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[whitespace] Shae Uisna and Puppet Stick in Trade: Several of Shae Uisna's rod puppet creations are based on commedia dell'arte characters.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Puppet Nation

All around Santa Cruz, puppets are pulling people's strings

By Andrea Perkins

ONCE UPON A TIME, Nan Beltran was walking through the forest when all of a sudden she stumbled upon a bag of abandoned hand puppets. "Hmm," she said, picking up the sack.

Soon, Beltran, a park ranger at Natural Bridges State Park with a background in theater, was performing puppet plays about monarch butterflies for visitors. Two years later, she had amassed an army of marionettes. These days, her Platypus Puppet Theater performs at as many as 10 birthday parties a month.

"Usually when I tell people I'm a puppeteer, they burst out laughing," she says. "They think it's a joke."

Her small Soquel home is stuffed with stringed creatures of all sizes, shapes and colors. As she untangles the strings of a scooter-riding orangutan, small polished faces turn attentively toward her from the crowded rack she found at a junkyard.

There is Flora the flamingo, who does the hokeypokey to a version by Little Richard. Mr. Og, an ingeniously simple creation made of two Slinkies covered with thick, bright red shag carpeting, crosses the room with a Jell-O-like gait, while Beltran creates his voice by squeezing a small rubber rat.

"He's from outer space," she explains.

Punch Drunk

A BUSTLING London square in the late 1700s: a man with a collapsible screen that fits like a long box around him, from head to toe, topped by a small theater stage, enters and within minutes has established his proscenium. A crowd quickly gathers to see a small, red-nosed hand puppet pop up from the bottomless stage and proceed to thump many other puppets mercilessly.

The Punch and Judy Show, probably the most well known puppet play in the Western world, entertained masses of people for hundreds of years. Originally hailing from the mischievous but peaceful Pulcinello of Italian commedia dell'arte, the ignominious Punch we know today was born in England sometime in the 18th century. No English square was quite complete without its resident Punch man enacting the barbarous legend, the epitome of the sort of cathartic violence that is classically endemic to puppetry.

"Puppets die extremely well," explains Kathy Foley, UCSC's Porter College Provost and puppeteer extraordinaire.

"Actually, Punch and Judy became more violent with the rise of cities. Punch didn't start out as this murder-and-mayhem character we've come to know. But with the rise of the cities and social problems like alcoholism, he becomes this guy who wants to kill his wife, the police, the judge and the devil. Before the 18th century, he always ended up in hell or getting eaten by the crocodile. Later, he is just killing them all."

A puppet can hold up a mirror or open the door to a whole new world. Its unfettered use of exaggeration can push boundaries and buttons. Often beautiful, often disturbing, puppets are the pure products of the human psyche.

"Puppets are not little men, women, or animals," writes puppeteer Bill Baird in his seminal The Art of The Puppet. "A puppet must always be more than his live counterpart--simpler, sadder, more wicked, more supple. The puppet is an essence and an emphasis. For only in this way does a puppet begin to reflect the truth."

String Theory

PUPPET'S NIGHT OUT, held on Thursday evenings at the Atelier Gallery in Santa Cruz, provides puppeteers of all levels the opportunity to come together to discuss their art. Some participants come with nothing more than a stick, a potato and an old dishrag. Others dabble in high-tech, Jim Henson-style creations. They all have one thing in common: a love of making inanimate objects come to life.

"Being a puppeteer is not about manipulation," says Shae Uisna, who started Puppet's Night Out a few months ago. "For me, it's about allowing an inanimate object's desire to be alive come through me. Even a spoon can come alive and express itself by dancing. I feel more like I'm their servant."

The glittery-eyed, mustachioed Indonesian rod puppet comes alive in her hand as she whispers a rhythm. "Ta tiki tiki ta ta," she sings as he dances elegantly back and forth, gesturing with flexed hands and rhythmically turning a dramatic head.

"In America, puppetry has been ghettoized," Uisna explains, stopping the dance and depriving the room of the puppet's astonishing presence, "so that it's only for kids. It's not like that in the rest of the world. Puppeteers have gotten a really bad rap in America.

"I came away from Being John Malkovich, which I thought was a brilliant film on many levels, going 'Damn, another crazy puppeteer!' I mean, he locks his wife into a monkey cage! He's brilliant but unhinged, and that's the stereotype about puppeteers in this country. Brilliant but unhinged. It doesn't exist in other countries. In Indonesia, the dhalang, or puppeteer, is a shaman or a priest."

Yet Uisna and others recognize that American puppetry has recently become a more viable art form, gathering new devotees. Even Santa Cruz seems to be hiding a secret hotbed of the puppet renaissance. Uisna's Puppet's Night Out is an attempt to strengthen the evolution of the form by bringing its practitioners together.

After abandoning an internship at Industrial Light and Sound because she didn't want to be a part of an army corps of artists carrying out somebody else's vision, Uisna developed her own Shadow Dancer Studios. One of her early projects was designing Rob Brezsny's televisionary oracle, a large goddesslike figure made of twisting wire, with a TV for a pelvis. Much of her work is influenced by the rod puppetry of central Java, where she spent two years studying the form as a Fullbright scholar.

In addition to original shadow puppets, Uisna creates rod versions of commedia dell'arte characters, which are traditionally marionettes. With these she performs bawdy, humorous and complex pieces culled from folktales cut with modern-day archetypes. Lately, she has taken to constructing puppets out of empty plastic bottles, painted and attached to one another with sticks.

"I like to use whatever is plentiful in the world and cheap," says Uisna, who, when not composing "puppet operas," is co-director of Atelier Gallery and production coordinator/prop master for QuietWorld Media. "I go to Safeway and instead of buying something that I need, I'm picking the bottles up and turning them upside down and saying, 'Oh, what a beautiful head!' "

Dead Puppet Memento Mori: Randy Caruso's dead puppets have gone on to their heavenly reward.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Dear Departed Dummies

RANDY CARUSO stares mournfully at his crew of decaying latex puppets. Only 10 years ago, they were fantastical, lifelike creatures, with polished Plexiglas eyes that opened and closed quickly or slowly, depending on the amount of pressure placed on an inner lever tucked away amid complex systems of wires and nodules, each playing their own role in sustaining the illusion of life.

There is Max, of Where the Wild Things Are, cast from the mold of a real boy, surrounded by a menagerie of characters rivaling the brainchildren of Jim Henson himself. But now Max's face is chalky pale.

"He looks so dead," Caruso says. "I thought he would last forever," he continues, pausing, unable to put it into words. "But latex is organic, and it decays."

It might take hours to sand a single eye into a smooth orb. Capturing the perfect expression can take weeks of careful sculpting. Putting the hair in, strand by strand, is either a labor of love or a symptom of obsessive compulsion.

The puppets are just as ornate on the inside, where tubes, strings and levers intertwine like nerves. Instead of using fiberglass for the skulls, Caruso ground up plastic bags and added wood glue. Articulate hands made of plexiglass, small pieces of plastic from milk crates and guitar wire are capable of picking up small Styrofoam cups. Pink-gummed dentures heighten the level of realism. To face Caruso's collection is to confront strange, unsettling entities that seem all the more alive for being capable of such authentic death.

"There is a little line of illusion, and it feels good to cross it," he says. "You're calling upon the audience to accept it as real flesh. When they do, you cross that line and get that little snap. I have a hard time letting go of that."

Yet instead of mourning the demise of his masterpieces, Caruso has decided to celebrate it. The Dead Puppet Show (online at www.soa360.com) is an exhibit of photographs of his puppets from various projects over the years.

"The Dead Puppet Show is a side effect of having been really submersed in all this stuff," says Caruso, whose work has appeared in Shakespeare Santa Cruz productions, San Francisco Performance Art Festivals and First Night Santa Cruz.

"I was generating a lot of parts, a lot of mechanisms and skins, and a lot of really organic by-products, formed pieces that looked like fleshy things. Now it's all broken and dead, and it looks better then ever. One day, I was just looking at it thinking that maybe I should throw it away, and then I'm like 'Wow! It's beautiful!'"

Puppet Power

WHILE TELEVISION freed puppets from the fixed proscenium of the Punch and Judy-style show, allowing them to move around in a simulated world, groups like Art and Revolution have further liberated the puppet from its box, swelling it into a larger-than-life effigy with an agenda and loosing it into the street.

"Usually art and activism are like oil and water," says Grant Wilson, co-founder of Art and Revolution. "When they mix in a good way, it can be very powerful. Puppets are able to make political and social issues more palatable then just going up to someone with a petition, which causes people to shut off. But if you approach someone with a giant puppet, they really open up and respond. Puppets break down the barrier between audience and performer."

"And," adds co-founder Jeff Caplan, "they foster community-building because it takes a village to build a giant puppet. It took 15 people to build the one for the sweatshop protest in front of the GAP. Puppets are important. Besides, since 1980, most of the presidential candidates have been puppets."

Trained by the San Francisco group bearing the same name, Santa Cruz's Art and Revolution has been staging three to five guerrilla theater events monthly for the past three-and-a-half years. The diverse 187-member group involves itself in a number of issues: Nicaragua, pesticides, living wage, United Farm Workers, Greenpeace, transportation issues, corporatization, genetic engineering, to name a few. It has garnered top prizes in the Santa Cruz Parade carnival two years in a row for best theme and best float and has also recently been awarded a grant from the Doug Rand Action Fund for tools to build bigger and better puppets.

The puppets are made from recycled materials: discarded cardboard from businesses, house paint from toxic waste dumps and old ties that are really out of fashion (for the businessmen puppets). Some are built around discarded frame backpacks that attach the puppet to a person, who wields the papier-mâché head, while the cardboard hands are controlled with bamboo sticks by two other revolutionaries.

"People can actually walk into our giant mouth puppet and be consumed," Wilson says. "Some of them are sacrificial puppets. We send them out to be arrested. Some were considered threats at the Republican convention, so the police impounded them."

Mistress of Puppets

BESIDES PUPPETS, Shae Uisna, Randy Caruso and Jeff Caplan all have something else in common: Kathy Foley. They met years ago in Kathy Foley's Experiments in Puppetry class at UCSC, an experience none of them ever forgot.

Along with Julie Traynor of Lion King fame, Foley was one of the first Westerners to study Indonesian puppetry and one of the first females awarded the title of dhalang, or puppet master, paving the way for Indonesian women to enter the highly respected field.

She has performed extensively here and abroad, most recently at San Luis Obispo, where she enacted "Subali and Sugiwa," an episode from the Ramayana. Her exhibit, Hanuman the Messenger, premiered at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta last summer and will travel to Hawaii in January.

Foley also performs as a SPECTRA artist for the Santa Cruz Cultural Council, often collaborating with Undang Sumarna as musical director. Her other productions have included Farewell to Manzanar, based on Jeanne Houston's story of the Japanese-American internment camps, a piece she performed with masks, bunraku puppets, Barbie dolls, GI Joes and regular actors. She also does regular Punch and Judy shows.

"In puppetry, the human body, the determination of who we are, is removed, which creates all kinds of possibilities that don't exist for human performance," Foley explains. "It is much easier to kill puppets--or to transform them, to have their heads fly open and another face come out.

"Another thing is that puppetry is not an exclusive art form that cuts people out. If you've got an imagination and you've got an object--a glass or something--and you want to find its life, its tension, and figure out how it can carry your message--if message is what you're after--then you can practice puppetry."

Foley points out that since puppetry has generally stayed at the folk-art level, it has remained a fairly unregulated kind of art that is easy for people to move into from all sorts of backgrounds.

"If you want to smash all divides of gender, race, age, etc., one of the best ways is through masks and puppets. It is a way to really liberate yourself as a performer. And it's fun."

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From the December 27, 2000-January 3, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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