Thursday, March 01, 2007

He's Got the World on a String

Any parent who has ever spent hours watching children hide behind a couch to put on a puppet show with sock puppets, or Sesame Street characters needs to get to the University Main Stage to watch “Man of La Mancha,” opening March 2, and see what a kiddie puppeteer can accomplish, if his love of puppetry is allowed to grow.

“My poor mom,” laughed Art Gruenberger, director of the upcoming production. “She had to sit through so many puppet shows of me just sitting behind the couch. I had a box full of puppets. I would just put on show after show after show for her.”

Despite his early love of puppets, Gruenberger didn’t get serious about becoming a puppeteer until his senior year at CSUS, when he enrolled in a puppetry class taught by famous puppeteer, Richard Bay. Gruenberger was headed for a career in teaching, but figured that, given his experience and love of puppets, the course would be an easy A.

He worked with Bay on a show called “A Thousand Cranes,” the poignant story of Sadako Sasaki, a young victim of the Hiroshima atomic bomb disaster, who believes that if a she folds a thousand paper origami cranes the gods will grant her wish and make her well again.”

“We used life-sized bunraku style puppets (a Japanese style of puppetry where a full-bodied puppet is manipulated by any number of visible puppeteers who may or may not be dressed in black), very Americanized,” said Gruenberger. “It was my first real experience with puppets for adults and I was just hooked from then on.”

“Richard saw some talent in me,” Gruenberger explains, saying that was hired by Bay to put on some children’s shows. When Gruenberger felt he wasn’t getting enough work, Bay challenged him to build his own show, and “Frankenswine” was born (“It’s Frankenstein with a bunch of pigs.”). The show opened at Fairytale Town in October of 1993 or 94 and “it just skyrocketed from there.”

Gruenberger formed his own group, Puppet Art Theater Company,” which is now the resident puppetry troop at Fairytale town and has been the catalyst for international recognition.

A show called “Perspectives,” eventually landed him at the Here Theater in New York. “It’s these little yellow guys operated by 3 puppeteers. They are a bit smaller than traditional bunraku but the puppeteers are hooded and gloved.” Gruenberger was invited to bring the show to an international puppet festival in So. Korea. It opened the doors.

“They invited us to bring the show into Seoul and one of the colleges, and then to Chuncheon for the actual festival itself. Then I toured with Wendy Morton and Shadowlight Theater to Huddersfield (England) to do a large screen shadow puppet show. We did “Coyote Stories,” an American Indian tale with a Balinese gamelan orchestra and shadow puppets. It was just such a wonderful mashing together of all sorts of cultures.”

He discovered that puppetry is its own international language when he met a master puppet builder from the Shanghai Theater Academy, who spoke “not a lick of English.” “He was obviously a brilliant builder, and there was this connection through movement and the study of how things move and how to make them move how we want them to move that was just an amazing thing to see span across language, which I think is what movement, especially puppetry is all about.”

The idea to do “Man of La Mancha” with puppets came when Gruenberger was studying for his MFA in Acting at U.C. Davis. A scaled down version of the show became his thesis project which was presented for 2 performances only last summer.

“I wanted to get these puppets on stage and see how they moved and see how ‘Man of La Mancha’ accepted the idea of puppetry.” There have been other productions which have used bits and pieces of puppetry, but this will be the first to use puppets in such a major way. “In our production all of the characters that you find during Cervantes’ story-telling where he’s talking about Quixote, are all represented by various levels of puppets.”

(While Gruenberger has made some of the “cruder” puppets himself, almost all of the heads were sculpted by his colleague, Kristen Phillips, who recently received her MFA from the University of Connecticut, the one place in the country where you can get an MFA in puppetry.)

Gruenberger was invited to direct a full scale production of the show this year, complete with full orchestra, under the direction of Pete Nolan, with whom he has presented the holiday treat, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” in Sacramento (“at the BIG Catholic church”) for the last two years, and which they will present at Memorial Auditorium in December of 2007.

For actor Mario Castro-Martinez, playing Don Quixote in this production, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. “This is one of those roles I never thought I would do because I’m not tall, old, or skinny, which are all the things that Quixote is. So this is just an ideal situation where it’s my voice coming out through the body someone who fits the part perfectly and who is created just for this role.”

Castro-Martinez is only 1/3 of Don Quixote, though. He operates the character’s head and left arm. His right arm is manipulated by Kate Cryan and his legs by Cary Babka.

None of the actors had any previous puppetry experience. The cast attended what Gruenberger calls “puppet boot camp” for the first week and a half of rehearsal. “The thing that will make actors better puppeteers is just having puppets in their hands for as much of the rehearsal process as possible, and so I used the puppet boot camp to give them basic principles of puppetry.”

“We worked on group puppets,” says Lee Riggs, playing the torso of Dr. Carasco’s (Daniel Reano-Koven plays the actual character). “Some of the puppets take 3 handlers, some of them are single one person, one puppet, so we did a little of both and because the puppeteers will be visible the whole time, you and the puppet have to be one. If you have two different people doing the arms, usually arms are somewhat symmetrical in look, coloring and length, gesture.”

The groups spent a lot of time rehearsing in front of a mirror, getting to know the other puppeteer and the puppet.

Richard Hess, playing Sancho Panza (Kelly Fleischmann, torso; Matthew Escarcega , legs) is reprising the role he played in the workshop (as is Castro-Martinez). “We’ve spent so much time in the puppets that they’ve just kind of become second nature. It takes so much more concentration to, say, pick up anything or transfer something from one hand to the other to hand it to somebody else. In our case it takes 3 brains to make one.”

Giving his actors lots of time with the puppets is part of Gruenberger’s philosophy. “Over the course of the rehearsal I try to keep them in the puppets as much as possible, and playing with them in between rehearsals. I don’t tell them that I want them to do that, but they do it because they begin to get the hang of it and so they start doing wacky dances with puppets and they discover things that their puppet can do as a result of that. The rehearsal process can be kind of chaotic and I think it drives my stage manager up the wall because they have a toy on stage and actors with toys. But I want them to play as much as possible because they’ll discover subtleties that are necessary to enhance the character that they’re portraying.”

That extra time worked well for Melanie Levy, playing the innkeeper’s wife. Levy was not in the workshop production, but saw it, and thought it would be fun to learn something about puppetry. “I felt very insecure about doing it, so I have to take a lot of time to watch the other actors. I think I’ve started to come to a balance between the two.”

Gruenberger and his cast are definitely working together to create the final piece, trying to be true to the characters and the period. “We don’t know what their gestures were like in the 1700s. It’s impossible to know. There’s no video. We don’t know what they sounded like back there because there are no audio tapes, but we can use our imagination to the best of our ability and the magic of theater to make some decisions, to have some sort of unity on that. That’s what we did.”

Even the set pieces become characters in this production, explains Riggs. “There are lots of boxes and crates that are moved around the prison to create the different scenes. To help the actors remember which pieces they moved, things were given names. The small box is Tiny Tim, we have Darrel and Carol the Barrel, and Bob the Box and Dave the Box. Ropey is a crate with rope handles.”

The experience has been a voyage of discovery for Gruenberger. “It’s huge for me. The biggest cast I’ve worked with up to this point was 5 people. 60-70% of the shows that I do are either one or two people and self-directed, self-written, so this is incredibly different -- and amazing, too. The biggest problem with working with a huge group of people in any sort of professional setting is that you have to pay 22 people, which is why most puppeteers work with one or two people. It makes it more profitable. If I had to tour ‘Man of La Mancha’ with 22 people and a 16 piece orchestra and my crew of 10+ people, it would be insane. It would be ‘the impossible dream.’”

Gruenberger’s “impossible dream” will become “possible” when the show opens at the university’s Main Theater on March 2. I had the opportunity to watch a rough run-through of Act 1 and the audience is in for a real treat. There are moments in the show that are going to have people sitting up and saying “wow!”

It's the magic of puppetry.

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