Michael Haverty practices his art through his hands. A tug here, a tilt there, and he can bring a little soul to a lifeless marionette.
His hands were his most important puppet back in January at Tales of Edgar Allen Poe at the Center for Puppetry Arts. Bobby Box's adaptation was book-ended with a dramatization of Poe's most famous poem, "The Raven." But instead of using a raven puppet, Haverty donned a pair of gloves festooned with oily-looking black feathers. He held his hands together and flapped his fingers to make the sinister "raven" glide through the performing space.
After the show's climax, cross-cutting between the violent endings of three Poe stories, Haverty was able to quoth the raven once more. Actor John Ammerman, playing the narrator, concluded the show with the lines: "My soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted – nevermore!"
Meanwhile, Haverty forsook his gloves and dipped his now-bare hands in stage blood. Repeating the motions, he represented the bird not with black feathers but with crimson, dripping fingers. Poe's raven was made of blood.
The impact of a simple red raven speaks volumes about the art of puppetry in Atlanta. The device represents Haverty's particular talents as a performer and puppeteer, exemplifies the Center for Puppetry Arts' boundless creativity, and demonstrates the possibilities of puppetry beyond fairy tales and educational shows. Tales of Edgar Allen Poe was aimed at adult and teenage audiences, and Haverty took glee in the reaction of the high-schoolers. "I don't think they'd ever seen anything that gory," says the 27-year-old puppeteer with a boyish smile beneath the bushy, dark mustache – he calls it "half handlebar, half walrus" – he cultivated for a show.
Atlanta has become a mecca for American puppetry, just as puppeteers here and elsewhere are proving the form's power to explore mature themes. To look at adult-oriented puppetry on Broadway, TV and movies, you might think it amounts to sex and/or violence with characters that resemble children's toys. But there's more to it than that.
The Tony Award-winning 2003 musical Avenue Q, coming to Atlanta in March, offers grown-ups "Sesame Street"-style life lessons in adult numbers such as "The Internet Is for Porn." TV shows such as "Crank Yankers" and "Greg the Bunny" delivered confrontational comedy through seemingly cuddly characters. The 2004 film Team America: World Police used marionettes to lampoon the War on Terror and celebrity protests. Increasingly, puppets are engaging in the kind of behaviors you'd never see them do in front of the kids.
Jon Ludwig, the Center for Puppetry Arts' associate artistic director and one of its leading lights, likes to quote "Miss Pussycat," a touring puppeteer who performs in bars. "Her theory of puppets is, 'Puppets are best for kissing, fighting and playing guitar,'" Ludwig says. "But they're also great at playing Hamlet. And the Devil. God. Redemption. Inferno. You have to ask yourself, 'What's the meaning of being an adult when you do adult-level puppetry?'"
Offering more than simply raunchy content in an ironically innocent setting, mature puppetry has claimed the spotlight in Atlanta. The 29-year-old Center for Puppetry Arts, already the nation's largest organization devoted to the craft, has received an unprecedented gift that will raise its national standing and may help boost its programming of mature shows.
As another signal of this surge in interest, Haverty has christened Haverty Marionettes, which specializes in adult-oriented puppet shows – Pinocchio, the Velveteen Rabbit and their ilk are strictly prohibited. Haverty launched the company last week with a phantasmagoric adaptation of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, a classic novel that would be impossible to put on stage with live actors.
Haverty could qualify as prime example and unofficial spokesman for both Atlanta's vibrant community of puppet artists and the larger national trend as the art form comes of age. Alongside such recent additions as adult-oriented animation and graphic novels, puppetry is demanding a place at the grown-ups' table.
Making puppets seems like an Old World craft in a high-tech era, evoking images of Geppetto carving Pinocchio by candlelight. In 2005 Michael Haverty traveled to Palermo, Sicily, to study the centuries-old Opera Dei Pupi marionette style, which strongly influences As I Lay Dying's Southern carnival design and music. He estimates that only five or six families in all of Sicily are still doing puppetry. You wonder if it's a doomed, antiquated profession like watch-making or glassblowing.
For committed puppeteers across the city and across the nation, the exact opposite is true: The appeal of the work lies in the craft. For more than a year, Haverty hand-carved As I Lay Dying's entire cast, along with various coffins, mules and other Southern gothic puppets. Woodworking and handicrafts run in his family – he's related, on his father's side, to the Havertys Furniture chain, and has uncles who make guitars and cabinets by hand.
"I only discovered wood carving two years ago, but I'm loving it," Haverty says. "I always felt like I was struggling with making foam puppets, trying to make clay into something I like. But with wood, carving a block down to something I like, the wood will really tell you what it wants to be – the grain, and the imperfections in the wood will guide you."
The show also includes a segment of silhouette animation from Kristen Jarvis, a musician and puppeteer who also happens to be Haverty's wife. They fell in love while taking the same puppetry class at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and she worked as a puppeteer in the Center's 2005 production of Gilgamesh.
In dramatizing the Faulkner classic, told from the perspective of the deceased mother, Jarvis essentially makes shadow puppets and films them frame by frame in the basement. "It takes forever – I don't know how she has the patience," Haverty says.
He acknowledges puppets can be high-maintenance artistic partners. "It's a bitch sometimes. There's a lot of fighting in this show, so strings are always breaking, hands are falling off – a lot of puppets means a lot of upkeep."
Puppetry also can take a physical toll. Haverty says that all the puppeteers he knows take glucosamine/chondroitin to prevent further cartilage damage from repetitive gestures. Bending their bodies into awkward angles and giving their arm muscles serious workouts, they wear kneepads, back braces and Crocs to maximize comfort. Haverty says he visits a chiropractor at least once a week.
The frustrations and physical kinks might be universal for puppeteers, but they also seem to be minor sacrifices. Ludwig, when he's not working on a show for the Center, travels the country to check out the field's latest breakthroughs and crazy ideas. "There's this explosion of original work in the hotbeds of puppetry, not just here, but in the Arizona puppetry scene, the Boston puppetry scene, the Amsterdam scene, the Vermont scenes. In New York, artists may wrangle puppets for 'Sesame Street' by day, and do their own thing at night. It's fun to see people reinventing the wheel and rocketing it into outer space."
"When Haverty sprung the idea of starting Haverty Marionettes to friends over a bottle of wine at Ted's Montana Grill in early 2007, he said, 'Let's get professional about this. Let's grow the puppetry community. Let's invest in it and expand it, and expand Atlanta's idea of what puppetry is.' People in this town are starting to be all right with puppetry for adults, and that's not something I would have said 10 years ago."
At about that time, Matt "Lucky" Yates was "rotting" in an unhappy marriage and living on a North Carolina Native American reservation in 1996. He found a job at the Center for Puppetry Arts box office after moving to Atlanta that same year -- a job he clung to like a lifeline. For the first day on the job, his first duty was to go into the theater and watch the current show, so he'd know what he was selling at the box office. The play happened to be Space, a lighthearted musical about astronomy by Jon Ludwig.
Yates compares watching the show to divine inspiration. "I'm telling you, when I saw it, it really was like that hokey light came down from heaven, with angels singing inside me," recalls Yates, now a fixture at the Center. "I'd done funny, obnoxious comedy shows in college, but when I saw Space, I thought, 'Oh my God, this is it! This is exactly what I want to do!' I remembered how much I liked puppets as a kid, but I never dreamed of puppetry as a job as an adult until then."
Puppeteers all seem to have conversion experiences. They may have grown up watching Jim Henson's felt-laden ensemble from "Sesame Street," but never expected to get into puppets as adults. Instead, they were aspiring actors or playwrights, and puppetry caught them unawares.
More than 30 years earlier, Vincent Anthony experienced an epiphany similar to that of Yates – as a fledgling actor in New York City.
"I went to an audition of Pinocchio at Nicolo Marionettes in 1963," says Anthony, now the Center's executive director. "I held a puppet in my hand – it was Nicolo, the group's mascot puppet – and that was it." Despite his lack of puppetry experience, it was as though the puppet pulled a string deep within Anthony, and not the other way around. Thanks to the audition, Anthony toured the country "playing" Pinocchio for months.
For years Anthony learned the craft in New York, but he wanted to relocate to the South. Choosing Atlanta as a base, he founded the touring puppet company Vagabond Marionettes with Susan Larkin and Mitchell Edmonds in 1966. At the time, Atlanta had no history of puppetry, which was exactly the way Anthony wanted it. "I wanted a town that didn't have a lot of other puppetry to compare my stuff to," he says. "I wasn't confident in my ability to do it all, so I wanted a community that would match my ambitions, a place that could start at zero and move up."
After nearly a decade of performing puppet shows in Atlanta and around the South, Anthony expanded his vision. While helping to organize the 1980 World Puppetry Festival in Washington, D.C., Anthony began to work with Jim Henson and saw the possibilities of opening a permanent space with both national and international scope. A space that combined playhouse, museum and classroom, the Center for Puppetry Arts opened its permanent space in the former Spring Street Elementary School Sept. 23, 1978, with an official ribbon-cutting by Kermit the Frog and Henson, who helped underwrite the venture.
Since then, the Center has entertained generations of children, including a young Michael Haverty, whose grandmother, Lu Algood, was a board member. Haverty recalls building paper puppets in postshow workshops as a youngster, but says his most vivid early memory involves the international troupe Hugo and Ines. "They'd put clown noses on their feet or knee and do a whole piece lying on their backs, twisting around, and their body would become the puppet!" As a teenager, Haverty saw the show two or three times in a row.
But the Center was never meant to be a Pee-Wee Playhouse. The Center's adults-only "New Directions" puppetry – such as the Xperimental Puppetry Theatre program founded in 1980 and currently coordinated by Haverty – was part of Anthony's mandate from the beginning. Anthony says that despite having such family-friendly alter egos as Kermit and Rowlf, Henson also loved "puppetry on the edge," and created the Henson Foundation to support it.
But what would the edge be?
Some of the artists who shaped the Center's groundbreaking sensibility were right under Anthony's nose. Jon Ludwig joined the still-touring Vagabond Marionettes in 1978 by answering an ad that said, he recalls, "Puppeteer needed. Will train."
"When I got here, I could drive the van, and I tried to keep the puppets from getting all tangled," Ludwig says.
In the mid-1980s, he began to push the envelope at the Center. "I was shocked to find someone with his talent on our staff," Anthony recalls. Despite Anthony's years of exposure to adult puppetry, he was agog at some of Ludwig's innovations. "With Jon's shows, I've walked into my own theater and been taken completely by surprise," Anthony says. "Once, I went in and saw that Jon had put the audience onto the stage, and put the performance in the seats. Wow! Even I'm shocked!"
Perhaps the crowning achievement of the Center came with 1996's Frankenstein, which imagined Mary Shelley's tale as the ritualized induction of the latest member of the "Church of Frankenstein" by ominous figures in white lab coats. The show featured the massive monster singing along to "Love Potion Number 9," along with jokes worthy of Young Frankenstein, but kept the gothic horrors of the work intact. Newsweek magazine called the Center "one of the most exciting theater companies in the country" in its coverage of Frankenstein as part of Atlanta's Cultural Olympiad. (See online sidebar.)
Anthony is semiretired from doing puppetry, saying he finds the creativity of raising money more rewarding. At the moment, he's exercising those talents to the utmost: The Henson family has offered a gift of between 500 and 700 puppets, props and other artifacts for a proposed Jim Henson's Wing for the Center's new museum, tentatively scheduled to open in 2012. A stipulation requires that the Center raise the money to house and exhibit the collection, and one of the Center's options is to relocate to the Woodruff Arts Center.
While Atlanta may have had no history of puppetry before Anthony's arrival, the Center now inspires artists to create edgy alternatives to its philosophy of puppetry. Many other Atlanta theater companies have incorporated the genre into their programming over the past decade, and those within the Center's community, including Yates and Haverty, are branching out.
Since 2000, for example, Lucky Yates has hosted midnight "Puppet Slams" to provide artists a chance to display the art form in as fresh and spontaneous a venue as possible.
"Because of the Center, Atlanta is full of puppeteers chomping at the bit to do their work," Yates says. "Before, [Xperimental Puppetry Theatre] was the only place that new people could do new stuff, and the Center has a procedure for entering that: You have to make an application and go through this whole process. I decided to offer a way they could create art and throw it in front of the audience."
Yates has scheduled the next Puppet Slam for Sept. 29 at Dad's Garage and expects another unpolished outpouring of edgy puppetry. "I try to not give too much notice before slams, because I like things in a raw state," he says. "Two or three weeks out I'll say, 'Hey, there's a slam coming up.' With some of the puppets, you can tell the artists just slapped them together that day."
Yates acknowledges that the slams can be raucous affairs; beer flows freely backstage, while the sexy, gory content tends to be utterly uninhibited. "Chris Brown's puppets are usually so sopping with blood that they can't be used again," says Yates, referring to one of the Center's puppet builders.
By contrast, Haverty doesn't avoid sex or violence in his shows, but also gravitates to larger, literary themes with intimidating complexity. In 2005 he took Gilgamesh, the world's oldest surviving epic poem, and compressed it to a surreal, dizzying tale with puppets as tragic heroes.
With As I Lay Dying, Haverty moves onto a bigger stage.
"I wanted to do something large, and it's got large themes in it," Haverty says while taking a break from doing maintenance on his puppet cast on an August afternoon. He remembered reading the book in high school and being stricken by its poetic, violent language and its grotesque plot points. "Faulkner seemed [the right choice] partly because he would describe his characters as 'wooden' or being like objects. I read six or seven of Faulkner's novels to make sure that As I Lay Dying was the right one, and it was the simplest to do."
Faulkner's tale of madness, infidelity and family infighting includes floods, fires and more than a dozen stream-of-consciousness narrators – that hardly suggests "simple." How do you visually render the five-word chapter "My mother is a fish," which expresses 10-year-old Vardaman's confusion between his recently deceased mother and the fish he caught the same day? Haverty captures the moment with a surreal, woodcut-style image of Vardaman literally suckling a fish.
Adapting As I Lay Dying for puppets might be insanely ambitious, but judging from the opening-night performance, it's also strangely appropriate. Haverty calls the set and general design a cross between a cemetery and a carnival, and one character literally resembles the target of a shooting gallery. Haverty's carvings evoke Southern folk artists such as Howard Finster, just as the period-specific music features sacred harp and gospel songs – all acoustically rendered.
Haverty and his puppeteers (Wade Tilton, Matt Stanton, Amy Rush, Jeffrey Zwartjes and Kristin Jarvis) present a work with a thrilling abundance of creative ideas, not unlike Faulkner's own prose. Admittedly, it can be a little difficult to take in, but again, that's also like Faulkner. Overall, it's like the company returns As I Lay Dying to its roots in the untamed South of the 1930s, springing the book from its dusty confinement in a high school American-lit class.
One character even compares time to "a looping string." It's like it was made for puppets, and Faulkner didn't even know it.
In his soft-spoken, almost boyish way, Haverty sounds like an evangelist in the church of puppetry. It's fitting that in As I Lay Dying, in addition to the roles of brothers Jewel and Vardaman, Haverty also manipulates and provides the voice of Whitfield, an adulterous preacher built so his arms point in opposite directions and gently spin like a propeller. At one point during rehearsal, the Whitfield puppet paused in his preaching and said to the musicians, "I think right there, Damon, we could have a stop."
For an instant, it seemed like the Whitfield puppet, a mass of carved, painted blocks, was actually directing the show and giving his "notes" to Damon Young and the flesh-and-blood members of the company. With puppets, it's disconcertingly easy to think of them as being alive.
Maybe the puppets really are calling the shots, and puppeteers such as Haverty and his many colleagues in Atlanta are just the middlemen (and women). At any rate, mature puppet characters are standing up on their wooden feet, flexing their muscles – or at least their strings – and showing their limitless possibilities to offer new perspectives on affairs of us humans. Tired of waiting in the wings, Puppets are taking on grown-up audiences and are ready to entertain them – forevermore.
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