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An inventive theatrical collaboration between a puppeteer and a pop band

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In the fall of 2012, Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald saw puppeteer Torry Bend's performance of her category-defying The Paper Hat Game at Manbites Dog Theater. Impressed, his thoughts turned to local indie pop band Bombadil.

Greenwald, who includes many local bands in his programming, had been wondering how to help exceptional local artists get their work in front of new audiences.

"We'd presented [Bombadil] for our Music in the Gardens series," he recalls, "and that gave me an opportunity to spend more time with their music."

He invited James Phillips, Bombadil's drummer, to catch Bend's show with him.

"I told James, 'I could imagine you guys working with her.' And the kind of music Bombadil makes might push Torry toward a slightly more sunny direction than she resides."

After Phillips agreed, Bombadil and Bend began collaborating. This week, the region sees the result: Love's Infrastructure, an adaptation of Bombadil's music that its creators are calling a "marriage of concert, puppet show, music video and live film." This weekend, the band will perform live at the world premiere at Durham Arts Council's PSI Theatre. (Last week, Duke Performances added an extra performance, Saturday, Jan. 25, at 3:15 p.m.)

At first, Bend, who won an Indies Arts Award from this newspaper last summer, was daunted by the limitations of working with pre-existing, story-driven songs.

"I was asking myself, 'How do I follow the narrative the songs create,' when I realized, wait a minute, I don't have to follow it," Bend says. "If I come and go out and in with my narrative next to whatever the narratives of the songs are, that's going to be far more interesting because that offers all of this space for other people's stories."

Love's Infrastructure is "a love story of two main characters," says Phillips. "With the music and the imagery, we're bringing in the stories of a whole city. The characters we're talking about in some of the songs aren't necessarily characters that are on stage or screen, but they inhabit the same universe."

"In part that's because what we're dealing with is perspective," Bend adds, "the perspective of world around you and these characters. As soon as you shift from defining a character by what you see on stage or film to having to see through the perspective of that character—see through the eyes of a puppet—then it's about the audience members' perspective."

The production will deploy extensive video technology that will create several layers of visuals during the work. "This piece jumps around a bit," Bend says. "It moves from inside of a projection screen—a nice, formal place to see a finished product—to outside of it. And you also see around it and the making of it. The band is entering the puppet's world and they're entering their world as well."

The process has forced the artists to find ways to work together.

"Haphazard is probably the wrong word, but you don't have to plan as much to write a song," Phillips says. "Recording a record is a big project, but it doesn't take the same eye for detail as Torry's work," he continues. "Not only does she have to come up with a story, but then she has to storyboard it, build it and figure out the technical aspects. It's an immense amount of work for her, but it's also impressive how capable she is at figuring out each step."

The experience has also changed an introverted dynamic the band experiences when working together.

"We're a pretty self-contained unit as a band," Phillips says. "We record our own records, play our own songs. We're three guys who spend a lot of time together, traveling."

But working on a theater production was different, he discovered. "Torry needs a whole community of folks to work with," Phillips says. "Having a large crew to interact with who are all fun and creative folks, I think that's been a nice change of pace for us.

"We're all working beyond what we thought we knew how to do, in a way I have nothing but utter excitement for," she says.

"It's frightening and thrilling all at the same time."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Newfound sound systems."

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