It was mid-June, 2002. We at Barebones Productions had been asked by the Minneapolis Institute of Art to perform with a cavalcade of puppets during their festival to commemorate the opening of the new Frank Lloyd Wright Bridge on 3rd Avenue. As with most festivals we are asked to perform at, unless the promoters want something specific, we grab whatever puppets are lying around and go. Because this was a highly visible gig and we wanted to make a good impression, we brought a Reddy Rents truck crammed full of our best ones: 2 large crows, a tall skeleton of a court jester, a hippo, a full-size circus elephant (a stilted puppet), a great blue heron (also with stilts), a flamingo (ditto), 15 elf costumes, and a very large owl.
Barebones, a ten-year-old puppet group, isn't the only puppet gig in town. We perform in parades and festivals, have an outreach program for teaching in schools and community centers, and we will make installations for anyone. But our claim to fame, our May Day Day Parade, so to speak, is our Halloween Harvest Extravaganza--an annual show at a local city park. This year our following (sounds cultish, doesn't it?) will be in the thousands. Puppetry is popular here.
Puppetry isn't new to this area; what's new is that it's exploding. Minneapolis has become a hotbed of puppetry and is developing a style different from New York and Seattle--other fertile grounds for crazy puppeteers. Most puppeteers owe a big thanks to In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, where many of the Twin Cities puppeteers have gotten their feet and fingers wet in paper mache for the first time. Heart of the Beast has been performing puppet and mask shows in the formerly porno film house on Lake Street in Minneapolis for the past 26 years. Many of you know the May Day Parade and Festival--Heart of the Beast's annual event. Most of the members in Barebones once worked (or still do) at Heart of the Beast and other groups like Galumph, a truly interactive puppet experience; Bedlam Theatre--more of a political theatre with puppets sprinkled in; Dhann Polnau's Puppetry Arts Studio; Michael Sommer's Open Eye Theatre; or Kurt Hunter's Marionettes and the Twin Cities. Lots of puppeteers have used Heart of the Beast's styles of puppets--big, on sticks, masks--but many other styles are being embraced too: bunraku, Balinese shadow puppetry, whimsical marionettes, big backpack puppets, water puppets, among others.
So why do people love these low-tech "special effects"? Why are we willing to suspend our disbelief for mere papier mache? A childhood dream comes true: Didn't you secretly wish as a kid that your doll or stuffed animal would come alive? You loved them so much, you may have thought they were alive. As puppets, they can be . . . .
For performers, the act of making an inanimate object come alive is more than exciting. It can make you as giddy as a child. You can give that chunk of cardboard any quality you wish--these stapled-together pieces of fiber and tape have no history or baggage. They say and do whatever you want them to, while the performer can hide.
So how did our performance at the MIA go? Great. A small but appreciative crowd played with and gawked at the puppets. While in a crow costume, I was nibbling at a balloon hat a lady was wearing while she was sitting in a chair listening to music. She didn't see me as I strutted up behind her but her neighbors did; they were amused, but the lady wasn't when her hat popped! (I think a staple in the crow's beak caught the balloon.) A day in the life of a part-time puppeteer, mechanical engineer by day, big crow (and who knows what else) at night . . .