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Puppetry | Weekend Chat

Being Phillip Huber: Inside a Master Puppeteer's Head


In the Oscar-nominated film "Being John Malkovich," John Cusack stars as a gifted, unemployed puppeteer. When you see his character's delicate marionettes doing the acrobatic "Dance of Despair," the tender love scene, and the reenactment of the tragic Heloise and Abelard tale, however, you're actually watching the artistry of master puppeteer Phillip Huber.

An international performer based in Pasadena, Huber, whose professional career blossomed when he began performing 37 years ago as a shy teenager, will present his own solo show for adults, "Suspended Animation," starring his handcrafted Huber Marionettes, beginning Saturday at the Santa Monica Puppet and Magic Theatre.

Question: People watch puppets like yours, and like those in the film, and they're very real, very alive. Are they alive for you too?

Answer: Yes, when I'm working them, they are.

I have this question quite often, and I always say, "I don't talk to them in the dressing room." [He laughs.] I don't lose my sense of reality here. They are basically a tool of my trade, and I respect them as a very highly calibrated instrument. But when they're on stage, they have a life. I will be in the middle of a performance, and the marionette will do something that I've never done before with it, just because for the moment it felt right. It's the best moment for an artist when that happens, you know. And when you can feel the response from the audience too, it's really icing on the cake.

Q: Children suspend disbelief easily, but you perform for adults--what draws them into your world of marionettes?

A: There has to be a definite sophistication and an artistry that they're seeing. People have to be so impressed and so pulled into the moment that they forget all their inhibitions of "Oh, I'm watching something that I think is really for kids." This is the adult's block. Because puppets were used so long to entertain children on television, [that] became the definition of puppetry. That has been an extremely difficult thing to overcome in my career. But it was my choice early on to go to the artistry and the sophistication.

Q: What do you try to achieve when you design and create puppet characters?

A: I always try to achieve a personality. I want to see this character as a particular person. Not to say that they copy a human, but that each one has a personality that is recognizable, so people can relate to it. That's what brings the heart across the footlights.

Q: Puppetry is an ancient art that, like storytelling, has survived cultural changes and technological advances. Why, do you think?

A: Because it touches the heart in a way that only something directly connected with the human performer can do. I don't think that live theater will [ever] be in danger, because we need that connection. It's a communication. And puppetry is that.

It was fun for me with the film because I've had friends comment in different ways [that] "I never thought of what you do as cutting-edge . . . yet, it was in this film."

And there were animators at Disney discussing the film and they decided that there was no real marionette work, that it was all done with computer animation. I thought it was funny that what is decidedly low tech, people thought the only reason it could succeed [was] because it must be high tech. People don't give credit to things that are really simple sometimes.

Q: What is the future of puppetry in 2000 and beyond?

A: Wow, that is a good question. I wish I knew. I think I go on in my little innocent world just producing the very best work I can and hope that I can still manage to earn a living doing it, because I love it and I can't imagine doing anything else. It is my passion. I feel grateful every day to be able to do something I love so much.


"Suspended Animation," Santa Monica Puppet and Magic Center, 1255 2nd St., Santa Monica. Saturdays, 1 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 and 4 p.m. Ends April 2. $15. (For adults, but appropriate for ages 8 and up.) (310) 656-0483.

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