A Story of Artistic Obsession

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Part IV - Pre-Performance Drill

I paid my dues for an invitation to the International Puppetry Festival with two seasons of performing on the streets of several of our city’s more bohemian neighborhoods, places where I thought I might find an appreciative audience.

In the early evening on summer weekends I drove the eye-poppingly decorated, but poorly running, traveling theater through town to a previously vetted parking lot—a highly visible space with room.

First, I would piece together and erect the tent poles, roll out its roof and attach the sides. There was space enough inside the tent to next set up about twenty folding chairs. Thin plywood covers, matching the deep red curtains painted on Carpo’s front end were placed over the van’s windows. The plain proscenium cover was removed from the side, and the previously described baroque golden frame was attached.

Turning my attention to the van’s advertising (as opposed to performing) side, I climbed a stepladder, opened and secured the flying fish, Carpo’s namesake. The giant clamshell holding the pearls of wisdom and jewels of frivolity was screwed in place below the fish. An octopus’ tentacle was attached to the driver’s sliding door so it appeared to be opening the painted curtain for a peek at the magic inside.

If there was power nearby I'd run an extension cord, otherwise I'd hook up my marine battery and run the juice through an inverter.

Appreciation That Kept Me Going
A framework for the stage spotlights went up next, and then the spots themselves were mounted there, as well as on the opposite side to highlight the fish and clam. The boombox speakers were attached above the stage.
A double set of twinkling lights was strung around the tent.

Finally, two sandwich boards were set out to advertise the performance, and a tape of Klezmer carnival music was popped into the boombox and turned on.

If I'd timed it right, we were now just before dusk, about twenty minutes before the main performance would begin. Applying a pencil-thin mustache, donning a Panama hat and gold lame jacket, I became Artie, the barker and ticket taker who would circulate nearby with his megaphone, drumming up a (usually meager) audience for the (almost) free show.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Part III - Vision By the River

My sweetheart and I are staying in a little cabin by a willow-banked rio in the juniper red hills of north New Mexico.

I hear the music before I see the lights winking among the trees, "Come this way."

To a faded blue van, decorated like a circus; the carnival accordion louder as I approach.
A rectangle of bright light frames the play
Inside the velvet darkness of the night.

I see a mermaid and a frowning fish, something glittering gold.

It was all absurd, yet seemed to belong as much as the red dust, dry leaves and rustling rio. This scene, that existed only in my mind's eye and ear, made me smile, lifted my heart and inspired me.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Part II - Pinball to Carpo

The gifted van is gone now—to an ignominious end which didn't do it justice. But at the time I received it, it had been several years since the Vision By the River, and this gift seemed like the answer to a prayer.

Its original name was Pinball. I first used it to pinch-hit for an ailing pickup that hauled the cuttings and clippings from a gardening business. It was one of those vans where you sat up high on your perch with a thin metal screen behind you that, in my case, held back a tangle of foliage.

As soon as that old pickup was able to resume its duties, Pinball’s transformation to art vehicle began. First, I made a scale model representing how I wanted the finished piece to look. Next, using a fine-toothed, metal-cutting blade, I removed a big rectangle from one side. That’s where the 4' X 6' proscenium frame would go. Pinball was becoming Carpo.

The electrical work—connecting four outlets to an inverter that transferred energy from a couple of marine batteries—was donated. A nautical seamstress stitched together four pieces of dark, water-resistant cloth to make a big tent for the audience. A sculptor friend lined me up with a welder who fabricated the couplings for metal pipe to frame the tent.

It took about three months to get Carpo outfitted and I loved every minute of it; there was always an interesting problem to solve. For example, after imagining and sketching Groucho the Flying Fish, he had to be appraised against Carpo for size, and then sculpted. The billowing cloud upon which he was mounted was jig-cut from a long narrow board. Then it all had to be waterproofed (with what? where to buy it?), and attached to the top of the van in a manner that would allow the whole assembly to be raised and lowered quickly and easily, both before and after each show. At every step, I learned and practiced unfamiliar skills.

Groucho himself was a blast to make. I became very familiar with a small, circular sandpaper attachment to the Dremel hand tool that allowed me to fashion the fish's overlapping scales. Its body was sculpted from a friendly medium called Cellu-Clay. What amazes me most, in retrospect, is where all these wacky ideas were coming from. A flying fish with the face of Groucho Marx? Giant clam shells dripping pearls from a pirate's booty? Head of a goldfish swollen a thousand times its natural size? What beings we are to have creations such as these spring from our minds, eyes and hands!

Part I - "Christopher Columbus"

Ten years ago I was honored to perform at an international puppetry festival. These were puppets for adults. The one-man show was my liberal adaptation of a surreal political satire written in 1929 by Michel DeGhelderode, a Belgian.

I delivered my performance from inside an old, boxlike delivery van given to me by a dancer I knew—a tall, lithe, New Jersey guy who’d made good in advertising and needed a tax write-off. I’d met him when he and his wife were dance students performing in a street theater group I’d started…another story.

"Christopher Columbus," this show was called.

I played the title role as a fop in a mask. I was only seen from the chest up. Spot lit. The whole thing could hardly have been more obscure. For me, I guess, that was part of the attraction.

A baroque four-foot by six, gold-painted proscenium framed me with a sculpted mermaid, starfish and anemones posed on the submerged steps to an underwater theater.

Mussel-encrusted columns supported roiling waves on top, where two medieval sea monsters met, one smiling, and the other sad. It was all carved and molded from insulation foam and a cellulose-based clay.

Beside Columbus, the half dozen other characters in the play—a poet, priest, banker, king, etc., even Montezuma—were all hand puppets that I slipped on and off as they made their entrances and exits.

The puppets were changed at my lap’s level, outside the audience’s line of vision. In like manner, I pulled lines that brought the scenery in and out, cued up music, adjusted the lights, opened and closed the black satin curtain.

I spoke to whatever character was represented by my puppeted hand—sometimes two at once—and my hand spoke to me. It was a one-man show.