Sunday, July 10, 2011

Trouble Puppet Theater Company: I Have Many Things to Tell You All!

So, back in early spring, I went to see Trouble Puppet Theater Company's production of Upton Sinclair's, The Jungle-- you know, that upbeat novel about Chicago slaughterhouses at the turn of the last century. As I told Trouble Puppet founder, Connor Hopkins, post-show, the piece was so powerful it made me want to go home and kill myself. Okay, okay, not really. But the presentation was naturally incredibly dark, given its seed material. Hopkins had a laugh when I told him my thoughts-- he said lots of people greeted him enthusiastically after performances, shook his hand and cheerfully declared, "That was TERRIBLE," by which, of course, they meant that it was wonderful how Hopkins' puppeteers so carefully and eloquently captured their characters.

That wasn't my first experience with Trouble Puppet. In 2010 I saw their astonishingly fabulous co-production of A Most Unsettling and Possibly Haunted Evening in the Parlour of the Brothers Grimm. So I knew going in The Jungle was going to be good. A couple of weeks after the show, I visited Connor's workspace and chatted with him and Caroline Reck about the show in particular and puppetry in general. Reck, who participated in The Jungle, also has her own puppet company, Glass Half Full Theatre. These two are very tall and very talented and very brilliant. After we got the preliminaries out of the way-- for example concurring that King Friday and Lady Elaine Fairchild aren't exactly the gateway drug to an adult puppet passion-- they fielded a bazillion of my questions. I captured their answers the good old fashioned journalistic way-- audio recording. And, because I am trying to master video blogging (I have a very long way to go) I also shot some footage. Below you'll find both a YouTube link and the print version of the audio interview. But First!!

Before we get to that, I must tell you that Trouble Puppet Theater has a fast approaching fundraiser that promises to be most thrilling. Let me hit you with those details now so you can order your tickets. I am definitely going to this one. Details:

WHO: Trouble Puppet Theater Company Get Yourself into Trouble: The Apocalypse
WHEN: July 20, 2011, 7:00 pm.
WHAT: Trouble Puppet’s annual party and fundraiser: Get Yourself into Trouble: The Apocalypse
WHERE: Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Road.
COST: $15: includes food, drink, and a raffle ticket.  Tickets available online.  
WHAT to EXPECT: As we have each year for a thousand years, since the Great Collapse and the dark days of Bad Time, Trouble Puppet unites the tribes of the wastelands at our annual party and fundraiser, Get Yourself into Trouble! Join a tribe and compete for prizes and glory, or survival. View part of Doomsday Machine, hosted by Cinematic Titanic’s own Mary Jo Pehl; watch Aileen Adler serenade exploding puppets; and shake it to the swing and jazz of the Shivers—the White Ghost ShiversIn the games, you may win theater tickets, puppets handmade by your Troublemakers truly, including a special portrait puppet of whomever you choose (be they friend or nennimy), and 3-day ACL Music Fest passes. The end of times will be fueled by Dripping Springs Vodka, Spec’s, Brick Oven on 35th, Chef Sandy Bowie,, and others.Tickets, $15, available at the door or at Advance (online) tickets receive an extra raffle ticket.

Okay, now that you've got that on the calendar, here's the YouTube snippet (pardon the parts where I accidentally can be heard talking but I just got SO EXCITED) and the interview with Connor and Caroline:

Spike: What brought you to Austin?

Connor: I did what I think a lot of people do—put my stuff in my car and drove down here and thought, “Let’s see what happens.” 

Spike: Were you into puppets before you arrived? 
Connor: I didn’t know anything about puppets. I v
olunteered to help on a puppet show to meet people and it turned out to be something I loved doing and I was good at. The first show I worked on was about this family run strip club with Greek Tragedy elements. Someone murders the father and he comes back as a transgendered stripper and works in the club and his gay son falls in love with him. None of that was my idea, but that’s how I got introduced to puppetry.

Spike: I was kind of surprised to hear The Jungle would be performed with puppets. The idea felt like cognitive dissonance to me.
Connor: One of the things that I’m attracted to about puppetry—a long tradition of being this subversive, red-headed stepchild of the theater world. There were years and years where theaters would be closed down because they were gathering places for radicals and subversives but puppetry you could still get away with. You could set it up, do your show and then be out of there before the cops arrived. It has a long history of being used as a tool of social criticism, mostly in Europe, not so much in the States. In the States people think of it as children’s entertainment whereas in other countries around the world it has a deeper tradition.

Caroline: That [misperception that puppetry is for children only] is also partly the fault of Victorian Era in England because that’s where they first started coddling children and having this idea that children should have special forms of entertainment just for them. And so puppet shows started to be created for children. Prior to that puppet shows were not necessarily for children. So the tradition got brought over to America based on that Victorian children version.

Spike: Have you studied puppetry formally or are you self-taught?
Conor: For the first five or six years I was making it up as I went along. As I got deeper and deeper into it and realized more and more what potential it had I started to read up on it and look into the history of it. Then I got all the more interested in it when I started to realize things like the Grand Guignol Theater in France – all about decapitations and spraying the audience with blood-- evolved from puppet theater. Then it has all of this interesting history. I started studying that on my own. Then about four years ago I went to the National Puppetry Conference and met other puppeteers.  That place is pretty amazing. I compare it to going to a convention of magicians who are all totally willing to show you how they do their tricks. Everybody is totally happy to be around other people who are just as big a freak as they are so it’s a really open and joyful place to be. The director of the conference always welcomes the new people and congratulates them on finding their tribe because that’s really what it’s like.

Caroline: I came at it a little differently. I had worked in theater for years and did physical theater and studied in France and was hired from there to do some puppetry in France. Because there it’s much more normal to cross between the lines of theatre and puppetry. So I worked for years as a puppeteer in France before I ever studied it. Where I studied it for the first time was at the Puppetry Conference. I had a similar feeling of, “Oh wow you can learn this from other people? You don’t have to make it all up as you go?”

Spike: How did you come up with the idea to adapt The Jungle?
Connor: We do a lot of sort of historical, political, satirical shows. So we’ve done How I Became a Catholic Suicide Bomber. We did one about the Haymarket Riots in Chicago. And did one about Zapata for the local Zapatista support group. We had a history of doing labor history related things and a lot of that happened around Chicago. During the course of reading about the Haymarket Riots and other things I got a broader view of Chicago labor history and it reminded me of The Jungle which I had read when I was younger. So I re-read it and I was just thinking about it in very broad terms like, How would you make a show out of it? Because it’s this huge sprawling novel that covers a decade and has forty characters in it and there are whole chapters where there’s no plot just him talking about this journalistic discussion of the way the meatpacking industry works. 

My first year at the Conference I made a participant piece- in your three hours of spare time you can put together a show that’s 3 -5 minutes long. I made this little paper butcher and this little paper cow and made a little hook and had them go through this repetitive thing where this butcher whacks it on the head and hooks it up to the thing and it swings over and he cuts its throat and it bleeds out. That was kind of the seed of the show, trying to find what is the most essential distillation of this whole book. I started with that and it grew and grew and grew over the years. I went to the Conference to do an emerging artist project where they actually give you a workspace and a cast and coaches to help you out. I did a workshop of it there and we got a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation to do an early version. Then they gave us a bigger project grant to do this last version, which was the fully realized version. We had everything-- the set, we had the life-sized cow puppet. 

No comments: