Jennifer Curtis is a classically trained violinist who studied at The Juilliard School and tours internationally.
But this summer, hair pulled back, perspiration dotting her forehead, Curtis has given up a gig at the Mostly Mozart Festival in Lincoln Center to sweat out a month-long run in UNC’s Forest Theater.
The 36-year-old Chapel Hill resident composed the music and and plays four instruments and a music box in Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s 16th summer spectacle, “A Drop in the Bucket: The Big Dreams of Tiny Things,” now playing through Sept. 7.
And if you’ve never seen a giant fork and spool of thread dance across the stage, you don’t want to miss it.
Curtis took her grandparents to her first Paperhand show six or seven years ago. Her grandmother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and marveled at the giant puppets in the stone amphitheater, tucked in the woods on the university campus.
“We were all mesmerized,” Curtis said. “It was really magical. She just loved it.”
After turning down Paperhand co-founder Donovan Zimmerman twice, Curtis agreed to compose the music and perform in the live band for this year’s show.
“A Drop” invites the audience into life’s hidden spaces and forgotten places.
“From a bent needle and a chipped coffee mug, to the memories of children both personal and universal, this year’s show takes different views on our humanity and stories of the small,” says a release.
But forget cartoon candlesticks. Paperhand isn’t Disney.
That’s not what the Saxapahaw-based troupe is after.
The 20 black-clad puppeteers gather on the grass behind the stage. They stretch, then form a circle holding hands, giving appreciation for one another.
“It’s like a family,” says stage manager Lawruh Lindsey, in her seventh year. “Not just the performers, but the people who see the show year after year.”
Zimmerman and Jan Burger created Paperhand Puppet Intervention in 1999, inspired by their love for the earth and its creatures. A Paperhand performance transports you into another realm. On a warm summer night, surrounded by trees under the stars, you forget you’re looking at cardboard and paper mache.
The environmental messages, playful enough for children, provocative enough for adults, are why Curtis is there this summer.
“Anything that seems to breathe through the life of the community really appeals to me,” she said. “We are people who aren’t just trying to entertain. We’re more like educators, people trying to bring back mythology and nourishment through art.”
For “A Drop,” Curtis drew on “a bunch of songs (she’d written over the years) that needed a place to go.” She listened to the music of Schubert , the Pixar movie “Up” and Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla.
That, and the occasional stage direction from Zimmerman, shouting out “Put a cymbal crash here!”
Co-founder Burger calls “A Drop’s” musicians “sound-making wizards.”
“Whatever emotion we ask them to evoke, they just nod and say, ‘how about this?’ Donovan and I keep being blown away by what they are able to create plucking strings and rumbling drums,” he says.
Being part of Paperhand, helping to spread its message, is to believe in something bigger than yourself, members say.
If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you.
Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”
“I guess it’s kind of a Joseph Campbell belief we sort of lack in today’s culture, once people are in the grind of their lives,” Curtis says.
Campbell believed all the world’s mythologies were related and that mythology could help us understand, even transcend, our existence.
“It’s a beautiful way to communicate values, beliefs,” Curtis says, “to tell stories.”
If you go
“A Drop in the Bucket: The Big Dreams of Tiny Things” runs through Sept. 7 at the Forest Theatre in Chapel Hill with performances every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Labor Day at 7 p.m. Matinee shows will be held August 23, 30, and September 6 at 3 p.m. Tickets are general admission at the door for a suggested donation of $15 for adults and $10 for children; 2 and under get in free.
Additional performances can be seen at the North Carolina Museum of Art Sept. 11-13. Tickets for these performances can be purchased online at www.ncartmuseum.org.