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Puppetry for a New Age

CalArts student hopes proposed center moves art form into the 21st century.


Susan Simpson carries a theater in her suitcase.

Between its frayed tan sides rest the players in her imagination's tragedies and comedies. These actors move through real time and space but can be as abstract as any cartoon.

The suitcase cast consists of puppets whose portable performances adapt to any age group or venue. But it's not easy to convince Americans weaned on "Sesame Street" that puppets are more than kid stuff.

Simpson, a graduate student in animation at the California Institute of the Arts, hopes to change that.

"When I tell people that I do puppetry, a lot of what I get is, 'Oh, I haven't seen puppetry since I was a kid,' " said the laconic Simpson, 27. "That's what it is in this country. We lag behind a lot of countries where it is more a part of the arts. People here just know the Muppets."

While the art of puppetry is centuries old, Simpson believes artists of her generation may be able to carry it into the next century and create an alternative to the ubiquitous culture of music videos and Web pages.

"There's just something so perfect about puppets, something about living in a time when you're surrounded by images," she said, her northern Vermont reserve thawing. "You're taking the everyday, realistic language of movement and tweaking it in some way."

Simpson is trying to pull some strings at CalArts, too, where she's pushing for a puppetry program. She envisions a multidisciplinary pursuit, drawing on the tenets of animation, theater, visual art and music.

The proposed Center for Puppetry and the Arts could be on its feet by 2000, with at least two full-time faculty members and several specific courses. In the U.S., only a few small puppetry centers offer such concentrated instruction, and nothing close exists at a four-year college.

This bid can hardly be dismissed as another student stunt at the college long known for its experimental bent. CalArts President Steven Lavine and Susan Solt, dean of the theater school, have signed on enthusiastically. Cheryl Henson, who runs a New York foundation in the memory of her husband Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, has written a letter of support and offered a small donation.

Artists backing the plan include Lee Breuer, who directed a puppet version of "Peter Pan" that ended its critically hailed run at the Geffen Playhouse in December, and Janie Geiser, a New York-based director and designer who incorporates puppetry into plays and films.

Breuer visited the campus recently for a workshop, showing about a dozen students some of the secrets behind "Peter and Wendy." His retelling of Sir James M. Barrie's timeless Victorian tale uses a Japanese form of puppetry called Bunraku, in which the puppeteers appear on stage but their subdued costumes and artistry at working the puppets allow them to fade into the background.

Geiser, meanwhile, is scheduled to spend more than a week at CalArts in March. That stay will include at least one public performance.

If the attention greeting the Broadway staging of "The Lion King" is any indication, the CalArts campus and American culture in general appear ripe for change. The Disney-derived musical has earned raves for director Julie Taymor's elaborate puppet designs created for many of the characters.

Attached to and guided by the actors, multicolored constructions made from materials such as foam rubber, clay, rope and fiberglass form what Taymor has called "a cubistic event, because the audience experiences the art from several perspec tives."

Lavine adores "The Lion King," and has long championed the cause of puppetry.

"American theater is in a rut," he declared. "I don't want to see another family drama. What we're trying to do here is renew the energies of the theater. How can we make it new again?"

One way, he suggests, is to make it more accessible. In an ironic way, puppetry has fewer limitations than many contemporary stage plays. Conventions fall away when the players no longer have human form. That is the essence of make-believe--something that appeals to young and old.

"People are blurring the line between children's and adult theater, which I think is wonderful," Lavine said.

Lavine's office contains evidence of both worlds. In one corner, next to an executive-looking coffee table full of literary magazines, sits a 10-foot-tall male puppet fashioned from cardboard, limbs crossed politely.

The towering figure was designed by Simpson, who spent last summer building large-scale puppets to help unionized strawberry workers catch the attention of passing motorists during a demonstration.

It isn't the first time she has completed a project that ended up in Lavine's office. For a roast-like tribute when he received an award in 1996, CalArts officials commissioned Simpson to create a Lavine puppet that now decorates his home.

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