The Daily Tar Heel
Puppets Take on Politics, Art
Monday, September 05, 2005

Deer and boars inch their way through the forest. A tree enters the stage. A bunch of pigs square dance to raucous hillbilly music. And a fifteen-foot-long dragon creature collapses at the foot of the stage, only to be reborn and soar through the audience.

Is this a dream sequence or a science fiction fantasy script? Not exactly. It was Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s sixth annual summer show at UNC’s Forest Theatre, which concluded this weekend.

This year’s show, called “Garden of the Wild,” featured different vignettes about the relationships between people and the environment in alternately amusing and complex ways.

“The theme, ‘the wild,’ resonates with us because it relates to everything,” says director Donovan Zimmerman. “It’s nature, our own human nature, and the nature of the universe.”

Zimmerman and co-director/ writer Jan (pronounced yahn) Burger have worked together for nearly 10 years, ever since they met at the Haw River Festival, an outdoor “learning celebration” for children in the Haw River basin.

Both come from art backgrounds and use creativity to promote their vision of a better world. When they’re not working locally, Burger and Zimmerman build puppets for mass protests against the World Trade Organization and other global institutions that value profit over social or environmental justice.

“Activist work is a large part of my life, but I have a hard time sitting in meetings,” Burger says. “I’m good at making giant, beautiful things. That’s how I like to contribute.”

For their annual Forest Theatre shows, Zimmerman and Burger build puppets, masks and costumes in their converted studio — an old Saxapahaw cotton mill — while local puppeteers, stilt-walkers and dancers bring the stories to life. Live musicians provide all the sound effects and vocals to the performance, which lacks dialogue.

Each night featured a different pre- or post-show performance. Saturday included a show by the Fire Dance Collective, which lit up the night. The male and female performers spun fire and twirled flaming batons. One performer even danced with a fiery hula hoop around her bare stomach.

“It’s great to have real community art that says something,” says puppeteer Karen Kelly, who lives in Durham.

“I love working with them and doing something positive.”

The show featured several humorous vignettes entitled “Man & Monkey,” in which a masked man tried to trick a tiny monkey into giving up her food.

Other segments included a modern dance in which the performers turned their masks backwards to simulate acrobatic moves and a politically charged piece where six dancing pigs were fed out of an American-flag-striped trough and corralled into a butcher shop by a sly cowboy, who bore more than a slight resemblance to George W. Bush.

“Some years are more abstract, this year is more political,” says Chapel Hill resident Michele Natale, who has been to Paperhand’s Forest Theatre shows every year. “I admire them bringing their edge back this year.”

When night fell, the show concluded with a personal story told in shadow puppetry about a childhood reverence for nature and the adult fear of losing more animal species to extinction.

Seven-year-old Mark Murphy says he enjoyed the show.

“Nature is beautifuller than anything humans can make,” he says, cuddling up to his father.

But luckily for us, Paperhand Puppet Intervention comes close.

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