High-Tech Hat Tricks

Play is anything but a typical puppet show

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Visual magic: The Paper Hat Game's programmed video images create an illusion of cityscapes rushing by train car windows.
Raquel Salvatella De Prada

For some, terms like "toy theater" and "puppet show" may bring on images of a child's birthday party. But those people have never met Torry Bend. Bend, an assistant professor of theater studies, made an arresting case for puppetry as an expressive medium with her production of The Paper Hat Game, which played in Sheafer Theater during two weekends in September. A collaboration between the Department of Theater Studies and the Visual Arts Initiative, the multimedia production combined intricate puppetry with high-tech lighting and projection design to create a mesmerizing thirty-seven-minute portrayal of city life—all crunched into a stage barely a foot and a half deep.

The play's motif was inspired by Scotty Iseri, a friend from Bend's undergraduate days who gained a modicum of fame in Chicago by making hats out of newspaper on the city's elevated train. It became a game for him and for Chicagoans who, for months, emerged from trains with paper triangles on their heads. Iseri quit the practice after being mugged, but Bend saw his experiences as a unique opportunity to tell a story about space, using the constrained space of a puppet stage to evoke the cramped and artificial nature of city life. "What is the physical experience about riding a train car? It's jerky—it feels like a perfect meld for puppets," she explained after a performance.

Bend's interest in puppetry comes in response to the computer- generated imagery dominating the mainstream film industry in Los Angeles, where she studied puppetry at CalArts. She points to the success of puppetry and stop-motion animation in musicals such as Avenue Q and movies such as Fantastic Mr. Fox as evidence of a renewed desire for what she calls "the concrete." "People seem to be thinking, let me watch something tangible transcend; I want to see glue, string, newspaper, and wood come to life honestly, without tricks," she wrote in her director's notes.

But the production did have its share of visual magic. Raquel Salvatella de Prada, assistant professor of the practice in the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, programmed video images to create the feel of a city rushing by the windows of a train car. The tightly choreographed backstage movements of the ninemember production team were filmed, as well. "It's a dance back there," said Tarish Pipkins, one of the puppeteers, during a talkback after one show.

Duke left its mark on the production in other ways, as well— namely, through the hundreds of pages of The Chronicle used to make stage props. "When we started the project, Scotty pulls up The Chronicle and is like, you guys are so lucky!" Bend recalled. "It's the perfect size for paper hats!"

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