For 15 years I lived in Boston, and for 15 years I ignored Bread & Puppet‘s “cheap art and political theater in Vermont.” I was stupid and thought myself too cool to hang with the crunchies. I have found salvation from my sins here in North Carolina: Paperhand Puppet Intervention. (Plus, with age, I seem to have become a bit crunchie myself.)
When I first heard about Paperhand, my eyes glazed over. Puppets? Not my cup of chamomile. But after enough People I Trust told me it was the coolest thing ever, I succumbed. My review: Coolest Thing Ever. I want to take everyone there, but since I can’t, I’ll just tell y’all about it. And, please, if you ever visit our neck of the woods, try to catch a show by one of the most creative artistic groups you’ll find anywhere in the world. To whet your appetite, check out their videos and photos online. If you need a ride, let me know.
First, the “puppets.” They’re huge, breathtaking, soulful, gorgeous. Also onstage at various times: giant masks, stilt dancing, rod puppets, shadow puppets and more. And a wonderful live band accompanies them. The puppets live at Paperhand’s home (secured this year!) in Saxapahaw, a former mill town being reborn by creative types.
Second, the stories. They often start with an epic myth (this time the Babylonian creation epic) played out violently and then transforming into scenes of peace, love, social justice, etc. Yes, the audience is hit over the head with this stuff, but it’s OK because it’s all true and real and wonderful and you just want to have a giant group hug by the end.
Third, the people. Paperhand was formed in 1998 by co-creators Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman. You know they and their co-conspirators are not getting rich doing this, so you already have to love them for pouring their hearts, souls, energy, and savings accounts (as if) into carrying forth a mighty mission. From their website: “Our vision is inspired by our love for the earth and its creatures (including humans) as well as our belief in justice, equality, and peace.” And this: “Paperhand’s mission is to make work that inspires people, promotes social change, and is deeply satisfying for everyone involved.”
There are always (I think) four acts. The third ends with the biggest puppet/creature (carried forth by several people) going up into the audience to be touched by adoring children in the crowd. The first year we went, in 2006, the star was a heart-achingly beautiful 20-foot Buddha. This year it was a lion. But it was so much more than that.
This year’s 10th anniversary show, “The Living Sea of Memory” (in the area through Sept. 12), is dedicated to Kevin Brock, the band’s drummer and dear friend, who died last year at the very early age 37. There has been a huge outpouring of love for this man who illuminated many people’s universes. The lion in the performance is Kevin. It comes through the crowd after the act called “Memory,” in which family stories (from the cast) are shared through the puppets. I think I would have cried anyway, but after losing my mom this year, those stories tore me up. When the lion came lumbering up the stairs of the wonderful Forest Theatre amphitheater, children rushed up, hands reaching out to touch him. Pure magic.
I read today that several of the shows on this current tour have been rained out, which means less money for the troupe. I don’t expect you to read this and send in a little tax-deductible donation to help cover Paperhand’s rent, but you’re certainly welcome to. And please try to see these amazing artists and activists. They are the change they wish to see.