By now it's a familiar scene in Saxapahaw: High school and college-age interns and community volunteers are arrayed across the old pine basketball court in the Buddy Collins Community Center. But instead of playing pickup hoops, they are working on the latest fanciful creatures of Paperhand Puppet Intervention.
Alma Stott is helping finish the tail of a fantastic multicolored dragon that stretches well across the room, while company member Chris Carter is busy engineering a little something special for the puppet's head, whose copper eyes twinkle in the distance.
This Friday, Paperhand Puppet Intervention will fill the Forest Theater in Chapel Hill with The Serpent's Egg, its 12th annual puppet pageant. Next month, the show will conclude with a weekend engagement at North Carolina Museum of Art.
But at the present, co-founders Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman are presiding over a productive chaos; what Zimmerman calls "a very exciting and energy-filled, tense artistic sort of explosion."
There's no shortage of references here to the things that have made the Paperhand's summer stands an annual regional tradition since the company's first show, A Very Old Unfinished Story, in 2000. Stott was a small child in that show; now she's an intern with the company. Keeping a watchful eye on the creative process are so many memorable puppets from productions past—a large white owl here, a tawny lion's head nearby, while a kindly robot and a Green Man gaze in from opposite walls. Creatures old and new form a bustling crowd that completely lines the corners of room.
But things are a little bit different these days. Increasing demand for the company's art works and presence at local community events have had an impact in as they've prepared for their own summer festival. This year, Paperhand experienced its busiest spring yet when it developed giant puppets for The Lost Colony, the long-running summer outdoor drama in Manteo, N.C. The three-person puppets are based on spirit totem animals, and they come out of the woods as people enter the Manteo site (The Lost Colony continues through Aug. 20). They also had local commissions: In April, Raleigh's Earth Day celebration brought them a commission for a 20-foot-tall, multi-room castle made from cardboard, and they also received a commission to create a mask for Wake County's "86it.com" recycling campaign mascot, Chuck.
As a result, Burger notes that between those commissions and beginning work on The Serpent's Egg, "We had like one week off."
But new commissions and increasing interest from potential outside collaborators—including an upcoming project with the Morehead Planetarium slated for Winter 2012—aren't the only factors placing more than the average amount of pressure on the company's co-founders for this year's summer show. The Serpent's Egg was also largely designed and created while Burger was on sabbatical. He recently returned from a year-long residency at the Center for Cartoon Studies, a small institute in White River Junction, Vt., founded by graphic novelist James Sturm and championed by artists including Art Spiegelman, Françoise Mouly and Garry Trudeau. "I had my nose down to the drawing table for a year," Burger says.
As a result, Zimmerman largely created and directed Love and Robots, last's winter show at The ArtsCenter of Carrboro, and did most of the scripting and design for The Serpent's Egg as well, with Burger being left to catch up when he arrived.
"Donovan's the idea man and director this year, and I'm sort of the subcommandante. 'What do I need to do?' 'How can I help build stuff?' It's been a different role than I usually do."
And both have their eyes on another change coming up in the next three months: Zimmerman and his wife, Lea Clayton, are expecting their first child. Then, they expect their roles to switch.
"I'm going to have my hands full this time next year," Zimmerman says. "Jan will be honcho, and I'll be in support of whatever he wants to create."
Given the developments in his personal life, it's not surprising that birth has been figuring in his dreams and plans for The Serpent's Egg. "Making babies," he chuckles, "that's one of the first things we did when we came into the studio for this piece: just sculpting a bunch of baby heads and starting to papier-mâché them.
"I wanted to make a real pageant based on the cycles of life, that started with a little piece of death and then go into the creation of a garden," Zimmerman adds, "to go through birth, life, death and then rebirth at the end."
Perhaps in an acknowledgment of criticisms of last summer's show, Islands Unknown (a "heavily-worded" story, Zimmerman admits), he sought a change for this year's show.
"It's less of a story with a protagonist, but more pageantry, with big movement [and] a bit epic, hopefully.
"The story of Eve in the garden is in there, with a Paperhand twist," Zimmerman adds, grinning.
As the two impresarios display their new collection of large puppets based on Assyrian and Sumerian images believed to be associated with the concept of Earth Mother or goddess, Zimmerman explains the show's concept further.
"We've been thinking a lot about the symbolism of the serpent and the cosmic egg, the Orphic egg; there are a lot of different names for it. These figures are from Neolithic periods, before written history. Scholars believe the period in which this great mother figure was revered outnumbers our time of patriarchal religions by about 10 to one."
For Zimmerman, The Serpent's Egg is about "reclaiming and retelling stories; trying to create the new myths that we're going to live into the future with."
Burger concurs, saying, "Mythology is a fluid thing. History is constantly being rewritten."
And Zimmerman concludes, "This is just our little contribution."