPPET CHURCH ALSO is meant to meld art with community. Sometimes its name confuses would-be audiences, and its all-ages menu has angered a parent or two. Just as John Cusack got punched in the nose by a dad whose little daughter was watching a racy puppetry scene in the movie Being John Malkovich, so did Cotten take some heat from a real-life mom incensed that his Turkish comedy's physical slapstick was teaching violence to her 4-year-old. But on the whole the reception of the new secular ritual has been positive.

Veteran puppeteer Gwen Ray stopped by on Sunday to pay homage to the new generation of puppeteers.

"I'm really in awe of this," she said. "It was so cool to find out that these guys were doing this. I'm elated. I'm thrilled. Everyone in Tucson should be. To have this space is wonderful. There's a huge audience in Tucson for puppetry. They're ready."

Puppets of the World, an exhibition of puppets, props and scenery, continues through Sunday, December 10, at Tucson Puppet Works, 111 E. Congress St. Gallery hours are 2 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and Downtown Saturday Nights. The gallery is soliciting exhibitors for the next show, Toys, a display and sale of hand-crafted toys. Tucson Puppet Works performs Puppet Church every Sunday at 3 p.m. Admission is $3. For information and for bookings of puppet birthday parties or other engagements call 770-1533.

New Kiva Motions Puppet Theatre stages puppet shows for children every Sunday at 1:30 p.m., at the Red Barn Theater, 948 N. Main Ave. Admission is $3. Birthday parties are available. For information call 884-8845 or 622-6973.

The Cledd Continuum, a puppet video by Dennis Eustace, premieres at 7:30 and at 9 p.m. Saturday, December 2, at the Screening Room, 127 E. Congress St. For information call 622-2262.

Puppeteer Gwen Ray offers a puppet workshop for kids at 2 p.m. Saturday, December 9, at the Valencia Library, 202 W. Valencia Road. Reservations are necessary. Call 791-4531.

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