Puppetry is an ancient art form and here in the Dayton region, a contemporary theater group, known as the Zoot Theatre Company, is keeping the art form alive. Community Voices producer Mojgan Samardar spent time with the company members this spring as they prepared their version of George Orwell’s classic story: Animal Farm.
Tristan Cupp is the Artistic Director of the Zoot Theatre and is the puppet and mask maker. For Zoot's production of Animal Farm, Styrofoam is brought to life in the form of pigs and horses. Wood becomes a voracious lion that shows sympathy and wisdom. Tristan creates them, and through the mastery of the puppeteers they breathe, speak, walk and touch our hearts. This is the magic. And Tristan loves puppets.
“It kind of attracted a lot of different artists, painters, sculptors,” he says. “So there's a nice bridge between the fine art world and the theater world bringing something alive was the whole magic. I think that attracted a lot of people, and from there it kind of took off."
Aaron Vega is the Director of Animal Farm. He remembers the beginning of his collaborations with Tristan.
“Eight, nine years ago he's going oh, what if the – what if a swarm of bees comes out? I'm like oh, yeah and then and then this evil bird could come out and steal this, and we're just throwing out ideas just as if we were story-boarding a cartoon. There were no limits on the imagination. We weren’t putting limits on what a human could do. The artistic process should be about kids in a candy shop, kids in a playground. There are no limitations.”
"Tristan is such a teddy bear of a man. He's so gentle and sweet and loving and he's such an incredible creator that he doesn’t really put limits on what he can or can't do," says Katie Pees, a Resident Artist for the Human Race Theatre and puppeteer for Avenue Q. "If I want a big bird with one arm and a cane leg he would make it work and it would be colorful and it would breathe fire in. He just doesn't put limits on himself."
"What's fascinating about what Tristan is doing is his detail," says Aaron Vega. "It's a blend of American traditions with Eastern European puppetry arts, where puppetry has been a way of life for hundreds of years, and they tend to be darker stories. There are themes in them sort of like the Grimm's Fairy Tales that adults can still take away from. Things that might go over the child's head and then the parents can mull over as adults. They're haunting. They're beautiful, incredibly detailed and so that's what's different about his work. I won't say it has a melancholy, but it has a texture to it. It has a life to it. It has a sculpture quality to it that you don't get in a furry puppet that sits on somebody's hand."
Sharon Leahy is the choreographer of Hansel and Gretel and Pearl for which Tristan created the masks.
"His craftsmanship in making the masks, he embeds them with emotional content, and then the artist is the interpreter of that and then the audience reacts and the whole piece grows to a new level, and all of that is what creates those magical moments that you find in performance art."
"Obviously, the physical face on the puppet can't move," says Katie Pees, describing the challenges of performing with a puppet. "Depending on how the mouth is you might be able to scrunch it or move it certain ways, but it really becomes through the animation of your voice that brings forth the animation of the puppet. So much of your energy becomes focused on the placement of the puppet, where you're looking, who you're talking to, how you're reacting to, what the other person is saying to you that that's where all your energy goes."
"It's a big leap from just being inside your own body to having to live inside of a different body," says Eric Arntz, a Resident Puppeteer for the Zoot Theatre. "Even the most experienced actor picking up a puppet for the first time is going to have trouble, but after you work with the same group of people are, it just becomes easier and easier, and just more fun."
"People love it," says Aaron Vega. "It's amazing, again how quickly they give over their imagination to this thing. They don't even look at the puppeteer. The puppeteer doesn't even have a mask on and they're talking through this puppet, and the guest is talking back to the puppet not to the puppeteer. They're talking back to the puppet."
I asked Tristan off all the puppets that he created which one is his favorite.
He replied, "I don’t think of I have made it yet."
There is more magic to come.