SAXAPAHAW For its 15th summer outing, Paperhand Puppet Intervention is reaching deep in time – and its cofounder’s head.
“The Painted Bird” is a creation myth, moving from darkness to the dawn of colors until a numbing grayness begins sweeping across the land and the creatures of the fields and forests must work together to defeat it. The bird (played by six puppeteers) carried the world’s colors on its wings, symbolizing hope.
“It just came out of my head mostly,” Donovan Zimmerman says.
“It’s just the story, the time before humans have done what they’ve done,” he explains, “and (it) delves into that place of well, what have we done?”
Days before opening night in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Forest Theatre, the Paperhand studio along the Haw River in downtown Saxapahaw is a beehive.
Jan Burger, who started the company with Zimmerman in 1999, is trying on a giant rat’s head. Inspired by the prophet Nicodemus in 1982’s “The Secret of NIMH,” the rat narrates the show. Its whiskered head is built on a hidden bicycle helmet, with sheer fabric below the rat’s snout that lets Burger see through the neck.
Across the big, open room, costumer Katie Moorehead sits on the floor gluing handfuls of dyed string from Durham’s Scrap Exchange into gray, brown and black mouse fur. Red Behnke, an intern working on her first Paperhand show, rolls small foam pieces in brown paint to fashion giant hedgehog quills.
Children, especially, relate to the giant puppets, but the art form appeals to all ages.
“You project your own humanity into a puppet,” Zimmerman says. “And because you separate it in your mind as a non-living organism – it’s cardboard and papier mache and cloth – because of that, (you’re) able to just sort of let go a little bit and not over identify, the way (you) would with an actor, perhaps.
“And once (the audience) is sort of opened up in that way, it can allow them to feel the messages we’re putting out there, the things we’re tryng to get them to feel through the music and the art of the puppetry,” he continues. “It can allow them to feel that a little deeper.”
“The Painted Bird” evokes the dark children’s classic “The Neverending Story,” in which an ominous force called the “Nothing” advances on the land. The need to protect nature from mankind’s propensity to destroy it is a theme Paperhand returns to again and again.
And, like many of their shows, “Bird” is ultimately a call to activism, an invitation to connect with one another and with the environment.
“That sense of renewed hope is really important to us,” Burger says. “We have a responsibility not to leave our audience in the pits of gray.”
Last year over 14,000 people came to see Paperhand’s summer show. This year about 150 people raised about $11,000 on Kickstarter to help pay for the new production.
“It’s truly bizarre, and wonderful, to look back and think about where we started 15 years ago and where we are today,” Burger says. “Each year we keep growing and trying new things.”
And when he’s sweating inside a giant rat’s head under the sun, well, Burger says he thinks of the late folksinger-activist Pete Seeger.
‘I read a quote where he said it’s the storyteller’s job to find the hopeful, positive stories,” he said, “and tell them over and over again.”