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Puppet Masters

Paper Hand Puppet Intervention brings its brand of political theater back to Chapel Hill

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The view from inside a giant puppet is disorienting. You see cloth, paper, a tunnel of dim light, flashes of spectators' faces. If you're lucky, you can see your feet. Your arms are extended to weird lengths, you have no idea where your head is, and only split-second timing will save you from crashing into another fabulous puppet as visually challenged as yourself.

And then there's the occasional threat of conflict with armed police.

Puppeteering is not for the faint of heart. So it's no surprise that the guys behind Triangle-based Paper Hand Puppet Intervention, Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman, have a lot of chutzpah. They're working full-time at combining painting, dance, sculpture, acting and music with a healthy desire to take the world back from corporations and conservative politicians.

If you missed their big puppet show last year, not to worry--they're back. Paper Hand Puppet Intervention is mounting its second full-length production in the Forest Theatre on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus this month. The show is called Uprising, and is subtitled, modestly enough, The Creation of the World in Four Parts. These aren't mere sock-puppets here--we're talking two-story puppets, comets that spin, the sun, the moon, wild beasts and ferocious bugs. In color.

Full disclosure: I didn't exactly miss the puppet show last year, but I never got to see it. I was in it. Or rather, in the puppets. Despite my complete lack of puppet-managing skills, I somehow wound up being the warm body under a horse head, and then risking my neck by racing over the stone steps of the Forest Theatre flapping one wing of a bird. It's heavy, hot, wearying, and time consuming being a cog in a great spectacle. I burned with envy for the folks who got to actually see the spectacle. They seemed to be having all the fun.

The Paper Hand creations emerge for performances from an abandoned textile mill west of Chapel Hill that serves as a studio and rehearsal space. The building is a sprawling brick hulk, its grimed and cracked windows overlooking the muddy Haw River. When I visited recently, the front part of the building was pitch dark. I needed a flashlight to pick my way past piles of scrap machinery, sand, broken furniture and other strange junk to get to the rehearsal space in back.

In the studio, a wooden stepladder is hung with cymbals and chimes. Like a silent movie, the puppet shows are animated by live music and sound effects. The musical team--led by singer-songwriter John Dyer and local theater impresario Jimmy Magoo--juggles instruments and noisemakers in split-second timing with the onstage performers.

Masks hang from the walls of the studio, some the size of a human head, others towering six feet high. The raw materials for puppet-making are piled in the corners: paper bags, cardboard, cloth scraps, dumpster-dived junk. Burger and Zimmerman make most of their masks with papier-mché; their formula is corn-starch boiled in water, which they use to coat paper scraps and shape onto molds. When dried, the masks are painted then fitted into the larger puppet costume, which may be as simple as a pole and a sheet, but is often a full-body costume with ingenious controls inside.

Giant puppets have become an increasing presence in street theater and radical activism in the past two years. "The radical puppet movement is huge," says Jan Burger, co-creator of Uprising. "It's one of the latest waves of a creative form of activism." Paper Hand has its roots in European activist puppetry, as well as the venerable Bread and Puppet company, which has been championing left-of-center causes in this country for decades. The current resurgence in puppets that "intervene" has focused heavily on opposing globalization and corporate control.

"Puppets allow you to express beauty as a part of your activism," Burger says. "I don't really allow myself to do much in the way of art unless it's moving forward in some social cause." Burger's partner, Donovan Zimmerman, says politics is the only reason he makes plays. "I can't really separate the two, but to inspire people is one of my main motivations. To get audiences inspired and empowered, creatively pumped-up."

On several occasions, Burger and Zimmerman have taken their puppets on the front lines of radical protest, resulting in clashes with police and security forces. Last April, in Washington, D.C., they saw a warehouse of puppets, including their own, confiscated in a police raid that Burger describes as a "pre-emptive strike." Prior to a scheduled street action, D.C. police entered the building on the pretext of fire-code violations. "They said they were there to keep us safe," Burger says wryly. Police took the group's food and medical supplies as well. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the puppeteers eventually recovered most of their art.

But at a world trade protest in Philadelphia that summer, over 300 puppets were taken and destroyed. Police at that time claimed to be looking for bombs in the puppeteers' storage space, and dozens of activists spent time in jail over the incident. Many of the puppeteers involved are currently suing the city of Philadelphia.

Zimmerman says the scariest situation so far for Paper Hand was the inauguration celebration of George W. Bush. Zimmerman, Burger and other friends made caribou costumes for the occasion. They prowled the streets of D.C., singing about arctic drilling and other environmental issues. "Then we got to this place where all the people had bleeding heads," Zimmerman says. They'd walked into an ongoing clash between protesters and security police. "There were just nightsticks swinging everywhere," he remembers. "There we were in the streets just sort of running--like a herd of caribou ... it was pretty scary." They fled more or less unscathed, however. "I think a cop would have a hard time knocking down someone with a puppet," Zimmerman says.

So just what is a "puppet intervention"? Burger and Zimmerman brought puppets to the explosive protests of the World Trade Organization in Seattle two years ago, where they joined a group that was blockading the building in which talks were being held. "People had linked arms," Zimmerman says. "The police had beaten and pepper-sprayed them already, and they threatened that they were coming back in five minutes to attack them again." But the protesters held their line, linking arms and crying, blinded by the pepper spray. Burger, Zimmerman and their friends came along--on stilts, with clowns, a 40-foot puppet, and a belly dancer. They went up and down the line, leading the protesters in song. When the security van returned, they'd backed the giant puppet up into its way. Somehow, this motley circus diffused the situation. "They couldn't bring themselves to attack this bunch of people who were now singing songs," Zimmerman says. Injecting humor and celebration into a grim situation, he says, is the essence of a puppet intervention.

Paper Hand is responsible for the giant puppets that have become ubiquitous at local festivals, such as the Haw and Eno river events. Burger and Zimmerman design, construct and operate the elaborate creations, with help from a revolving host of volunteers. Uprising has a cast of 17, with four additional musicians. Zimmerman estimates that they made 40 to 50 new creations for this production--everything from masks to full-body costumes, to scenery that walks, to a six-person, 40-foot earth goddess. Every puppeteer has several roles, which works out in practice to racing frantically from one costume change to the next, leaping over wild boars and moons to get to your plant costume, which you will wear for exactly 96 seconds before you fling it aside to become a bug.

The frantic pace is appropriate to Uprising, which seeks to invent a new creation myth: earth evolving from fire, insects from plants, language emerging from a machine, humans reaching for transcendence and failing in all the predictably modern ways. The messages can be a little heavy-handed at times; a giant fist, for instance, is stenciled with the words "order" and "system."

Yet the puppets themselves are so intricate, so lifelike and absurd at the same time, that a tendency toward dogmatism is easy to overlook. Out of paper bags and cornstarch, with the help of duct tape, bamboo, wire, foam and other scavenged junk, come an astonishing wild boar, insects that fly, trees that dance. Seeing Paper Hand is like walking into a Maurice Sendak book--knowing there's going to be a happy ending doesn't detract from the frightening wonders you see on the way.

One of the treats of this show, as in the last one, will be the marionettes of Carr-boro's Tori Ralston. In contrast to the huge, bright puppets, the marionettes are ethereal figures, clothed in black silk and decked out in feathered and beaded finery. "They're kind of visionaries, changemakers," Ralston says. Ralston's been interested in crow augury, old superstitions about telling the future through crows and their calls. Her marionettes this year are crow-like and bear words of omen and shiny beads like something a bird might covet. Ralston sculpts their faces in clay, rubbed with beeswax to a life-like sheen.

But Ralston's masterpiece is the Icarus marionette, a kind of commedia dell'arte figure that towers above the tiny crow creatures. His hands and face are carved of wood, and his belly is a birdcage. Icarus is big for a marionette, but he is dwarfed by the puppets around him: gods and cities and monstrous beasts. The show covers a lot of ground, attempting to remythologize life on earth from the very beginning on up to the World Trade Organization meetings. "The whole theme of the play in Jan's and my mind is humans going beyond their bounds as mortals," Zimmerman says. The Icarus puppet, Ralston says, carries the theme in his delicate frame. "He has a little bird inside him," she points out. "He's trying to fly. He's trying to reach the sun." EndBlock

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