Pulling Strings

An unlikely production company called 3 Legged Race delves into the forsaken realm of puppetry, circus acts, and performance art

Half a decade ago, I spent a year volunteering at the Emma Center, an anarchist community center in south Minneapolis that shared a bathroom with a puppet studio. The puppetmaster, Dhann Pulnau, occupied a tiny space, which was cramped and filled with his creations. They hung from the ceilings and the walls and lay in neat groupings on the floor. Every few days Pulnau, bearded, dreadlocked, and barefoot, would lead a small group of grade school students into the studio. He would then spend several hours expounding on his passion for puppets, demonstrating how to fashion expressive, fully articulated creatures out of paper and wheat paste.

Even for the small group of anarchists who obsessively tended to the Emma Center, stocking its food shelf and organizing free film nights, Pulnau's career seemed incredible. "How does he make a living at this?" we whispered to one another. "Is there really an audience for this stuff?"

Five years later, all that has changed about this setup is that Pulnau's studio now consumes the whole of the Emma Center. On the one hand, it's no clearer than ever how Pulnau makes a living in puppet craft without responding to the tugging strings of economic reality. Yet after all these years, it can be safely be assumed that some audience indeed exists for this oft-neglected art form.

The love child of Kermit and Miss Piggy: Puppeteer Lisa Henson, a headliner of Hand Driven II
The love child of Kermit and Miss Piggy: Puppeteer Lisa Henson, a headliner of Hand Driven II

Addressing both sides of the funding-viewing equation is a production company called 3 Legged Race, whose projects so far have been every bit as improbable as the notion of John Malkovich manipulating marionettes on network television. Typical of their efforts is this month's Hand Driven series of showcases, now in its second year, playing at the Minneapolis Theater Garage between May 18 and 21.

Former Playwrights' Center executive director David Moore Jr. believes the audience for puppetry is out there, and he has become a dedicated (and, for a Yale graduate whose background is primarily in regional theater, a somewhat surprising) ally to puppeteers, both local and national. As a cofounder of 3 Legged Race Productions, he has helped steer the organization toward working on four unusual (and often shortchanged) disciplines in the performing arts. Besides supporting puppeteers, 3 Legged Race produces performance art, new dance, and circus arts. The disciplines that interest him couldn't be more unusual if he had chosen to produce new work in the fields of fan dancing and Yiddish art songs.

"I don't want to sound maudlin," Moore explains, "but these things lit my heart on fire."

It follows, perhaps, that Moore is more of an impulsive producer than a schemer with one eye on the audience and another on the bottom line. "He goes to a million shows," says Kristin Van Loon, a Minneapolis choreographer and dancer with Hijack and Concrete Farm. "He's very enthusiastic about performance."

Among 3 Legged Race's first productions was a 20-minute piece called "We're Blowing Up the Myths About Microwaves" by Van Loon and her partner Arwen Wilder, which Moore produced and appeared in for one performance at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, and which Van Loon admits was "a mess." "It was so weird," she says, laughing. The show included a DJ (Andrew Brin, who then called himself Fat Cat) and a magician (Derek Hughes).

"Our dream was to make an infomercial," Van Loon says, and "We're Blowing Up" included images from print ads projected onto the performers as they took turns on the stage. According to Van Loon, Moore delights in eclecticism. "He has kind of an alchemical impulse. He'll see a bunch of things in one month that he loves, like a dancer and a playwright and a circus performer, and he'll say, 'Can I put it all in one pot and work with it?'"

When he first approached Van Loon and Wilder about choreographing a new dance performance, he suggested a number of artists that they might work with. These included, Van Loon recounts, "a tap dancer, a circus performer, maybe a playwright, and some other dancers that work in very different genres than ours.

"He seems to come from a different world," she continues. "It took about a year of power lunches before we found a common language."

According to Moore, 3 Legged Race is defined by its "positive creative impatience." "We're intensely dissatisfied because we wish that we had more opportunities," he says.

Bonnie Schock, the program director for 3 Legged Race and an M.F.A. graduate of the University of Minnesota directing program, explains that the organization devotes itself as much to development as to the final product. "What we provide is an opportunity to present works in a fully produced environment," she says. "We saw a real need in the artistic community for a middle space between an early work and the finished product." Moore and Schock have dedicated an annual budget of about $12,000 to $14,000 to their project. (Most of the money comes from grants and private donors.) When artists are relieved of the responsibilities of renting space, sending out press releases, and like tasks, Schock says, they can expend their energies on the more creative end of their craft.

As an outlet for these efforts, 3 Legged Race organizes workshops throughout the year, mounts several group productions of works-in-development, and presents fully developed original pieces. Hand Driven II will feature such completed short works by local puppeteers Michael Sommers, Dhann Pulnau, Anthony White, and Lisa D'Amour. The program also includes an Orlando-based puppeteer, Heather Henson.

 

The thirtysomething Henson has been puppeteering for just three years, but has an ease with the vocabulary of the medium that betrays much deeper roots. For example, in conversation she will casually refer to actor-driven performances as "meat theater," a phrase coined by Margo Rose, the matriarch of American marionette performance and one of the creators of The Howdy Doody Show. Henson, it turns out, is the daughter of Muppet creator Jim Henson, and, as her biographical statement explains, "when not attending school, much of her spare time was spent on the sets and recording studios of the various Muppet productions. Sometimes, Heather was pressed into service to build puppets in the Muppet Workshop."

"I was very inspired by [these experiences]," Henson says today, describing her childhood. "It was a wonderful way to grow up. But it probably turned me away from puppeteering. The work that my father and his company did was so fabulous and so inspiring. I didn't want to work with puppets until I could find my own voice."

Drawing from a background in visual arts, Heather Henson created a style of object theater in which everyday items, manipulated by dancers, suddenly become uncanny representations of forest creatures or natural phenomena. In a recent piece titled "Flow," one central character is a crane built out of found objects such as shells and driftwood. These objects are attached to two dancers, who mimic the movement of the crane as it steps through reeds and marsh grasses.

"I'm fascinated with harmonies that occur in nature," Henson says. "I am just personally inspired by walking in the woods."

Henson's piece for Hand Driven II, titled "Echo Trace," will include three local dancers. But beyond those vague details Henson is unwilling to describe this work, stating that her pieces change dramatically in the rehearsal process. "It may use three screens. I have no idea what it will look like. I'm bringing out light-up eggs, flowers. I'm coming out with lots of fun stuff." She laughs. "Like what? Everything!"

Henson's work, involving as it does both dance and puppetry, represents a fusion of Moore's creative interests. (Now if Henson could only get a sword swallower, five clowns, and a pack of obedient poodles into her act...) While puppetry and circus arts remain fringe endeavors to some extent, Moore discusses with excitement the Twin Cities' growing dance scene, suggesting that it is where "theater was 20 years ago. It's got this incredible artistic vision and dedication, but there is a lack of infrastructure and resources....If theater looks like a palace next to dance nowadays, then dance looks like a palace next to puppeteering."

The support of 3 Legged Race, along with mainstays such as Walker Art Center and Patrick's Cabaret, have boosted the number of works that can be seen on local stages. Yet it must be noted that the art of puppetry has thrived by remaining outside the mainstream, maintaining a distinct aesthetic in the process. Even an artistically redoubtable 25-year-old company like In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre mounts shows that often have the feel of something assembled as a skit at summer camp. And it is exactly this quality that allows the theater to continue to produce their ambitious, politically charged productions. They remain steadfastly community oriented and unwaveringly grassroots.

While 3 Legged Race, under Moore's stewardship, may hope to bring puppeteering up from the underground, it retains a commitment to the integrity of the work--demonstrated not just by the fact that the production company allocates the largest portion of its budget to paying the performer, but also by its surprisingly hands-off approach to production. According to Van Loon, she and her dance partner eventually made a list of performers they wanted to work with, and handed the list to Moore. "He pretty much just let us do what we wanted," she says.

"Moore has strong gut reactions to performers," Van Loon says. "That is a very appealing thing." She sighs. "His enthusiasm still wins me over."

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