The men behind the masks | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Haw River puppeteers Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman head to Washington, D.C., this weekend to demonstrate aaginst the IMF and the World Bank.

The men behind the masks 

Some fresh faces have surfaced in the Triangle, some fresh giant faces. Watch for them at Earth Day celebrations, the Haw River Festival, the Festival for the Eno, environmental justice demonstrations, maybe your best friend's wedding. You can't miss them. They bounce and swoop above the heads of the crowd: a grumpy old man, a stunning red horse, a regal blue heron, a horned beast, a flying white crane. They are the giant puppets of Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman.

These beautiful artworks can be so large they require several people to operate each one. They are in the mode of Peter Schumann's Vermont-based Bread & Puppet Theater, a political street theater that has influenced several generations of puppeteers, including In the Heart of the Beast in Minneapolis and Wise Fool in San Francisco. Burger and Zimmerman are part of a new wave of puppet artists--like San Francisco's Art and Revolution Convergence and Philadelphia's Spiral Q--who helped organize the Seattle protest against the World Trade Organization last fall, and will converge on Washington, D.C., this weekend for the meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Burger heard about Zimmerman before he met him at the Haw River Festival in 1994. "I heard rumors of these people, Donovan and Bethany," says Burger now. "They were supposedly on their way from Guatemala, two mystical travelers in beautifully colored clothes. When they arrived, they were such a presence. They brought much beauty and loveliness to the festival. Donovan would open his little books with treasures in them, or handkerchiefs full of shiny shells."

"Shut up," says Zimmerman, laughing and socking his friend on the shoulder. "Don't talk about my hippie days."

I interviewed the artists in one of the two rooms Zimmerman shares with his current "sweetheart" Lea Clayton in a small duplex near the banks of the Haw River in Saxapahaw. Sitting side by side on the bed, the two artists presented a sharp contrast in styles: Burger with his shaven head and solemn demeanor, Zimmerman with his beard, his giggle, his unfinished sentences, his contagious delight in anything creative. Both are romantic characters. They are in central North Carolina for the romance: Each either came or stayed here because of attachments to women, and they admit to a growing affection for the community of creative people they have found.

"There was a lot of playfulness around the Haw River Festival," says Zimmerman, "all based around kids. I felt drawn in by the community. My heart led me to stay." Burger concurs. "There are so many beautiful people here who look after one another," he says. "In Boston or San Francisco, the people are a lot busier."

Zimmerman is a native of Cincinnati, where he attended the School for Creative and Performing Arts from fourth grade through his senior year in high school, with a major in visual art and a minor in drama. "In the 11th grade, I got a slap in the face as to what art is about," says Zimmerman. "I had this amazing teacher who decided to swoop down and give teaching a chance in Cincinnati. Then I went to the Art Academy of Cincinnati and then spent several years just traveling and doing art."

His visits to the summer festivals at Bread & Puppet in Vermont presented him with a life-changing experience. He saw the troupe's work with large puppets and street theater as the perfect way to combine his skills. "You don't have to be a great actor to be behind a mask," Zimmerman explains. He loved their big circus-pageant procession of different puppets, most of which wore faces created by Bread & Puppet's founder, Peter Schumann. "They are simple and to-the-point, hard-hitting images about what's happening worldwide, but reflecting the absurdity of life," says Zimmerman. "Bread & Puppet molded a good part of my brain."

Enthused by the Vermont troupe's approach, Zimmerman created a collection of masks and spent several years doing traveling shows, presenting each mask and becoming the character of the mask. Settling down briefly in southern Oregon, he tried to bring together a theater company called Sticks and Stones, and they "made some money, did some big concert events and environmental festivals," but Zimmerman was not pleased with the people he was able to find to work with him. "They would do everything I said and that was great," he remembers. "But I needed artists, people with strong vision to collaborate with."

Burger, too, credits Bread & Puppet for his current creative burst: "I grew up going to Bread & Puppet since I was 6," he says. "It was so beautiful, I would just cry and cry. It's a whole world they create. Our culture is so deadening, and their Cheap Art Manifesto is both serious and silly: It says that art should be cheap and shoddy, you should eat it like bread and it should feed you." He claims he started attending Bread & Puppet just to find out what was going on in the world.

"I have a hard time with art that hangs on the wall," says Burger, who did performance art in Boston with a group called Homes Not Jails, taking over abandoned buildings and doing artworks to call attention to homelessness. "Art as protest and inspirational tool," he adds pointedly. "I made large-scale black painted banners." Burger has had a peripatetic lifestyle, wandering the United States working with various artistic companies who support direct political action. He has also taught puppetry in the community, to groups like United Farmworkers, whom he helped "to use art to organize the strawberry workers."

When Burger and Zimmerman met they knew they wanted to work together, but things didn't get seriously underway until the Haw River Festival finale last year, when they produced a play about urban sprawl using three scales of puppets. The piece was popular, and requests for their artistry began to pour in.

Work on a new project is fast and furious, as they try to keep up with their imaginations. "We become this amorphous being," says Zimmerman. "Sometimes, painting the same things, we're like this beast with four arms. We totally feed off each other and kick each other's butts. We don't really fight a lot, we just get the issue out and staple it down."

"It is labor-intensive," admits Burger. "Puppetry is suffering. You're carrying these huge things in uncomfortable positions, you're inside a hot mask, there are staples poking you. You have to give a little blood."

One of their favorite projects was the wedding of artist Louise Omoto Kessel and organic farmer Holmes Graybeal on Clapping Hands Farm near Pittsboro. "Louise is one the biggest influences in my life," says Burger. "And they have these big fields like in Vermont." They created a pair of human-sized horses who got married, built a house and planted and harvested crops. This was followed by the appearance of a giant, two-story horse, a flying white bird and the whole menagerie of their puppets, dancing down the hill to the tunes of an Irish band.

Other recent projects included some very fancy insects for Jelly Educational Theater's Spiders on Strike, which also appeared at the opening of the butterfly house at the N.C. Museum of Life and Science. In addition, the duo did a puppet workshop at UNC-Chapel Hill to generate energy for the trip to D.C. "We're collaborating with hundreds of people," says Burger, "and we want to create as many beautiful pieces of theater as possible." Theater companies from all over--Arm of the Sea from New York, Cry of the Rooster from Seattle, Shoddy Puppet Theater from Philadelphia--will converge for the event in the capital. "It's grassroots and community activism, and it has a beautiful integrity," Burger claims. "I wouldn't do puppetry just straight. People need that kind of inspiration in their lives."

"Schumann teaches that art is for everyone," says Zimmerman. "We want to make it accessible. If you do it well, the audience will be with you. It's the same all over the world. The human race has the same cast of characters, and puppets are about archetypes and how they interact. Monsters, and horned, mystical forest beasts. They transport you out of reality and into another world." EndBlock

More by Linda Burnham

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