Past Year of Theater, pt 5

by Nathan Bergstedt

nathan bergstedtWe were all pretty proud of ourselves after Twin Cities 24. We didn’t even know about it two weeks earlier, and in that short of time, we put everything together and even traversed the state to make it happen. We would have anyway, but after the success of the weekend, we were particularly emboldened to put our name in the lottery for the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

It was shaping up to be a busy summer, and it was barely February. I still hadn’t written the “Much Ado” script, John and Steph just started rehearsals for the Grand Rapids Players production of “Two By Two” (a musical comedy based off the story of Noah’s flood), and we still hadn’t really begun work on the shadow puppet show we were talking about. Come to think of it, it was shaping up to be a pretty busy winter, and we were rapidly running behind.

The thing about the shadow puppet show was that none of us had ever done shadow puppetry before. Sure, on occasion, we had all managed to contort our hands in front of a lamp to make a dog or an eagle, but to actually make puppets in the shape of characters and then to manipulate them before a lit screen… we were starting from scratch. We felt that we were in the right position to experiment though; it was arguable whether or not anyone in town had ever even seen a shadow puppet show before, and we weren’t going to charge admission. Worst case scenario, the show would be a bomb and we’d come to the conclusion that shadow puppetry just isn’t our bag. Best case, we discover we’re shadow puppetry savants, have incredible careers as puppeteers, and ultimately become the puppet impresarios of the world. We figured we really couldn’t lose.

So the only question was what the story was going to be? John had some ideas floating around of separate vignettes that dealt with nature in some way: a guy ice fishing, something involving being disturbed by a mosquito, and some sort of scene with a loon (an “uncommon” loon).

The plan was to build a basic set out of some cheap wood and black fabric that would surround a painting stretcher where the canvas has been replaced with a basic plain white cloth. The characters, then, would be cut out of black construction paper, hinged with small curls of wire, and controlled via glued-on shish kabob skewers. John, being an accomplished amateur visual artist, took it upon himself to design the characters for the show that we didn’t know anything about yet.

We picked the First Friday art walk in April as the perfect date for the show. We would once again use one of the vacant rooms of Old Central School, where we did “Not Playing with a Full Deck,” and it would be great and wonderful. Only we found it wasn’t going to be so easy. It’s tough to say if we had any part in this, but within a month’s time, Central School went from having a consistent three-rooms open to being completely filled with rent-paying tenants. We have no idea whether or not our involvement with the building brought businesses in, but the timing was awfully suspicious. If we did, well, we totally shot ourselves in the foot. But whatever… we didn’t even have a show yet anyway.

And the new location problem was solved really quickly. I asked Katie Marshall at the MacRostie Art Center if we could use one of the gallery’s studio’s for the show, and she thought it was a great idea.

10153175_828938237120155_784324477_nIt wasn’t until late February that John and I actually got together to do some brainstorming on what the damned show was even going to be about. All we had really narrowed down by this point was that it was going to take place outdoors and involve some number of animals, who were possibly partially anthropomorphized. So on some god forsakenly cold evening in late February, John came over and we sat in the dinning room at my place with a few pieces of scratch paper, a laptop, and a few beers, and we got to work. There was no reason why this show would go longer than 15 minutes, so we felt pretty confidant that we could fill that period of time in a humorous or ironic manner. And sure enough, after a few hours, it all got narrowed down — it was no longer a series of disconnected vignettes, but a running story following the misadventures in the woods of a French voyageur over the course of three short chapters. Why French? Did we research the history of this general region of North America and pay homage to some of the original European explorers of the New World? No. We kept calling him “that guy,” so we decided to keep it and named him Guy, so it only made sense that he’d be French.

Beyond what we figured out that night, there wasn’t much fleshing out of the story. It was kind of the running joke that since the characters were two-dimensional, the storyline might as well be too. But after a few weeks of rehearsing and building the set, the show was about as ready as it was ever going to be… unless we were to actually come up with a story that wasn’t a series of fart jokes.

Silhouette, Gentille Silhouette

Silhouette, Gentille Silhouette

We had dabbled in Shakespeare, had plunged into the metaphysics of the battle of good and evil, sought the nuance of the human condition for greed, but now we were official agents of juvenile potty humor. But it wasn’t completely lowbrow. I think one of the things that made it funniest was the fact that the show was called “Silhouette, Gentile Silhouette,” leading the audience to suspect that it might be of some cultural significance, and what they got instead was a French guy farting on mosquitoes.

Ok, I may be underselling the show. It was certainly geared more to younger audiences, but it was fun little romp through an ancient form of storytelling. One of the more interesting things about it is that no one who came to the show had ever even seen a shadow puppet show before (to the best of our knowledge) despite the fact that it’s one of the oldest known art forms.

Once the show was over, we gathered at John and Steph’s place for a “cast party” (it was just the three of us in the cast, so it wasn’t that much different from other times we’d gathered together). To shake it up, we also invited our friend Rachel, who was technically part of the crew since she operated the video camera. While we slowly sipped blended scotch whiskey and smoked a hooka, we took turns reciting poetry from a variety of different books and a few of our own original compositions. But when a collection of Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry came out, perhaps from still enjoying the romance of animating puppets earlier in the day, we quickly figured out what the next shadow puppet show was going to be: a full-text reading and shadow interpretation of “The Raven.” And the October First Friday art walk seemed like the perfect time for such a show.

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