Talk to the Hand
The first-ever Puppet Parts Film Fest
On Austin's burgeoning Eastside, in a neighborhood that splits the distance between suburban French Place and the hipster cafe crowd currently taking over Manor Road, there's a two-bedroom house with a shed in the back yard. This shed is modest, with only a series of small windows near the ceiling providing natural light. There's no bathroom; there's no phone. But there are a whole lot of puppets.
This shed is home base for the Geppetto Dreams Puppet Company, a new theatre group led by Ricki Vincent – "Geppetto" to his friends – a recent Austin transplant whose thick frame, bald head, gruff goatee, multiple piercings, and tattoo-covered arms put one more in mind of a motorcycle-gang tough than an artist whose mission in life is to integrate puppetry into the cultural life of his newly adopted hometown.
"I know I look like I break legs for a living," Vincent, a former body-piercer and tattoo-parlor proprietor, admits. "When they see me, people don't know whether to shit or wind their watch." Two years ago, Vincent formed Geppetto Dreams after acquiring a $50,000 grant from New York-based nonprofit organization Creative Capital Foundation. It was while meeting in Austin with two of the foundation's representatives that he realized he had found his home. "When I first came here from Dallas, for the first time in my life I felt like I wasn't being judged; I felt like I was just another face in the crowd. And I loved that. I knew right away that I wanted to bring puppetry to Austin, to help keep the tradition alive and introduce my new home to this art form. Austin has a great arts community, but there's nothing like Geppetto Dreams here, and it's so desperately needed."
Puppets hang all over Vincent's workshop, including the cast of his troupe's burlesque show, A Night at Miss Mimi's, featuring Mimi herself, a pig dressed up to look like the madame in a Prohibition-era bordello, and Id, a thick-lipped, blue-teethed, wrinkly skinned beast of a thing that, as befits his name, allows Vincent to act out the more self-indulgent, sensualist sides of his personality. "My puppets," he says, "especially Id, are my alter egos. They let me get out there and do all the things I want to do and say all the things I want to say." Through the years, Vincent has performed shows about suicide, vaudeville routines starring Hitler and the Marquis de Sade, even Seuss-esque poetry readings about the controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential election and the resulting war in Iraq. And all with a puppet by his side – or on his hand – taking the hit.
"Puppets have been around since the days of Aristotle," Vincent says. "Puppets have been used to speak out against the crown and taxation. And that's the way I roll in my shows. We in the company want to show people the various possibilities of puppetry, from the personal to the political." In that spirit, on Jan. 12 at the Off Center, Geppetto Dreams will be presenting its first Puppet Parts Film Fest, a collection of 11 short films by artists from around the country. The show will include "Bill Hicks Puppet Show" by director and Austinite Andrew Lankes, who secured permission from the widow of the legendary comic to re-enact one of his routines (this one about the first Bush and his Iraq war) using marionettes; "In the House of the Sin Eater," New Yorker Paul Kloss' haunting version of an ancient folktale about a man who takes on the sins of the newly dead by means of food and drink; and Mike Murphy's freewheeling "Night of the Broccoli," in which the disgruntled vegetables of the title exact revenge on the man who dared to serve them for dinner. The film festival will be followed later in the evening by a live performance of Miss Mimi's and scenes from the troupe's newest piece, the black-lit The Dead Pirate's Society.
With films that run the gamut from traditional hand-and-rod manipulation to more modern stop-motion animation, the festival reflects Vincent's catholic philosophy about the nature of puppetry. While there are some dogmatists out there who will tell you that true puppetry begins and ends with marionettes or that Japanese Bunraku is the only lasting definition of the form or that Punch and Judy are the alpha and omega, Vincent believes that not only are all these disciplines puppetry but that, as an artist, it is his responsibility to throw them all in a pot and mix them up, so he can explore all the aesthetic possibilities of the medium. The same principle holds true for his work as a film-festival impresario.
"Puppetry," he says, "is simply bringing life to something that normally would not have life. Stop-motion, marionettes, hand-and-rod, Bunraku, shadow puppets, even computer-generated images, like the ones used in Jurassic Park: It's all puppetry to me. Not to upset the Bible Belt, but it's almost like being God. Puppeteers can take something that's just a lump of foam or papier-mâché or plaster and work and play with it and shape it and arrange it and bring it to life. What could be better than that?"
The Puppet Parts Film Festival takes place Saturday, Jan. 12, at the Off Center (2211-A Hidalgo) from 1 to 4pm. For more information, see www.geppettodreams.com.