“I’m here to see the Trouts.” Not a phrase I had uttered before. But in the near-empty seats of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s space, they were there. Trouts in the seats.
Three members of the Old Trouts Puppet Workshop: Samantha Hindle, Technical Director of this highly technical operation; co-conceiver of Famous Puppet Death Scenes; and Pityu Kenderes, a founding member of the company and one of the directors of this version of the play. That’s them above.
The Old Trouts and Woolly Mammoth were kind enough to give me a backstage pass a few hours before a matinee to get a sneak peek at the magic behind the puppets, their scenes, and their tragic deaths.
The first question I had for the group was about the “Why’s” of the show. Why puppets? Why death?
“The inspiration for the play comes from an adaptation of Pinocchio we did,” Pityu says. “Different from the Disney version,” Sam adds. In the Trout version of Pinocchio, which follows the original Carlo Collodi story more closely, Jiminy Cricket doesn’t get to advise Pinocchio as his conscience through the whole play. Instead, the talking cricket gets violently offed early in the show.
“Whenever we got to that scene, there’d always be an ARGH, a big reaction from the audience,” says Pityu, “And we thought, ‘Why can’t we do a whole show of those scenes?’” And so they did.
That’s what you’ll get when you go to Famous Puppet Death Scenes: funny puppet deaths, gruesome puppet deaths, realistic puppet deaths, and heart-breaking puppet deaths. One of the most chilling puppets I saw came from this last category. An old woman, lying on a bed. “Death as it is in real life,” Pityu says. The inspiration from the puppet comes from his life, from “her silvery hairs I remember when she was dying.”
But this kind of painful reality isn’t the norm of the show. Many of the puppets are whimsical or abstract. Like the red cone Bipsy and the monster that devours her in a spectacular and gruesome way. That’s her (or him? Does a red cone have a gender specification?) on Pityu’s knee, and her monster on Sam’s knee.
Bipsy’s untidy end is the first death in the show (though I won’t reveal its exact nature, I will say that it made my eyes go wide with shock) in the context of a scene that takes place on pseudo-German children’s show, complete with a clear-toned and boisterous German voiceover and the canned cheering of children.
Paul tells me that the scenes in the show come from a wide variety of times, places, and cultures, which is truly appropriate for a show devoted to the most universal of subjects. Death, that is, not puppets.
Speaking of Death, the Big Sleep gets its own personification in this show. Being full-bodied, it seems to be one of the harder puppets to negotiate. It appears to be simple. At first. Death is just a cape with a head on it.
But when I ask them to try the puppet on, it becomes apparent that there are many a dozen more complications with it. Now, Sam (the chosen victim for the Death puppet modeling show) isn’t one of the puppeteers for the show, but she makes an admirable go at the complicated pieces. First, she has to put the base of the puppet on, which is a helmet that isn’t quite made to fit her:
Then she has to get her thumbs through the holes of the puppet, totally blind, while trying to find her “focus.” Focus is a technical term I needed the Trouts to explain. Puppets’ actions need to be simplified, Pityu explains. We can look at a person and know what their feeling by how their body looks, since we also have a body. But with puppets, there’s a sense of alienation from the actor, which is a person plus this strange appliance, and we know that our attention should be focused on the puppet. So the puppeteer needs to break through that alienation by being clear about what the audience perceives the puppet is doing and looking at, not to mention what part of the puppet they should pay attention to. Sam eventually finds the focus of Death, and nails her scene:
But getting out of the puppet is a whole other complication, and it results in a hilarious, but safe, pratfall from Sam.
The Old Trouts have found all sorts of interesting ways to adapt puppets to the human body, from the incredibly simple butterfly on a stick to a very complicated “head puppet” that the actor wears like a cross between a mask, a hat and a scarf. The mouth of this particular puppet is especially interesting because it is worked by the mouth of the actor via a hinged chinstrap on the jaw, so the mouth of the puppet mimics the mouth of the actor in perfect unison.
Plus it looks hilarious when someone is wearing it, like the puppet decided to take a seat on someone’s shoulders, making the actor more than a foot taller, but shrinking their head by a few sizes.
There’s another really interesting way that the Trouts use the puppet as an extension of the human body. “We should show you the crotch puppet!” Paul says. “Crotch puppet?” I ask. “Will I be able to take pictures of this?” “You’ll see why it’s called that,” they assure me.
It turns out that the crotch puppet is really an apparatus for the whole lower body, complete with snowshoe-like attachments that give control over the puppets’ feet to a weightlifting belt that secures the puppet to the actor’s…well, crotch.
If these little guys look a bit terrifying, that’s okay, they’re supposed to. The emotions of Famous Puppet Death Scenes run the gamut. “We’ve always thought of ourselves as theater people, not puppet people,” they say when I ask about comparisons to other puppet shows like the famous Avenue Q or the infamous Wonder-Showzen. “A lot of those shows are about shock,” Sam adds. But this show at Woolly Mammoth spans more complex emotions. Though there is some shock, too, it seems too much fun to avoid. Plus, who wouldn’t be shocked by these faces?
The last puppet I was shown isn’t a traditional puppet or even recognizable as one but is, in a sense, one of the most complicated puppets in the show. Sam took me up to the booth where she showed me the perspective she gets on the show every night.
She has an impressive array of sound and light boards, not to mention her promptbook (an annotated copy of the script with cues that basically says how the show “should go”) and a tablet that she can use to mix sound on the fly. These are the tools that turn the entire theater into a puppet. Sam responds to what is happening onstage, watches the puppeteers for cues, and makes the show slightly different every night, depending on the audience. She’s working from a script, just like the other puppeteers, but her puppet is on the grandest of scales: the entire audience is sitting in it. But the biggest bonus to working in the booth? “The shoes,” Sam says.
We could hear the audience start to bustle in for the 2pm matinee, and the Trouts had a lot of work to do before the show. So I bid them adieu, and thanked them for a wonderful experience that taught me quite a bit about how they work with puppets and the kind of puppets they make. The Trouts are all world class puppeteers and actors, and Famous Puppet Death Scenes will soon be going to places like Avignon, France and Sibiu, Romania.
You don’t have much time to catch them here in Washington, DC, so you should grab tickets as soon as you can to see this funny troupe of Old Trouts, their fantastic puppets, and their Famous Puppet Death Scenes.
FAMOUS PUPPET DEATH SCENES
Closes January 4, 2015
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St NW
1 hour, 20 minutes, no intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Famous Puppet Death Scenes from Old Trout Puppet Workshop . Directed by Peter Balkwill, Pityu Kenderes and Judd Palmer . Featuring Nicholas Di Gaetano, Pityu Kenderes, and Viktor Lukawski . Soundscapes: Mike Rinaldi . Lighting design: Cimmeron Meyer . Presented by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jennifer Clements.