The hands-on headless horseman

Zoot Reboots for “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo: C.J. Suchyta and Natalie Houliston display Ichabod at a Zoot Theatre kick-off party held at the Dayton Visual Arts Center

Where do you look when you have large puppets brought to life by energetic puppeteers working on a table top in front of a screen that has live drawings magically appearing? The puppets move with fluidity and the manipulators are intense, reflecting the emotion of the story as they create realistic movements.

Behind the screen, the Zoot Theatre Company’s creator and artistic director Tristan Cupp sits drawing for each performance, creating fine line instant descriptions of the story being told by the narrator. The effect is intriguing.

It’s easy to appreciate the natural movement of the puppets, each being handled by three puppeteers; to notice the puppets’ faces; and to track the artfully economic drawings being done in real time. The challenges for the Zoot Theatre Company are a gift to the audience.

The puppeteers, all experienced in the Zoot style, are Eric Arntz, Mathys Herbert and Natalie Houliston. C. J. Suchyta alternates for some performances. Together, they will animate Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel and Brom Bones, along with two horses, elderly Gunpowder and stallion Daredevil, as they recreate “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” for audiences at the Troy-Hayner Cultural Center on Oct. 31.

They make the characters and the story, narrated by Aaron Vega, seem bigger than it is. Vega adapted much of the original language of the Washington Irving classic into a neat 50-minute show that he also directs. “This is a family-friendly show that appeals, like Pixar, on several levels of enjoyment to both adults and children,” he said. “It’s back to basics.”

Original music was written and is performed by Rick Good, co-founder of Dayton’s much-loved former dance company, Rhythm in Shoes. “Recording music and words rather than having a live narration gives the puppeteers an opportunity to work with consistent timing and allows us to be more creative with the staging,” director Vega said.

In the play, the narrator says, “There is a little valley, or rather a lap of land among the high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it … ” Then you see an almost magic line actually creating that country image. The drawing flows along with the narration.

Those words introduce the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the main character, schoolmaster Ichabod Crane. “He was tall, exceedingly lank with hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together.” Zoot’s creation brings the description to life.

As the story of the Headless Horseman is introduced, he appears as a line drawing (not a puppet) of a horse complete with a rider. But wait, suddenly he is headless, erased before the audience’s eyes.

Cupp’s working on a small transparent scroll he moves across an overhead projector and onto the large screen on stage. It is ingenious – and you may wish you could run behind him to see how it works. As usual, the artist is multitasking, occasionally emerging from anonymity to manipulate a puppet or join the other three operators and dance with them and their puppets.

The Zoot Theatre Company has come up with a new slogan, “Reboot Zoot,” to reflect a fresh and pared down organization appearing in a variety of smaller area venues while bringing their sophisticated, artistic product to broader audiences. The Reboot Zoot concept cuts down on the number of puppets, but allows for greater detail in their creation. Some nine artists contributed to finishing the five puppets after Cupp designed and built them.

Still, puppets are not people. “Sometimes we try to take the puppets further than they can go,” puppeteer Houliston said. “A joint may crack or split, but Tristan repairs [it].”

The object of both Ichabod Crane’s and Brom Bones’ affection, Katrina Van Tassel, is a properly flirtatious puppet. The story of the laid-back citizens of Sleepy Hollow, true believers in ghost stories and haunting phantoms, moves swiftly after Ichabod seems to have lost the lady’s favor.

After leaving a community gathering at the Van Tassel’s, the very dejected Ichabod rides his skinny old horse home through a dark and eerie night. The horse shies when he hears something behind him. Ichabod is terrified. Is it the Headless Horseman? Something flies through the air – the teacher falls and is never seen again. Later, a shattered pumpkin is found at the site. Brom marries Katrina, and the Sleepy Hollow citizens return to their mellow snoozes.

Help reboot Zoot

An opportunity to bid on one of the personable puppets previously featured in a Zoot show is now available. The puppets were displayed recently at a cool kick-off party at the Dayton Visual Arts Center and can be seen online at Detailed instructions on bidding procedures are on the site. Human Race Resident Artist Tim Lile, also a professional auctioneer, answers bidding questions at 937.689.1846. He might even give you a sample of that auction patter.

If increased creativity is possible, then Reboot Zoot reflects more original thinking on how to deal with economic realities while improving an already appealing artistic concept.

Zoot Theatre Company presents “Sleepy Hollow” on Friday, Oct. 31 at the Troy-Hayner Cultural Center, 301 W. Main St. in Troy. The show begins at 7:30 p.m. For tickets or more information, please call 937.875.ZOOT (9668) or visit

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at

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