Behind the scenes of Paperhand Puppet Intervention

The spider puppet is one of the large puppets included in Paperhand Puppet Intervention's upcoming new performance, "In the Heart of the Fire."Juli Leonard

Paperhand Puppet Intervention rehearsals start with a warm-up.

The performers stretch or play a game together. This puts them in the right headspace for the show they’re preparing. Sometimes the rehearsal is the puppeteers only, and they’re working on a general idea of how the Paperhand show will go.

Sometimes it’s the puppeteers and the band. Train wrecks happen sometimes, and when they do the puppeteers, the stage managers and Paperhand co-founders Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman collaborate on how best to solve those moments.

Over seven weeks worth of rehearsals — the blink of an eye in the world of performance art — the show develops from idea to elaborate pageant.

“We start rehearsal in June,” says Lawruh Lindsey, Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s stage manager of 10 years. This is the first year, it’s worth noting, that she is one of two people in that role. “It’s wild how quickly it goes in comparison to other traditional theater rehearsals.”

When Paperhand’s 2018 show, “In the Heart of the Fire,” opens Aug. 3 at the Forest Theatre in Chapel Hill, it’ll be the 19th time such a process has resulted in a fantastical, musical promenade of animals and mythical creatures. Each year, unlikely, oversized puppets tell a story in “the language of dreams,” as Zimmerman said before the 2017 show.

The current show, which also will be presented at the NC Museum of Art in Raleigh, addresses the dichotomy of fire, Lindsey says. It’s nourishing, but also destructive. Elements of “In the Heart of the Fire” address how fire brings people together, she says, while others show human development — as enabled by fire — pushing creatures into smaller and smaller habitats.

Central to Lindsey’s role is writing the script and handling logistics. By tackling practical matters, she enables the flights of fancy, the artistry and the suspension of disbelief central to the Paperhand experience.

“I’m the number cruncher, as they joke sometimes,” Lindsey says.

She recalls the first show she stage managed. A decade ago, there was no master script for a Paperhand performance. She had been a stage manager for more traditional theater, and it was culture shock at first. These weren’t professional performers for the most part, and every one of them had their own piece of paper they had written their stage directions down on, which could lead to confusion. Once the performers adapted to having a stage manager and a master document, however, they realized that this sort of structure allowed them to simply perform.

“By the end of the first year I think it was pretty clear, it actually helps people be able to invest more energy into the fine details of what they were doing,” Lindsey says.

As for her responsibilities, Lindsey turns Zimmerman and Burger’s ideas into a script, but she also contributes where she’s needed. She runs the Kickstarter campaign, coordinates the volunteer performers and sends the press releases. Like everyone involved, she also has chores at Paperhand’s Saxapahaw rehearsal space. After rehearsals, Lindsey mops the floors.

In the show, too, she assigns herself roles with an equally practical mindset. She moves props and scenery, not because it’s a thrilling task but because it needs doing. When Lindsey’s onstage, it’s often because she’s operating a heavy puppet she knows another performer isn’t strong enough to carry. She gets some fun roles, too, thanks to her skill set: Lindsey can sing, for one, and she is also one of Paperhand’s stilt-walkers.

“(Performing is) thrilling. It’s a rush,” she says. “Stilt-walking especially for me is that way.”

The script-writing, the rehearsals and the putting out of metaphorical fires comes to fruition when “In the Heart of the Fire” opens in Chapel Hill.

How the show happens

Paperhand Puppet Intervention shows start hours before the audience arrives.

The puppets have to be put in their places. Rips and tears have to be patched. Paint has to be touched up.

Then, immediately before the show, the company circles up. They stretch, they go through notes. They hold a moment of silence and set an intention, something to neutralize the chaos and ground the performers.

And then the show starts.

Backstage there’s as much going on as onstage. Last year there were 300 puppet positions that had to be mapped to 15 or 20 puppeteers, so puppets are constantly being moved back and forth so the puppeteers can meet their cues. The puppets this year include flame dancers, Lindsey says, whose costumes represent fire. There is no actual fire in the show, she notes.

“Some of the dancers are wearing these incredible flame costumes where you can’t even tell where the person is in it,” she says, still in awe of costumes she has seen many, many times.

When Lindsey does step onstage this year, her favorite role will be as a “fire monkey.” This is a creature on four stilts, and Lindsey will be swinging from her arm stilts and doing high kicks. For the first time, she says, there will be people on foot onstage with four-stilted creatures, running through their legs and adding a new dimension to an already fantastical scene.

It’s a little terrifying, she says (“Please, don’t knock me down,” she mutters), but also exciting to Lindsey – and to those watching.

“We’re often in masks or puppets where we can see out to the audience but they can’t see our faces, so (I love to) to look out and to see the faces of all of the people that are there and to hear the feedback from the people at the end of the show: ‘That was so terrifying,’ or ‘That was amazing,’ or ‘I cried’ or ‘it made me so mad!’” Lindsey says. “Any time art evokes anything at all is special, and to be a part of that — the energy is incredible.”

Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s “In the Heart of the Fire”

When: Aug. 3-4 and Sept. 14-23 (Chapel Hill); Sept. 7-9 (Raleigh)
Where: The Forest Theatre, 123 S. Boundary St., Chapel Hill; North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh
Cost: $15 adults, $8 children. No one turned away for lack of funds (Chapel Hill performances); $17 general admission, $15 members, $8.50 youth 7-18, 6 and younger free (NCMA performances)
Info: paperhand.org

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