Day 22: Self-taught savior is bringing puppetry back, one shadow at a time
Theater 29, a welcoming new home to many of the Denver theatre community’s outcasts, beatniks and proudly creative weirdos, seats only about 20 people. But if you were one of the adventurous ones who took in a freaky little play called Laveau this year, then you were witness to one of the most impressive performances of 2019 not taking place on an actual stage.
Half the fun of watching that ghostly story of a famous Bayou voodoo queen was witnessing Katy Williams kneeling at a table about 4 feet in front of the stage in plain sight of the audience as she created the entire set in real time using live-action shadow puppetry and projections. Strewn about her were dozens of tiny cut-out set pieces in miniature that she had made, such as grasslands, trees and crickets. Williams projected them to sizes larger than life using no more than a tiny flashlight – often stuck in her mouth because her hands were busy maneuvering a man-eating snake or conjuring a full-fledged prison made from everyday thrift-store items such as jars, glass plates and a bamboo pattern.
It was a total trip to watch these actors tell their story right in front of us as we sat alongside this whirling dervish creating entire worlds before our eyes. It reminded you of when you were a kid playing with flashlights in your bedroom. So cool, so simple and yet … clearly involves so much skill.
Considerably more people got to see Williams’ work when she joined forces with Phamaly Theatre Company Artistic Director and 2017 Colorado Theatre Person of the Year Regan Linton for her summer splash of a musical, Chicago. Linton wanted to emphasize the 1920s courtroom drama’s vaudevillian spectacle, so she asked Williams to create puppets for two numbers, including the climactic courtroom song “We Both Reached for the Gun.” To help actor Megan McGuire defend tart showgirl Roxy Hart’s life on a very deserved murder charge, Williams created four full-bodied puppets to back her up as she sang – essentially creating a chorus of Roxys. Each had a unique face representing a different exaggerated Roxy emotion: Anger, sassiness, frustration and sadness.
Normally, puppets of this sort would be strapped around the neck of the puppeteer and hang in front of them like an apron so the operators can simply slip their arms through the puppets’ sleeves to maneuver them. Only in the case of Phamaly, every actor has some sort of disability – that’s the company’s reason for being. McGuire’s left arm happens to be half as long as her right. Which meant the Roxy puppets’ arms should be, too. To accommodate this distinction, Williams had to (she would say “got to”) design and build an entirely new form of puppet – the ultimate show of artistic respect.
Williams’ remarkable work in Chicago, which included problem-solving how a novice, blind puppeteer could know how to tell if her puppet was on straight and moving in the right direction, was a mind-blowing reminder of the many simple storytelling techniques that are at every storyteller’s disposal, if their imaginations are open to it.
“People have no idea there are actually more than 30 styles of puppetry, including seven different kinds of shadow puppetry alone,” said Williams, “My goal is to raise awareness that this is a cool art form that is not just for kids. I want to show the theatre community what puppetry can do and to break down any stereotypes people may have.”
She also said puppetry is not only a way to breathe new life into theatrical storytelling, it is a good way for companies to solve problems both creative and budgetary.
“You might not have the money to, say, fly an actor across the stage, but anyone can fly a puppet,” Williams said. “With puppetry, you can reach people in all kinds of new and magical ways.”
And more companies are starting to take notice. Williams has been retained by Director Betty Hart to incorporate puppetry into her production of The Scottsboro Boys opening February 7 at the Vintage Theatre.
Williams, a native of Manitou Springs, was introduced to puppetry through a production of Avenue Q at her high school. She fell deeper in love with puppetry at the University of Denver but, given that there is only one college in the country that offers puppetry as a degree, she graduated in 2014 with a double major in theatre and … neuroscience. (“Marionette” on that, why don’t you?) Yet for her year-long thesis project, Williams designed, built and brought to life a giant, winged equine creature that required two operators for an original student production called The Myth of Pegasus.
And ever since, this puppet powerhouse has simply not been able to keep her hands to herself.
- Rocky Mountain Puppet Slam: Williams’ ongoing series is a kind of open-mic night for puppeteers that she hosted three times in 2019. The next event is scheduled for February 28 at the Ellie Caulkins Chambers Grant Salon.
- Puppet Palooza: In August, Williams hosted the first-ever outdoor children’s festival centered around arts and education through puppetry. This full day of free activities, including a mainstage lineup, workshops, vendors and booths, drew about 350 to the Stanley Marketplace in Aurora.
- Miscast: In September, Williams was chosen to perform in The Denver Actors Fund’s annual fundraiser that encourages local actors to perform numbers from shows they would not typically be considered right for. Williams flipped the gender of every character in the campy musical Little Shop of Horrors – including that of the man-eating plant, Audrey II. Williams describes her brightly colored, wacky weed as “super feminist, but also dangerous and scary.” Williams operated the puppet while she and actor Adriane Leigh Robinson (as the story’s nerdy botanist) sang “Feed Me Seymour” along with a full band and backup chorus. Williams designed her wholly unique version of Audrey II to be operated by an external puppeteer in plain sight of the audience. She’s fully in league with Julie Taymor (The Lion King) and Toby Sedgwick (War Horse), who believe puppetry is even more magical when the audience can see just how that magic is being made. Williams put 60 hours into building her plant – all for the benefit of a 3-minute song for charity.
- Public Works Theatre’s Luster of Lost Things: Williams created puppets (such as sugar-dusted pastries) and detailed shadow puppetry (such as a room of broken clocks) for Sondra Blanchard’s adaptation of the Sophie Chen Keller novel.
- As if that all weren’t enough, Williams has this year formed the Rocky Mountain Puppetry Guild as a way of bringing together not only puppet designers but theatrical costume designers, clowns and artists who work with masks. She is starting with a core group of about 50. Info: Email firstname.lastname@example.org
About The True West Awards: ’30 Days, 30 Bouquets’
The True West Awards, now in their 19th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2019 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre magazine in 2011. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org