A 20th anniversary is a major milestone for a theater troupe; most don’t make it to their fifth or tenth. But 2020 was no celebration year for Paperhand Puppet Intervention, the venerated collective of artist-activists who’ve staged thought-provoking—and conscience-challenging—pageants with giant puppets since the turn of the century.
The group’s annual output has long hinged on a single show each summer, traditionally opening in August at Chapel Hill’s Forest Theatre before closing the following month at Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art.
But the pandemic posed an existential threat to the group when it forced it to cancel that season last summer. With little to no incoming revenue over two years—between the close of We Are Here in September 2019 and a hoped-for show this August—how could a collective of some 30 to 40 artisans possibly stay together?
“It was very hard at first, feeling like your whole career was crumbling away, like an illusion,” says co-founder Donovan Zimmerman. But a number of supporters met the challenge by becoming subscribers to the group’s Patreon account.
“We had a sustaining amount that wasn’t going to let us go away forever,” Zimmerman says. “That was amazing.”
With the group’s survival more assured, the mandatory furlough gave Zimmerman and co-founder Jan Burger the time they’d never had before to devote to a long-desired project: a book documenting their first two decades of work.
Paperhand Puppet: Interventions in Cardboard, Cloth, and Clay, a 256-page, coffee-table tome available in hardback and softcover, is not only coming out as the group debuts its latest show this week at the Forest Theatre. It appears as We Are Here, filmmaker Marc Levy’s probing documentary of the group’s 2019 season, is screening in local venues. An exhibition of puppets at Carrboro’s ArtsCenter fills out an unlikely foursome, serving as a true celebration of the company’s achievements.
“Without the pandemic, the book would not have come into existence,” Zimmerman says. “There’s no way we would have been able to write it and get all the pictures compiled without that space.”
The first copies arrived two weeks ago at the group’s studio in Saxapahaw. It puts a capstone on a year-and-a-half effort to collect and chronicle the company’s prolific output since its creators’ first collaborations in the 1990s at the Haw River Festival.
“It’s total eye candy,” says Virginia Chambers, a global health consultant and life coach who helped assemble the team that worked on the book. “[It’s] a visual stroll through this amazing body of work that they’ve nurtured, cultivated, and brought into being.”
The handsome volume is also a triumph against the subtle forces that always threaten the legacy of the live arts. Often, scripts and photographs become theatrical productions’ only surviving records. And despite their awesome presence on stage, the beautiful, giant hand-painted puppets that are Paperhand’s primary physical artifacts are particularly perishable because they’re mostly made of pâpier-maché, fabric, and clay.
In one chapter, the authors speak with pride of the dings and damage their works collect in various forms of community activism. Since the group routinely reuses old puppets to make new ones, often all that’s left of the projects are pictures and sketchbook drawings. But even those can be scarce to come by.
“Archiving is one of the things that has fallen through the cracks for us,” Zimmerman admits. The search for artifacts and photos took the team into attics, the backs of old drawers and filing cabinets, and unused studio and office space. “It took us half the year, at least.”
“The need for an organized body of work generally doesn’t come up until you already have a disorganized body,” archivist Judith Winkler notes dryly. “Everybody has tons of old, unorganized photographs. But you have to collect them; that’s the first step of history. And unless you organize your creative work and how it’s produced, it will be lost.”
Winkler ultimately managed the archiving and curation of more than 7,000 images on the project.
“Judith did an amazing job, not only curating the photos in the book, but figuring out how to move Donovan and Jan from the oral tradition they’re accustomed to, as storytellers, to words on a page,” Chambers says.
Based on work at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, Winkler interviewed Burger and Zimmerman over Zoom about old shows.
“She got us to dive into the pool of memory and bring the shows back to life,” Zimmerman says.
Chambers also interviewed cast and crew members, and the results “really helped create a flow to the text very similar to the way they speak and think,” she concludes.
Designer Chris Crochetière brought Paperhand’s ideas to life, says David Perry, UNC Press’s long-time editor-in-chief who also worked on the project. Perry and Chambers both conclude the finished work conveys the ethos of its authors.
“Those three strands—their artistry, community building, and eco-activism—really shine throughout the book,” Chambers says.
All through the book, a cascade of vivid full-page images and illustrations feature an astonishing array of larger-than-life mythic, iconic, and archetypal figures drawn from indigenous folk tales across the globe. Dragons and phoenixes fly across its pages.
Representations of the Earth goddess and the Green Man calmly preside over a world populated by kinetic fire demons and elemental totems representing the deep peace of clear water and good earth. Comic naïfs and inquisitive, good-hearted children are juxtaposed against grotesques representing the horrors of unchecked climate change, corporate capitalism, and war.
The range of stories told in 20 years impresses as well, from a breathtaking tableau vivant of Picasso’s “Guernica” (after Colin Powell covered up the original at a 2003 press conference on the Iraq War) to the enlightenment of the Buddha.
In that time, the tales of Gilgamesh and Mesopotamian creation myth have been staged alongside an improbable panorama of world thought leaders, from Thoreau and Darwin to naturalist Henri Fabre and Subcomandante Marcos.
For Paperhand’s new show, Unfolding Seeds: Invocations of Transformation, Donovan Zimmerman knew an artform— outside of puppetry—that could eloquently speak to a time of worldwide loss and brokenness, not only from the pandemic but other social and political stressors.
It’s Kintsugi, the Japanese art of ornamenting pieces of broken pottery by repairing them with bands of silver or gold.
The name means golden joinery, but Zimmerman notes that “it could also be translated as the art of being broken. It’s just a way of carrying our brokenness in a way that has some regenerative possibility within it.”
The new production features collaborations with choreographer Tommy Noonan, poets C.J. Suitt and Gary Philips, and Lizzy Ross and Omar Ruiz-Lopez from Violet Bell, Andy Stack of Wye Oak, and meditative musician Daniel Chambo.
Another sequence in the work contemplates changes in the world suggested by words that are added—and taken away—each year in the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Meadow and magpie have been removed from this year’s edition, Zimmerman notes. In their place: broadband and chat room.
Finally, a third section focuses on what Zimmerman calls “tiny essential workers”: pollinators, soil creators like cicadas, butterflies, and bees.
“They’re all part of this interlacing web of life,” Zimmerman says. “They form this network of connectivity; they remind us to connect to each other and to our community, to connect to our own hearts, our own stories, and to the Earth. That’s the way we just might survive, as a species.”
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