“Puppets are not cute, like muppets. Puppets are effigies and gods and meaningful creatures.” -Peter Schumann, founder and director of Bread and Puppet Theatre
They can be cute, too, though. In fact, they have to be. Otherwise, they'd carry less appeal, the kind that's drawn spellbound audiences since the world's ancient religious and political leaders first used dolls in raw displays of godly power. If humans are actors, then puppets are understudies, wood-and-cloth embodiments of their creators' darkest perceptions and fondest dreams.
San Diego's Icarus Puppet Company hasn't been around quite as long as the ancients. Founded only in 1990, the nonprofit firm enjoys an enlightened approach to storytelling and technological refinements in the creation of its wares. But its hundreds of performances before young audiences throughout the Southwest speak to a trait as universal as it is timeless-the power of the parable in human understanding. Far from a visual depiction of three dimensions, the puppet is as abstract as thought itself.
“One of the things that makes puppetry so dynamic and interesting,” explained Icarus' co-founder Rosemary Tyrrell, “is the concept of extended persona, that the puppet becomes a metaphor for ideas. Rather than the representation of reality, it's a metaphor for symbols and concepts.”
And in an era when electronic communication has blurred the boundaries of human enterprise, puppetry retains an honored place as a bastion of individual expression. “Like any artwork,” Tyrrell said, “it's a reflection of the artist that created it as much as it is a reflection of the world around it. It has a kind of visceral appeal that people don't always even realize they're responding to.”
But at its core, art has two distinct faces-the applied and the fine. Public perception may commit puppetry to the former category, with its preponderance of blueprints, strings and moving parts. For her part, however, Tyrrell defends Icarus' place as a performance entity. She asserts that the company engages in serious theater, as legitimate as its human-intensive counterpart, replete with music, poetry and masks.
“Most puppeteers,” she explained, “come to puppetry through visual orientation; they are puppetmakers first, then they learn how to do shows, and they go from there. We come from the entirely opposite end of the tradition, because we come from a theater background. For us, the puppets are a method that we used to tell the story-but the play's the thing.” Tyrrell, 45, and Icarus co-founder Mark Robertson, 46, have theater degrees from the University of Kansas.
“Our puppetry is theater in the same way that all theater is theater,” Tyrrell said. “We always try to create productions that have strong messages, that are based on good, solid stories and literature. They have at their core all the essential elements that you would expect in any theatrical production-action, conflict, message.”
Enter Orphio, the central character in Icarus' original production of Many Voices. Based on the legend of Orpheus and his adventures among mortals, Orphio must reconcile the death of his beloved wife-his sadness will not allow him to sing, and without his song, his village is in danger. The company's The Crane Daughter, told with masks and Japanese-inspired puppetry, is a tale of an old woman's kindness, a young woman's gratitude and the promise they share and keep.
Icarus will stage Many Voices at San Diego's Kensington Community Church Wednesday, Oct. 16, through Sunday, Oct. 20.
Those are lofty storylines indeed, Tyrrell acknowledged, especially for Icarus' mostly kindergarten through sixth-grade patrons. “We've even done our shows down to preschool audiences,” she said, “and they're always engaged in the performance. But I'm never completely convinced that they have the same understanding that an older child might carry away.”
A local children's performer and former teacher, however, suggests that that assessment may understate youthful acumen. Martha Ehringer cites Icarus' several performances at Balboa Park's Mingei International Museum, for which she's the public relations officer-the company's widespread reputation with even the youngest clients, she said, is richly deserved.
“Children are incredibly sophisticated,” Ehringer said. “Three-year-old children know more than you ever thought they could. They're wonderfully curious, and they just accept. I think that they feel the same wonder and joy that I do. Icarus is just brilliant, because they have it all worked out, and they know whom to invite.”
The company, however, is experiencing a downturn amid circumstances beyond its control. In 1998, Icarus staged 290 shows and puppetmaking workshops for several area school districts; between June of 2001 and July of this year, that number had dropped to 55.
“There are many factors,” Tyrrell explained, “that influence a school's ability to be able to bring in an assembly-type program like what we offer. It's a challenge for them. The state is stretched-and of course, whenever things get tight, they always come after the arts first. Arts and culture always get hit the hardest.”
But presumably, the hard times will pass. Rumors of the death of live performance in America are greatly exaggerated-San Diego, New York and any number of larger cities realize more ticket revenue from theater enterprises than from their major sports combined. “People have been claiming that the theater has been dying for 50 years,” Tyrrell contended, “and it's just as vital as it ever was. The same is true in our art form. There are some wonderful things happening in puppetry out there.”
Schumann himself might happily attest as well. One of his company's puppetry festivals was discontinued a few years ago-not for lack of attendance but due to greater interest than he could accommodate.