As monsters go, The Skrawk is a curious sight. It's an overinflated emu with extra bits—a neck that telescopes from a couple of inches to a couple of feet, and inquisitive, intelligent eyes set above a yellow triangular beak. Its feathers are dun-colored, almost nondescript at first glance. But as they catch the light, they shimmer in an odd, familiar way.
A closer look confirms it. The geometric plumage on the bird's ungainly torso consists of hundreds of swatches of magnetic tape snipped from old VHS videos. Coils of the stuff spill across the floor of Paperhand Puppet Intervention's studio in downtown Saxapahaw. The finer hairs around the creature's face and mouth are the repurposed innards of eighties-era audiocassettes— the entrails of mixtapes past.
The unlikely fowl isn't the largest or most eye-catching creation in The Beautiful Beast, Paperhand's seventeenth annual summer pageant, which opens at Chapel Hill's Forest Theatre before moving on to NCMA in Raleigh (Sept. 9–11) and The Carolina Theatre of Greensboro (Sept. 17–18). But there's no denying the creature's personality. Intern Emily McHugh, who has helped build it over the last few weeks, describes its disposition.
"It's very curious but it isn't self-aware. It squawks a lot, putting its nose where it doesn't belong," she says, concluding that the Skrawk is the "most obnoxious" of all the monsters the group has been building.
Paperhand's new show is based on our complicated lifelong relationship with such chimeras—how we find ourselves reflected in the beasts of the natural world and the monsters of our imagination. From early childhood onward, they essentialize our drives and fears. They help define our identity and set its limits. That subject makes this show especially personal for its creators.
The Skrawk comes to life in the hands of Paperhand co-founder Donovan Zimmerman, who experiences a sense of discovery in creating each puppet.
"They surprise you as you get to know them," he says. "As we make them, we start to play with them, and the materials influence the character." Lengths of tape quietly rustle and hiss as the Skrawk's head darts left, then right. "That sound is now a part of it. You get excited by the stimuli."
Jan Burger, the company's other cofounder, finds that ideas for these monsters come to him easily: "I've been in love with them my whole life," he says.
Burger draws on the imaginary bestiaries of his childhood in the show's opening sequence, when a procession of creatures (including the silvered Zangamash and the guileless Wumpaflump) crawls out of a remarkable book during a magical sleepover party. Surprise, mingled with a little fear, transforms into celebration and discovery as the children meet their strange new guests.
But terms like "beast" and "monster" also have darker, more political implications. When Zimmerman considers our civilization's earliest surviving literary work, he concludes that's always been the case. In Gilgamesh, a great king is challenged by a half-man/half-beast named Enkidu. Ultimately, they become friends, going on excursions of conquest until they encounter their true nemesis, Humbaba.
"He's supposedly this monster, a shape-shifting beast with long claws and fiery breath," Zimmerman says. "But he's got as much humanity as the king who's come to destroy him."
In retelling "Humbaba's Song," Jennifer Curtis, the show's music director and composer, went back to foundational source material: the ancient Syrian clay tablets on which the oldest surviving notated song is etched in cuneiform. Zimmerman hums it while strumming a Rwandan inanga—a carved-out tree section fashioned into a twelve-string lyre. The music also incorporates pentatonic modes from early Egyptian and Arabic music on period instruments.
"The challenge for me, as an investigative musicologist, is that I never want to be historically inaccurate or culturally inappropriate," Curtis says, though she greatly enjoys reviving the dances of antiquity.
She turned to her love of Mexico while writing the music for the show's final tale, the story of La Loba. The archetypal character sings over the bones of the dead, ritually reviving the ancient wisdom of the world—a constant Paperhand theme.
"[La Loba] is all about finding the inner voice and bringing it back to life," Curtis says. As a young girl joins the mythic figure, a grandmother encourages a granddaughter to find her own song.
"I'm a woman who has been through many cycles of life as well," Curtis says. "It quenches my thirst to get to make so mysterious a Mexican song-scape. It's a beautiful piece to write for." This, too, is characteristic of Paperhand shows—a thematic richness for adults, even with a focus on children.
"Kids develop empathy when they imagine meeting or being other people or things," Burger says. "When something's scary, you can become that thing, explore it, fight it, befriend it. It's a powerful method for learning."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Nature of the Beast"