In 2010, when Torry Bend was designing the set for a show at Duke University called The Beatification of Area Boy, she had to deal with the capacious dimensions of the Reynolds Industries Theater stage. Total volume: just over 100,000 cubic feet.
But her own theater work, The Paper Hat Game, which appeared first at Duke in 2011, at Durham's Manbites Dog Theater in 2012 and at sold-out houses last month in New York, takes place on a smaller scale.
Actually, make that an extremely smaller scale: a stage just 7 feet wide, and 2 1/2 feet deep. The miniature proscenium arch through which audiences see the work is even smaller: an opening that measures 3 feet by 2.
Even for those who've seen the show, the numbers are likely to be greeted with disbelief. And that, in itself, is a tribute to just how large a world Bend and her collaborators were able to create with her intricate miniature puppets and streetscapes, made of painted paper, fabric and wire.
The Paper Hat Game tells the true story of Scotty Iseri, a sound designer who became known throughout Chicago as the Paper Hat Guy after a small, spontaneous act of performance art—and community—on a subway train in 2001 caught the city's imagination and repeated itself many times over. The parallels between Iseri and Bend are significant. A decade after the former used paper to bring people together in Chicago, Bend is using paper to invoke community in audiences in Durham, New York and, this fall, Chicago and Minneapolis.
"Public art can transcend and really get to people. Scott was able to completely transform a train car with just paper," says Bend. "He was connecting with people in a very magical way, and yet with no real magic at all.
"Puppetry, when done well, can do that," she continues. "What's familiar in one context can become magical. With magicians, a trick is usually involved, but this has nothing to do with tricks. It's just an honest gesture of connecting, reaching out and playing."
"Audiences were mesmerized," says Trudi Cohen, director of New York's Great Small Works Toy Theater Festival. "We look for artists who understand the tradition well enough to expand on it ... and our audiences appreciate the ways that artists redefine the form. They were moved by the story itself, the skillful ways the story was brought to life, and because the show was full of new visual ideas."
The INDY's five-star review in 2012 praised the "cinematic dimension" of the work's fusion of video, experimental set design and puppetry that led audiences through the urban landscapes of Chicago's inner city.
Increasingly, in attempts to bridge the divides between people, Bend has turned to smaller gestures away from the stage. In early 2012, she helped organize Durham's Stranger Festival, in collaboration with Portland's Sojourn Theater. The day-long series of "hospitable acts" were designed to encourage conversations between strangers in Durham, "because Duke and Durham don't converse at all," as Bend told The Duke Chronicle in February 2012.
Her specific contribution to the project? Twelve chocolate and yellow butter cream "stranger cakes" that she delivered to recipients designated by 12 different strangers she encountered that day. Mayor Bill Bell got a cake from a fourth-grader at the Emily K Center, and a cashier at Whole Foods directed one to a group of homeless men gathered behind the store.
In a subsequent project, Dear Stranger, Bend has used anonymous letters in an attempt to bridge her own interpersonal divides with other people. Part of that work is the basis for a production in process, If My Feet Lost the Ground, scheduled for premiere next fall.
"Some people look down on community-based artwork; some think it's 'art-lite,'" Bend acknowledges. "But there's an earnestness in that kind of work that I really appreciate. There's a purity in the gestures of some of that work that is so refreshing. Particularly after being so entrenched in a so well-defined and closed community of theater."
In January 2014, Bend will unveil her latest unlikely collaboration, a puppet show adaptation of Durham band Bombadil's forthcoming album, Metrics of Affection. Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald put the two together after taking Bombadil drummer James Phillips to see a performance of The Paper Hat Game last year.
"At Duke Performances we think about how we can support exceptional local artists, providing resources for them to make work larger and more collaborative than they could make by themselves," says Greenwald, a former Indies Arts Award winner himself. "I told James, 'I could imagine you guys working with her.'"
"I felt like our work and Torry's work comes from a similar place. It incorporates the playful and whimsical without ignoring the sad, which I think is easy to do," he says. "There seemed to be some common ground."
Next January, local audiences get to explore that ground for themselves.