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Creature Construction

How Trouble Puppet creates those ingenious, inhuman figures that populate its plays

By Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Oct. 4, 2013

Trouble Puppet mastermind Connor Hopkins fine-tunes the Mechanic.
Trouble Puppet mastermind Connor Hopkins fine-tunes the Mechanic.
Photos by John Anderson

To pay a visit to the Trouble Puppet studio with a show under construction is to tour a playfully gruesome display of proto-creatures. Raw materials which might otherwise fill a family's recycling bin wait to be hammered and glued into place: packing materials, cardboard tubes, old newspapers. Skeletal forms made from cardboard and dowel rods, with top-heavy heads, sit in various stages of construction on tables, stools, and set-pieces. The half-finished Bunraku-style puppets give off an impression of waiting patiently for their next layer of glue. Puppets from shows past watch from where they hang on the walls.

It's easy to anthropomorphize the entire scene, something that the artists who create the puppets do unabashedly. "Puppets can do things that actors literally can't do, and one of them is die," says Producing Artistic Director Connor Hopkins. "You know when you're looking at an actor lying on the stage holding a sword under his arm. No matter how good a job that actor does, you know that when the lights go down, he or she is going to stand up and walk away. And you know that that puppet is not going to stand up and walk away. You know that it's dead. And it's a real thing, in a strange way, because it isn't human, it's more than human."

For Trouble Puppet's current show The Head, the company attracted visiting artists Stella James and Pete Talbot to help Hopkins and assistant builder Marc Smith construct the creatures. Talbot says he and James were attracted by the humanness of Trouble Puppet's creations from other shows: "Before we were even part of Trouble Puppet, Stella and I were watching that [online] trailer for The Jungle, and we teared up watching that: 'Oh no, he just died!'"

These puppets have bred passion in their creators.

The Head is an original show of Hopkins' imagining. Inside one man's head, a panoply of puppets struggle for dominance over his actions. A Mechanic struggles to keep order against the crowd of personal demons who introduce chaos into the works.

Builder Stella James showing sketches for bird puppets in <i>The Head</i>
Builder Stella James showing sketches for bird puppets in The Head

The Mechanic looks human. About two feet tall when standing, he sits in a command chair with welding goggles and a leather cap. Without his papier-mâché skin, his limbs are cardboard and dowel rods tied together with slender rope at the joints. A cigar attaches to his mouth with a magnet.

In the process of building his characters, Hopkins starts with a drawing, as a costume designer might begin with an illustration. The artist building the puppet will pack together newspaper and masking tape to form the head and cover it with papier-mâché, building the limbs out of cardboard and lightweight dowel rods. Once the essential skeleton is in place, complete with short handles to control the head and hands, the company will often begin using the puppet in rehearsals so the puppeteers can learn how best to work with the character.

"In this guy's case," says Hopkins of the Mechanic, "I made him, and he ended up probably an inch and a half taller than he should be, given the fact that somebody actually has to hold his head up for an hour or so. I took pity on the puppeteer, despite the fact that I liked him with really lanky legs." The puppet's legs were shortened, with splints at the new joints that are now invisible under the outer layer and costume.

The hands of the Mechanic are made from wire with a covering of tape, newspaper, and glue, adjustable enough that the puppet can appear to grip props.

Builder Pete Talbot with a set piece for <i>The Head</i>
Builder Pete Talbot with a set piece for The Head

This description of the Mechanic should sound familiar to those who have seen other Trouble Puppet shows, especially ones with human characters such as Riddley Walker or The Jungle. The Head, however, created an opportunity for puppets that are distinctly not human.

One of the demons in the show is a short-necked, robotic invention. On a visit to the studio weeks before opening, it looked like a pasty white, half-joking Transformer doll. Closer to opening, it had become a steely gray aggressor with an ominous, red stare.

Another was a thick, serpentlike monster with a long series of vertebrae. Says Smith, who was working on it weeks ago, "It's basically a piece of cardboard that I've turned into a tube and bound together, so there are ribs all along, and then there's a face connected."

"There was a time when I basically did all of this stuff myself, and I would have a few volunteers who would come in from time to time to help," says Hopkins. "But now we have an actual build crew who are here many days of the week, putting in hours and hours and hours, and all with enough design and build experience and instinct that you can do things like say, 'This guy, he's gonna be kind of a combination of a weasel and a grasshopper and a larva.'"

The artists' work on the puppets alternates with set construction. For The Head, the set contains multiple levels and machinery and gizmos with which the puppets interact, all representing different locations in and aspects of the brain. Many of the items are simple mechanical pieces operated by puppeteers, meant to resemble far more complicated engineering. In this way, the set embodies Trouble Puppet's aesthetic as well as anything else in the room: the high-tech/low-tech combo of building techniques that the company uses.

The construction materials are almost entirely in the low-tech category. A nearby clock shop donates spare gears and bits of machinery, much of it put to decorative ends. Other pieces are literally salvaged and picked up along the way, like a piece of leather cut from a discarded couch. Says James, "Sometimes on our bike over here, we'll be like, 'Oh, look at that thing!' We'll dig in someone's recycling, and we'll find the weirdest-shaped cardboard thing ever."

Trouble Puppet Theater Company has created a style and community full of contradictions. The puppetmakers are a soft-spoken crew of do-no-harm types. (James and Talbot drove to Austin in a school bus that runs on cooking oil.) Bright-eyed and idealistic on the one hand, they operate with dark, fatalistic ideas. The puppets are often sour, distressed characters or, as in The Head, dreamlike creatures, both adorable and spooky. For Trouble Puppet, the art of puppetry, which many assume to be child's play only, becomes a means to explore the complex, troubling forces of consciousness.


The Head continues through Oct. 12, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 6pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. For more information, visit www.troublepuppet.com.

For more images of the Trouble Puppeteers in their studio, visit austinchronicle.com/photos.

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