Peace and Realization

Matt Cotten's Puppets Amongus company debuts with a Frida Kahlo show that's on its way to Kazakhstan

Frida Kahlo's work has become a familiar, if not iconic, representation of Mexican art throughout the world.

Her troubled life—including the constant physical pain she endured as a result of a bus accident, as well as the emotional pain she endured during her roller-coaster relationship with artist Diego Rivera—is a captivating story, and is certainly ripe for exploration.

But in a puppet show?

Matt Cotten is the mastermind behind Puppets Amongus, a new venture with plans for a full season of family-friendly, original shows in a new venue on St. Mary's Road.

To explore Kahlo's life and work, El Sueño de Frida utilizes mostly rod and shadow puppets. Cotten has been invited to take the show to the World Puppet Carnival in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Tucson's sister city, in September, and this weekend, the Rogue Theatre is hosting a performance of the piece as a benefit to raise funds for the trip.

It might be surprising to some that a fairly weighty story is appropriate for a puppet show, since in our culture, puppet shows are mostly associated with children's entertainment. But in other cultures, puppetry has a rich history and is respected as a legitimate art form.

Cotten is a painter and sculptor who came to Tucson 20 years ago to study for a master's degree at the University of Arizona, where he then taught for 15 years. But something about painting just didn't feel quite right.

"I found that working on a painting, then hanging it in a gallery, felt really alienating between the artist and viewer," he says. "I got to the point that I needed a format that was more directly interactive with the viewer."

That format seemed to be something like theater, but Cotten had no training. "But I make things," he says—and something about puppetry appealed to him, although he had no training in that field, either. So he started performing on the street; that felt right.

"I found the connection to the audience to be really thrilling and immediate," he says. "I am a painter, but I'm also a story-writer and musician. My approach is from the standpoint of a visual artist, and I've sort of developed my own style. Of course, I'm influenced by (Muppets creator Jim) Henson and others, but a lot has been through trial and error."

Tucson theater-goers may be familiar with some of Cotten's work which the Rogue Theatre has commissioned and featured in several productions. Cynthia Meier, managing and associate artistic director of the Rogue, praises Cotten.

"We used his big-head puppets in The Good Woman of Setzuan," she says. (These impressive creations are still on display in the Rogue's lobby.) He created the snake in Nga Mandala, the little piglets in Animal Farm and, most recently, the bear in The Winter's Tale.

"Puppets are very useful in theatrical productions when you need a sense of fantasy and imagination," she says. "They can create such a presence. You can play with scale. And Matt really knows how to bring life to his creations. First and foremost, I think of Matt as an artist."

Cotten's handiwork may also be familiar through his participation in the All Souls Procession, which has grown into a huge event in the Old Pueblo. His giant puppets are striking both in their beautiful sculptural qualities and in their magically evocative power, making a bold statement visually and metaphorically. They are a bridge from one world to another.

"I think puppetry is about 'the other'—the alternate reality of dreams, memories, visions," Cotten says. "It leads us into another layer of consciousness. The Day of the Dead procession is a communal ritual, where the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest and lightest. People step to the other side to remember and honor those we have lost, and the use of puppets and masks helps facilitate that connection."

This is exactly why Frida Kahlo is a perfect subject for Cotten's brand of puppetry.

"Other art forms also deal with dreams and the subconscious, and that's one of the reasons I was drawn to Frida Kahlo, especially," he says. "She used painting to tell the story of herself—her internal struggle of how to deal with her broken body and her broken heart. I don't think all painters are storytellers, but I think Kahlo and Rivera certainly are. But Rivera's work is very literal; he needed to tell the story of Mexico. She told the story of herself. She was totally self-absorbed, but not in a bad way. She painted out of a sense of survival."

In a sense, says Cotten, this show is about a spiritual journey. The play is set on Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). Kahlo meets up with her post-mortem self—and she literally takes herself apart. Through this process, "She finds peace and a realization of her own joy."

Although Cotten does shows for children, this one is for adults. "It's all pantomime, subtle movements," he says.

Musician Jimmy Carr accompanies the story with the accordion. "It just sounded right," Cotten says of the choice of instrument. He says he always works with musicians who can improvise to help create the story. His wife, Sarah, will assist him with props and lend her voice to "a beautiful Spanish song."

Cotten had been developing the Kahlo show for a few years, and when Jerry M. Gary of the Tucson-Almaty Sister Cities Committee called out of the blue to say they would like to help send him to Kazakhstan, Cotten thought that a piece about Kahlo would be a good way to represent Tucson, since the city has been so influenced by Mexican culture. And he is thoroughly jazzed about the World Puppet Carnival.

"In other countries, people are seventh-generation puppeteers," he says. "It's such a part of culture and their history. I will have the opportunity to meet and observe the greatest puppeteers in the world."

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