Saturday, November 14, 2009

Got No Strings

Slapstick is humorous. Trips, falls, hits and eye gouging all have a certain appeal to our most base sense of “the funny,” but when it comes to puppets, slapstick serves an entirely different purpose:
It softens the brain.
“It’s how you get the audience to accept that a piece of cloth is a character,” said Amy Harwood, a Portland puppeteer and founder of the Apropos Puppet Company.
That’s why, when you stop by a puppet show in the park, the characters spend the first minute or so whacking each other with sticks. It’s funny, of course, but it’s also character development at its most primitive.

“People aren’t prepared to accept a sock as a person, so you don’t launch right into a plot-heavy play. It just means they’ll zone out quicker,” Harwood said.
Harwood began writing a play, “Krakatoa,” while she was still an international relations student at Lewis & Clark College. She began writing the story in the wake of 9/11 and was attempting to draw connections between the explosion of Krakatoa in 1883 and the Islamic revolution that followed in its wake and the response to the attack on the Twin Towers.
“I was studying Indonesia in school and they have a long history of puppet theater. That’s when I realized how the story needed to be told,” said Harwood.
She found a friend that introduced her to members of the local puppetry community who were taken with her script and adopted it for a show.
“We decided on shadow puppets. Shadow puppets are fairly limiting, but the end result can be totally magical,” she said.
In shadow puppetry the audience sees only the shadows of figures on a wall. While the range of motion is limited, shadow puppets themselves can be quite forgiving.
“You can decorate them however you want because the audience only ever sees the shadows,” Harwood said.
Eye holes can be covered with cellophane to produce an ominous glare. Shadow puppets can also be produced on a shoestring budget: Harwood’s first ones were made from manila folders and the backs of PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) twelve-packs.
Set pieces were crafted using transparency paper and an overhead projector. The real challenge was in figuring out how to make the mountain explode.
“We ended up rolling out a ‘science fair’ volcano and then went back to the puppets,” said Harwood.
She was hooked.
Art imitates life
After the Krakatoa show, Harwood began expanding her puppeteering repertoire and cast of characters. She experimented with finger puppets, sock puppets and even marionettes.
Papa Yeti is one of the few characters Harwood has chosen to revisit.
Papa Yeti grew out of Harwood’s day job as a political operative for BARK, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the forests, waters and wildlife of Mt. Hood. In his debut performance, Papa Yeti burned down a ski resort that was encroaching on his habitat.
“He doesn’t speak, but the characters around him – like Bro-Dawg – speak for him and tell his story,” said Harwood.
If you can imagine Charlie Brown’s parents with white fur and acting as the patron saint of Mt. Hood, you’re on the right track. Papa Yeti made a comeback appearance at a recent Earth Day show. He was hit by an ATV (all-terrain vehicle), comedy ensued.
Puppetry, she has learned, can be simultaneously freeing and frustrating.
“I can be as hard-edged and political as I want and people are more accepting of it. On the other hand, there are times when I want the audience to take it more seriously,” she said.
Tying one on
The thing Harwood loves about puppetry is that it draws from so many influences and brings people from dramatically different backgrounds together.
“You have to have a great story, good voices, set pieces and music,” she said.
Sometimes it also helps to throw caution to the wind.
During one show she helped produce, Harwood decided to take up post at the bar and heckle the crowd with a puppet between the acts.
“I wrote out this whole script and I read it for my husband who told me it sounded awful. He said, ‘You can’t go down there and do that,’” said Harwood.
She persisted and he suggested that if she was going to make the attempt, she needed more authenticity.
“He told me I needed to go down to the bar and get drunk,” she said.
Harwood did and the results pleased the entire crowd.
“People kept coming up and telling me how great it was, but I had no idea what I was doing. I was totally hammered,” she said.
Harwood is steadfast in her commitment to avoid puppet shows for children, but by crafting scripts with more bite, she and others have carved out a niche performing for adult crowds.
She would love to see more people inspired to give it a try.
“When someone comes to my shows I want them to be simultaneously awed and inspired, but at the same time feel like they could do it too,” she said.

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