As The Painted Bird opens, Paperhand Puppet Intervention cofounder Donovan Zimmerman reflects on 15 years of puppet theater | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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As The Painted Bird opens, Paperhand Puppet Intervention cofounder Donovan Zimmerman reflects on 15 years of puppet theater 

Paperhand Puppets rehearse in the troupe’s Saxapahaw studio.

Photo by Justin Cook

Paperhand Puppets rehearse in the troupe’s Saxapahaw studio.

On Aug. 8, Paperhand Puppet Intervention once again braves the late-summer heat to put on its annual show at UNC's Forest Theatre.

THE PAINTED BIRD, a new production that fans helped fund with more than $11,000 in Kickstarter donations, is the centerpiece of the Saxapahaw-based troupe's 15th year of using giant puppets, elaborate costumes and philosophical themes to create immersive theatrical experiences. This year's show features jumping frogs and towering rod puppets with black or white faces.

Paperhand's shows combine planned storylines and meticulously crafted puppets with improvisational rehearsals where performers discover innovative ways for their characters to move and interact, shaping the final performance.

"The show begins as a concept and, through collaboration and improvisation, we create a concrete, choreographed story," says performer Cameron Prevatte of Greensboro, on a lunch break outside Paperhand's rehearsal space. "We create the script, and then, by opening night, everything is specific, fleshed out and beautiful. Bits and pieces of the show are created by the individual puppeteers and musicians, yet it's a cohesive piece of its own."

Like most Paperhand shows, The Painted Bird is family-friendly but also tackles deep, dark ideas about life, death, creation, destruction and the relationship between humanity and nature.

"I love the way our shows are accessible to everyone," says Sarah Howe of Durham, another regular performer. "No matter where you are in your journey, we will welcome you in and challenge your assumptions."

  • Photo by Justin Cook

For a unique perspective on Paperhand's history, we asked cofounder and artistic director Donovan Zimmerman to reflect on five of the troupe's most memorable shows, including its upcoming production. Here are his picks and his thoughts:

Uprising (2001)

Donnovan Zimmerman: Our current show is related in many ways to Uprising, like a distant cousin. more fabulous. Uprising was a creation myth that used color as the visual essence of things coming into being. After the pageantry of our creation story happened we introduced humans, which were represented in shades of gray. Soon the colors were consumed in their entirety from the world. That was the first big Forest Theatre show that Jan [Martijn Burger, Paperhand cofounder] and I collaborated on.

INDY: What made you interested in puppets?

DZ: It was a form that we were both interested in from Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont—being exposed to that helped us realize what's really possible with puppetry.

People encounter the word "puppetry" and have a preconceived notion of what it can be. They think of Howdy Doody or things on TV that talk down to kids, in my opinion. We've spent the last 15 years trying to expand their perception and show how it's a true art form that can combine visual arts, writing, music, sculpture and drawing. All these things find themselves under the umbrella of puppetry.

Garden of the Wild (2005)

DZ: We used a lot more dance in this show, which I liked because dance is something I'm very interested in. Another thing I loved was that we had this giant beast of the wild, and in the course of the show, it's attacked and killed by this giant sword-bearing "hero." Buildings and civilization were built on top of it, and in the end, Mother Earth sort of comes and touches it and it's resurrected and comes out into the audience.

I just remember the impact of that—it was really profound. Something like 20 kids in the audience, who could have found it really scary, reached out in unison to touch it. That desire to connect was at the heart of what I want to inspire. A lot of tears were flowing in the audience and I realized I'd really found my thing.

Love and Robots (2009)

DZ: That wasn't a Forest Theatre show—it's a bit of a wild card, one of our more adult shows. It was one of our collaborators outside of Jan, Jimmy Magoo, who wrote the music for this robot-puppet rock-opera. We departed from some of our common themes and had to do quite a bit of research to build these robots, as most of our characters are more based in nature. We had to do some thinking in terms of engineering and lighting because it was a winter show.

Invisible Earth (2013)

DZ: This was the biggest show we've done so far. There were 14,000 people that came over the course of six weekends. That was a more direct collaboration between myself and Jan, as every decision came between the two of us. Previously, Jan was the director of City of Frogs (2012)—that was his baby—while I did the writing and designing for The Serpent's Egg (2011) mostly by myself. We switch off sometimes on who gets to be what we call the "ber." This year, I'm the director and Jan is supporting me, consulting and giving me his best feedback.

The Painted Bird (2014)

DZ: I'm more comfortable in my skin at this point. Fifteen years on, I feel like there's enough momentum that I don't have the weight of the world on me to pull off a production. There's enough of a support network that there's some ease to the process, and it's bolstered by the community—the people who volunteer, who come see us, and the 150 people who backed the Kickstarter. Everyone works together and, through that process, we create these little shining moments. If you string enough of those together, you get a nice little necklace of pearls.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Talking puppets"


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