Human beings see faces everywhere, even when there's no face to see: surprised expressions in every light socket, chrome smiles on car bumpers, orchids sticking out their tongues.
As soon as babies' eyes can focus, they'll stare at two dots and a line more intensely than at a random series of dots. This extreme sensitivity to facial patterns is a necessary by-product of evolution—hardwired interest in each other.
That evolutionary advantage also causes us to fall for very simple tricks, like seeing the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast. Or, if you hold your fist out and flap your thumb, people instantly understand that you have created a separate, distinct personality. We fall for it every time, like a cat attacking a waggling piece of string. Puppetry plays in and around this sand trap in our brains. It's the earliest special effect in the history of the world.
Last weekend, 130 people gathered at the campus of Seattle University to celebrate this synaptic mishap. In many ways, Puppet-O-Rama—a three-day regional puppetry convention revived this year, by the Pacific Northwest Region of the Puppeteers of America, after a long hiatus—is like any other convention. They honor their elders, network, and discuss theory. (I overheard someone talking about a man who played Sesame Street's Telly Monster and became obsessed with the question: Is the person the actor or is the puppet the actor? Is the person just the guts of the actor?) They also try to get lucky. Unlike other conventions, Puppet-O-Rama may host the only mixers on the planet where a scrawny guy can walk up to a beautiful woman with a puppet on his hand and use it to flirt—successfully.
This year's Puppet-O-Rama also featured 11 hours of inventive puppet theater. Michael and Valerie Nelson, of California's Little Blue Moon Theatre, kicked off the program with Dracula del Lobo, an erotic puppet show created for a friend's Napa Valley aphrodisiac factory (!). The story—a reimagining of Dracula set in tango-drunk 1920s Argentina—includes nudity, cocaine, lesbianism, incest, and blasphemy (Dracula suggests that Christ's-blood-drinking Catholics maybe aren't that different from him) in only 45 minutes. But the show's unique quality is its presentation: The Nelsons employ the little-known style of horizontal rod puppetry.
Their stage is small but very deep, with puppets made of paper and placed on long rods, which the Nelsons manipulate on horizontal axes from either side, as though the stage is a 10-track foosball table. The puppets can only move left or right, but the Nelsons perform all kinds of neat tricks within these limitations. In one of the earliest shots, a car appears in the far distance, speeding up a winding road. It disappears offstage right, and then a slightly larger car (on an axis closer to the audience) putts across the stage. Then an even larger car crosses the stage until, finally, the car arrives in the foreground, having traveled a great distance in perspective.
Making the most of your limitations is the name of the game. Plasticity Now, by Vancouver group Mind of a Snail Puppet Co., is shadow puppetry made entirely from reclaimed plastic. A fish swims out of blue oceans of bubble wrap, climbs to the surface, sprouts legs, and is scared away by a dinosaur. A Tyrannosaurus rex battles a Triceratops before a meteor falls, killing everything. Within minutes, the scene has transformed to the inside of a checkout scanner, then the outside of the store where a person drinks from a bottle of water, which expands into a pan through the life cycle of the bottle, from the drills that plunge toward the oil to the factory where the bottles are made to the boats that deliver them around the world. Between the clever, cinematic segues, you forget that the images are made from reels of cut and reassembled trash dragged across overhead projectors.
Portland's Night Shade theater uses elaborate pop-up books as shadow-puppet sets, and its Order of Wolf has incredible depth of field: A soldier holds up a severed head as the "camera" (a flashlight manipulated to illuminate, shrink, and enlarge sections of the pop-up set on a projection screen) swoops over a battlefield covered in dead bodies, and a Citizen Kane–like pan rushes from the outside of a Victorian mansion to the interior of a study. Some tropes that would be too familiar in a horror movie, such as a a brutal werewolf attack or a reflection in a mirror during a lightning storm turning into a demon's face, seem fresh and new when performed live.
Sometime during the weekend, it hit me: Vaudeville never died. It just stuck its hand up a stuffed animal's asshole.
Puppet-O-Rama also hosted classes and workshops: puppetry for television with Michael Earl (the front half of Mr. Snuffleupagus from 1978 to 1980), Bunraku with Jean Enticknap of local troupe Thistle Theatre, and busking with Reno puppeteer Bernie Beauchamp. (Always make sure the puppet, not you, asks for the money, he advised. "Genius!" a woman from Colorado breathlessly proclaimed.)
Later, at a reception to celebrate Dmitri Carter of Seattle's Northwest Puppet Center—who was just awarded the Alan Cook/Jackee Marks collection, an army of 5,000 puppets, some dating back to the 19th century—veteran puppeteers stood around drinking beer and telling war stories. Michael Nelson, of Little Blue Moon Theatre, told a story about apprenticing with a company in Spain when a fire-breathing dragon puppet accidentally set the stage on fire. An audience member noticed first and Nelson, who was dressed as a jester, danced around, stomping out the fire while the show went on around him.
Peter Allen topped him: "One time, I was doing my singing Gorgonzola cheese act," he began. I laughed and he stared me down into silence. The sparklers on the set got too hot, he continued, dripping molten metal that burned through his shirt and into his chest. "I had less padding back then," he said, patting his stomach, and proudly noted that he continued the bit (which involved singing in falsetto) without breaking character.
Nelson's final story won for sheer bravura. He once began a puppet staging of Bonanza the way the TV show's credits began: A map burns up, revealing the characters. The entire stage was covered with a large map, which Nelson lit on fire. Somehow, he didn't account for the pieces of burning map that would fall onto him as he began the show, or that his characters would have to casually pat out stage fires as they introduced themselves to the audience.
Later, an Iowa puppeteer told me that 10 years ago, there were very few young people at these shows. Suddenly, puppeteers in their 20s and 30s started showing up, probably because of Jim Henson. "Goddamn Jim Henson," an old hand muttered, kind of jokingly, kind of not. There's some professional distaste—jealousy?—for the ubiquity of Henson's empire, but the puppeteers are canny enough to realize that the Muppets are responsible for a bubble of young people putting a jolt of energy into the community.
That younger generation is alive and well in Seattle: Over the weekend, Ballard puppet-maker Mark Saltzman demonstrated how to make a hand puppet look less like a hand (make the wrist look like it's carrying weight, the way our necks have to carry our huge heads), and Enticknap's Thistle Theatre puppeteers were all young and bursting with energetic discussions about the history of the craft. The most exciting member of the scene is new to town: Kyle Loven's tour-de-force tragedy my dear Lewis (reviewed in the January 28 issue of The Stranger) closed out the festival, although Loven lamented at a barbecue dinner that Seattle has a smaller puppeteering community than his native Minneapolis.
But we could be on the edge of jump-starting a strong Seattle scene: Sgt. Rigsby & His Amazing Silhouettes (led by local playwright Scot Augustson) is already one of the most popular theater companies in the city. Frankenocchio opens on August 12, and Loven's much-anticipated second play, Crandall's Bag, opens later this year. If these shows keep building on past successes, Seattle might become a puppetry destination that will catch on (hopefully figurative) fire.