Of Science, Religion, or Magic?
Zoot Theatre creates Booze & Puppets @ the Plaza Theatre
By Amanda Dee
Photo: Bill Franz
It was the most magical cemetery I’d ever seen.
It’s also a hospital: bodies of varying sizes, textures, and forms are born and mended here.
Right before I step into the space, I’m greeted by emptiness contained in cold gray concrete and, up above, exposed tufts of insulation.
A woman—not a puppet with red bullseyes on its cheeks—appears, smiling.
Katie Kerry, the executive director of Zoot Theatre Company, beckons me into the place where puppets go after (and before) they’ve been brought to life.
Unbeknownst to many, Zoot Theatre’s headquarters have resided on Washington Street for about a decade. It’s easy to miss, and I did, before circling back and spotting the “306” on the black front door and the “Zoot Theatre Company” sign on the window. The company works with “every arts organization in town,” as enthused by Aaron Vega, resident writer-director and board member—which is how their work/magic shop quietly exists while they build worlds. Their productions have traveled through local theatrical venues, like the Dayton Art Institute and the Schuster Center, with organizations including the Human Race Theatre and Stivers School for the Arts.
In the last year or so, the nonprofit has restructured its model to mimic that of a band, with “sets” lasting from eight minutes to two hours depending on the venue. They’re asking questions like, how do we put on a show in a bar?
“Not only are the puppets outside the box, like in terms of the stories, but… what does a theatrical event actually look like? Or what does somebody who doesn’t know theatre—they might be a visual artist or they might just be someone who enjoys going to craft breweries—when they have an interaction with puppetry, what does that need to look like?”
They’re focusing on commissions-based projects to expand their reach regionally, as well as more compact shows, which call for more compact bodies.
“If you can make puppets smaller, it turns out, you can fit in tinier places,” Vega explains.
“Can I fit this actor into a road box? No. But I can fit eight puppets.”
Zoot’s Booze and Puppets event, at Miamisburg’s Plaza Theatre, gives attendees a taste of this model, with three distinct short shows, or “Zoot-tales,” as Artistic Director Tristan Cupp has christened them.
The way Vega and Kerry present the idea of Cupp to me plants a vision in my mind of a Wizard of Zoot, in that Cupp seems as untouchable, imagined as his big ideas; I need to remind myself he’s a living, breathing human on planet Earth—and that he, like the creatures all around me, are tangible.
“He works really well in big pictures, so he’ll say something like, ‘I want a piece that’s underwater,’” Vega pauses a beat before continuing, “OK. Then we start talking and collaborating and talking and talking and talking… and then we end up with a storyline or a piece of music that’s inspired by that. And then we go from there. Or I’ll call him now and say, ‘Hey, I want to do a piece about a gravedigger. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I think it’d be really funny.’” And Cupp will say, “Sure, come on in.”
Vega met Cupp at a time when the Wizard was working with masks.
“Puppets sort of found me,” Vega says. “We were looking for something goofy and crazy to work on, something just nuts.”
A local rock band called Sleepybird wanted a stage show. So, “before Zoot was even Zoot,” Vega and Cupp gave them a show, with puppets. “And then from there, it just exploded,” he continues. “Now, I write and direct all over the country, and it seems that I can’t direct a piece without a puppet.”
Although Vega frequents Dayton to collaborate with Zoot, he’s lived in New York for the past eight years. He started here, graduating from Wright State’s Professional Actor Training Program and working for years with the Human Race Theatre.
Even compared to New York, “the puppetry capital of America” according to one New York Times theatre critic, Vega claims, “Zoot is on par, in terms of the art that they’re making, with some of the companies coming up in the U.K. right now. There’s a lot of stuff that’s similar to us in the U.K., but not a whole lot here. There’s a company in Austin [Texas], there’s a couple of companies in New York. They’re not to the scale that we are—which is crazy to think that Dayton, Ohio, is consistently churning out a high-quality product…”
“You can be entertaining. You can be provocative. You can be educational. You can be anything,” Kerry stresses. “And we are.”
Of great import
For 10 consecutive days at the end of January, puppeteers and their followers from around the globe paid pilgrimage to the art form at the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. Slightly more than a century ago, “puppeteer” could not be found in English dictionaries.
Countries like Japan and the Czech Republic, formerly Czechoslovakia, tap from ages-old puppetry tradition, but America, per her usual, lags behind.
Jim Henson and his Muppets transmitted the art form to living rooms during the late ’50s and early ’60s, all the while handing out tinted glasses with which to view them: puppets meant cookie monster, which meant for kids. Not to any fault of Henson (who started a foundation to fund innovative puppet creators), and not to say adults didn’t swoon over Kermit and Miss Piggy, but puppet theatre companies seek out their own niches.
Like Zoot. “We’re not the Muppets,” Kerry emphasizes, with Vega adding, “Hashtag: NotMuppetPuppets.”
In and of itself, the revival of an international puppet festival signifies a surge in its popularity. In New York Times theatre reviews, puppet cameos have become “commonplace,” according to one of its critics this year. Further, when the Jim Henson Foundation increased its grant levels last year, applications followed, rising about 80 percent, as cited by a Times interview with Cheryl Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter and the president of the foundation.
“I think the theatre is latching onto puppetry because you can do crazy, experimental things, fantastical things, for half the cost or a quarter of the cost,” Vega says. “Like, boy, I really wish that character could fly, and if it were an actor, it would cost a million dollars and you’d have to bring in [harnesses and other related equipment] to fly them like in Peter Pan. But for the puppet, you just go, ‘OK. Lift it up.’”
Above affordability, Vega verbally underscores its power “to engage the imagination.”
We’re standing in the “finishing area,” where a long operating table hosts the birth of heads, among other parts. The usual process starts with clay. Once the clay is shaped, someone casts the clay in plaster to create a mold. A special liquid latex is poured into the mold, then that cools and is painted, shaded, and voilà: Vega pulls out a stringy haired woman’s head with different sized eyes and wires as limbs—“That’s the mom,” he explains.
“We’re trying to figure out how we want the bodies to work.”
In front of a wall hung with tiki-head-expressive masks on one side and Stars-of-David-stitched Holocaust puppets on the other, Vega stops and unrolls a set of schematics. He advises me not to take pictures. On the faint blue gridded sheet, the Wizard has penciled an angel, for a commission of Columbus Short North’s “Angels in America.”
It may require 60 hours and five people for that one idea to step off the page.
Each production calls for different styles of design, structural and aesthetic. The retired wooden figures from “Moby Dick” rest on shelves to the right; the sophisticated engineering weighs down the puppeteer. Bunraku puppets, a Japanese style, can roll their eyes or clench their fingers into a fist; the puppeteer is on stage, unlike a marionette performer who operates the puppet with strings off stage. What Vega and Cupp refer to as the puppet’s “emotional indicator” cues the audience to that puppet’s emotive responses, how we should react.
The puppets for Vega’s favorite production, “Animal Farm,” were, well, heads and thus called for a different “emotional indicator” than, say, the dragon from “Shrek,” “whose poor body is over there,” Vega informs me. The puppets’ moving ears communicated their emotions to the audience.
“It was a giant show with huge ideas that are incredibly important, and we decided to strip away a lot of what we normally would have done. It was our first foray into letting the audience’s imagination do most of the work,” Vega recalls.
“[The ears] became the movement and the text—and it hit home for a lot of people. It was just a beautiful show. It hit home.”
On stage or off, “We are able to communicate differently than any other art form,” Kerry states.
Kerry, involved with theatre and choreography—and not puppets—for nearly 20 years, recently took on the role as executive director. When she learned of the Zoot project in Mansfield, Ohio, when Cupp workshopped puppetry with the Integrated Theatre Company to help children with autism, she was moved to join the company.
“I just was pretty speechless about the work he was doing with those kids,” she says. “The connection of the creation of these puppets and the nonverbal communication that just really brought these kids to life—it was just a pretty magical experience.”
Kerry signed onto the Zoot mission, in part, to bring experiences like that closer to home, to bring similar workshops and educational opportunities to Dayton, funding for which comes from an event like Booze and Puppets, where the company can showcase their art to a crowd that might not opt to watch a puppet show without first sampling one.
“A lot of people these days, I think, don’t want to sit for two hours and invest in something where you have to sit down and shut up and dress nicely and pay a million bucks. So if we can give them something where they can come for one [or] stay for all of them… then people don’t feel this need, this obligation, to sit if they don’t like it or they have to work through it; they can enjoy it and they’ll slowly warm up to it.”
“It’s what Shakespeare used to do,” he continues. “He used to go from town to town with his troupe, and they would just go to the most popular alehouse, tavern, in the town and they would set up a stage and they would just do it for donations. We’re moving in that direction.”
“It takes the entire theatrical experience and just kind of turns it on its head.”
Before I leave, a puppet re-centers himself with a sun salutation. (You can also meet him in the Zoot production of “The Boy Who Swam with Fishes.”)
It’s three to one: three actors to one puppet. This one reaches to the sky and down to the floor with a soft, cushioned body, meaning it demands more control and finesse from the puppeteers, who are honing their “focus,” locking their eyes on the body they control, and beating a pulse, or “breath,” into the puppet.
For witnesses to suspend disbelief, to trust themselves to believe in these creations, be it for eight minutes or two hours, the puppets also call for “fixed points,” or constant variables for the movements. If the puppet is doing yoga on a road, that road can’t suddenly transform into a sea of wine without explanation, as deeply as we might wish for that miracle.
If all the world’s a stage, then puppet-makers take turns playing gods, or at least demigods, for whichever world they’re creating. Whether you’re stepping on or off, or watching from below the stage, whether you view that world as a person of science or religion, or magic, you’ll be transported, as long as they can make you believe.
“We’re spreading the gospel,” Vega believes, “of puppetry…”
For more information about Zoot Theatre Company and Booze and Puppets, please call 937.222.4000 or visit ZootTheatreCompany.org and follow @ZootTheatre on Twitter and Facebook.