“The Paper Hat Game,” running through Nov. 3 at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, tells the story of a Chicago artist who starts making and handing out paper hats on the subway – and how the city responds to his random act of whimsy.
Based on real events, the show combines elements of puppetry, video projection and toy theater – a form of miniature drama that dates back to the early 19th century. Intimately scaled and intricately detailed, the show uses five puppeteers behind a performance space about the size of a big-screen TV.
Director and creator Torry Bend, on the faculty of Duke University’s Department of Theater Studies, developed the toy theater project over several years and collaborated with visual designer Raquel Salvatella de Prada. The show premiered to rave reviews in a workshop performance at Duke last fall.
In the new production, the story has been enhanced and extended, with more scenes and a new cast of puppeteers. As part of the show, the audience will be invited to view set pieces in the lobby and to tour the backstage area where the puppeteers work.
Taking a break from preparations at the Manbites Dog performance space, Bend spoke about toy theater, urban anxiety and performing objects.
Q: What is the story behind the story of “The Paper Hat Game”?
A dear friend of mine from college, Scotty Iseri, was living in Chicago, and he had developed this game he started playing on the subway, or the “L.” He would make paper hats and start handing them around, seeing if he could get people to wear them.
It kind of hit a nerve. He got a little publicity and buzz. There were all of these posts on Craigslist saying, “Thank you, Paper Hat Guy, you made my day!” All of his artist friends were like, “You’re changing the environment of the train. You’re getting people from being in their little bubbles to opening up and talking to each other.”
But then he was mugged. And it really was awful for him. He went from falling in love with the city to really feeling ostracized and victimized. He locked himself in his apartment. The show tells about all that, and what happens after.
Q: What is toy theater, exactly?
Toy theater started in the Victorian age and became big as the printing presses really started to get hot. They would print books or kits, and you could re-enact your favorite stories with paper cutouts, basically. Now the contemporary definitions of toy theater are really loose, but usually suggest a small performance space, having a proscenium, and – obviously not everything is flat – but “flatness” is a term used to describe it as well.
The original idea was, you cut out these paper pieces and act out “Romeo and Juliet” for your parents in the living room. So it’s necessarily small. This is the largest toy theater show I’ve ever done, and I still only have an audience of 52.
Q: The presentation is so visual and so finely detailed. What does the script for something like this look like?
I think visually, and these ideas (pulling out a giant folder of storyboard sketches), they’re not based in text. The storyboards become how I problem-solve the piece. They start super rough, then I clarify them for people so they can hopefully understand what’s going on. It’s just how I think.
Q: What are the video elements, and how do they come into play?
Well, there is both front and rear projection. The video came from the realization that there were things I wanted to do that I knew I couldn’t do in puppetry. That became really evident really quickly. I also wanted real people – real faces – in the show. Because the humanity of response that one gets when paper hatting is so lovely.
Q: How did you get interested in puppetry and toy theater?
I studied theater arts and set design. I love working with and thinking about space, and how to create something for actors to interact with. But it turns out I have a lot of opinions on directing (laughs). I’m not an actor, though. I’m much more familiar with the language of objects. Puppetry became a place for me to take my directorial ideas and use my interest in objects, on how they can be used to communicate.
Q: That’s interesting. Puppetry really is the one place where performing and objects come together.
Right, and actually that term – performing objects – is a label in experimental puppetry that has become quite popular. In part because, if you look at some of this stuff backstage, it’s literally foam core with newspaper on it. I call it a puppet; anyone else would say – that’s just a piece of foam core. But the way I use it, it becomes something of meaning in the show.