Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I've Got No Strings

By request, a brief overview of my life as a puppeteer:

Mina sees Lucy as an inviting snack in Dracula
I originally came to Chicago to be a playwright and actor. The playwright part blew up in my face because like any passionate but naive theater artist I thought I was a demi-god and could do it all. Orson Welles minus the financial smarts and bravado. I allowed myself to be bullied and things got very ugly. I gave up playwriting and directing for many, many years. But theater seemed to me my only life. I ended up acting in non-Equity theater from 1987 through 2004. I was member of three different acting ensembles over that time period, I had an agent and went on a handful of awful commercial auditions and modeling go-sees until I decided I hated that part of acting and devoted myself only to the stage. I earned money from everything I did. If it didn't pay, I didn't audition. It wasn't enough to live on, though, so I was also earning most of my income as an office temp worker. But my interest in theater and acting began to dwindle around 1999 when the world of books became my focus.

Somewhere in the late 1990s (I can't recall the exact date) I read of an audition for a puppet company and it turned out to be Hystopolis Productions, a company that was on the rise. They had just put together an amazing adaptation of Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine which had gone to the now defunct Jim Henson International Puppet Festival in New York and was quite a sensation there. They were looking to start up a junior ensemble of beginner puppeteers who would tour the Midwest with kid's shows - which had been their focus for years - while the founders, Larry Basgall and Michael Schwabe, continued to develop more advanced adult shows like The Adding Machine and their previous hit Ubu Roi, based on Alfred Jarry's play.

I ended up being selected with two other guys (both strangely enough named Adam) and we were broken in as puppeteers doing Hystopolis' old stand-by version of Rumpelstiltskin. I had seen that show at the many Chicago street festivals in the past. It was an insane blend of Saturday morning cartoon antics, madcap wild action, very adult humor that usually went over the heads of the kids and skillful Bunraku style puppetry. Most of the puppets were hand and glove puppets (like Rump at right), a few were rod puppets, and some were nothing more that objects on a stick. I operated three puppets and did their voices: Puss in Boots (who wanders in from another story as a cameo), a character named Egghead (I can't remember its purpose), and Rumpelstiltskin. We were also required to learn other parts in case one of us was unavailable for a gig. So I also learned to operate three or four other puppets and do my version of those voices as well. Later we developed an original script I devised for a holiday touring show called A Dragon for Christmas. For that play I operated two puppets and did their voices: the Wizard and Queen Foradae. There was also an ill-fated attempt at an African folktale show that was more masks and movement than puppetry. It had a story about Anansi the Spider, a cool leopard, and had an amazing elephant puppet in it. I think we did it only once though. I have not been big on picture taking when it came to theater and casts I was a part of and so I have nothing to show for this part of my life. I do, however, still have the original script for A Dragon for Christmas.

Dracula attacks Professor Van Helsing as Lucy looks on.
Eventually there was no more money to pay us. I think a grant expired. And so the junior touring company was disbanded. Sometime later Larry Basgall managed to track me down and tell me that Hystopolis was back in business at Red Hen Theater (no longer around). They were working on Dracula at the time and he wanted to get me involved in adapting a new kids' show based on "The Three Little Pigs." A series of botched phone messages (remember answering machines?) screwed everything up and I never got involved with them.

Larry and Michael now live in Michigan. Michael, who founded the company back in the late 1980s, still teaches puppetry. According to his Facebook page for Hystopolis Productions he taught a workshop at Ox Bow in Saugatuck this past summer. I miss those guys. We had a blast touring Illinois and making trips to the Botanical Gardens in St. Louis doing all those shows. Getting drunk and high in hotel rooms, laughing a lot, taking turns driving the dilapidated van all over the Midwest, and doing really good puppetry. It was one of the better theater related periods in my life.

For more photos of Hystopolis Productions' fantastically rendered version of Dracula go here.


  1. Love that Goth puppet version of DRACULA!

  2. John, these past two posts have inspired me to revisit and review a detective story that involves magic and puppets, The Magical Express.

  3. John: Thanks for a fascinating post on your experiences with puppets. I wish I could have seen one of the shows.

  4. Fascinating, J.F. A very Happy Thanksgiving to you!

  5. Now I'm satisfied. Next we need to know what triggered your love of 'tec fiction. You know me - I always find the back story interesting.

  6. A surprising number of puppeteers I meet (or virtually meet) these days. Are you aware, for example, of Mary Robinette Kowal as a writer or as a puppeteer?

  7. Sorry, Todd, never heard of her. I was only attached to the Chicago puppet clan and only those who were cohorts of Larry and Michael. I used to follow all the puppet companies that interested me but I slowly became less obsessed when I completely dropped out of the theater scene as a performer. This is the first time in over eight years that I started thinking about that part of my life again. That I got to meet Jay Marshall out of it was a huge thrill for me at the time.