On screen, puppeteers should be an afterthought. Their job is to make the audience forget that they exist – that those felted creatures on screen are living unstrung.
When you’re a child, that illusion is seamless – almost irrelevant, even. The characters on Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock are so engaging and lifelike the very idea that they are being manipulated by some Oz-like entity is simply inconceivable.
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But puppeteers are very real, and in looking back at those TV staples their talent is even more impressive: to inhabit a character’s voice, personality and mannerisms while combining all this with the dexterity to control how the puppet physically moves is a casting call that demands a selective bunch.
Which is why Brian Henson’s Stuffed and Unstrung sounds so appealing. As performer Allan Trautman will attest, the show that completed a 16-week run off-Broadway and is now playing at Irvine’s Barclay Theater until January 2 isn’t easy to summarize.
“It was always a difficult marketing job to explain what the show is like because it really combines a number of things,” said Trautman, a veteran puppeteer and professor at College of the Canyons.
Simply put, this is an improvisation show, where six comedians field audience suggestions that produce scenes featuring the puppets.
“It’s the kind of stuff we as puppeteers would normally do usually when the director yells ‘cut’ and the puppets are still in front of the camera working, having fun,” said Trautman. “It’s usually the funniest stuff we ever do – when the camera’s not rolling.”
The scenes are cast on a large projection screen – with the puppeteers out of the shot – creating the same type of product an audience would view on television or film.
But the real work is being done in the audience’s plain view – a second show, if you will – where the puppeteers scramble about the stage to substitute the various animals and woodland creatures for the next story.
With 80 puppets to choose from, there’s plenty of creative freedom, Trautman said.
“Most of the puppets are unfamiliar. Many of the puppets were built for other projects and some of them are very old now – projects that have been around for a while, so they’re not really fresh in people’s minds,” he said. “These aren’t Muppets, for example.”
In its unique format, Stuffed and Unstrung extends this freedom not only to the puppeteers, but also the creatures themselves and the audience.
Like any improv performance, there is no script. The audience throws out a story idea, which the performers elaborate.
“What’s challenging is doing it as an improv. We’re all experienced puppeteers,” said Trautman. “Having an audience there doesn’t make it more difficult – it just makes it more fun.”
The show is recommended for individuals ages 16 and older. Stuffed and Unstrung is playing at the Barclay Theater in Irvine until January 2. To buy tickets, click here.