News Column

Bringing puppets to the people

October 19, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 19--Since she was a teenager, Laura Wilhelm has been fascinated by the ability of puppets to tell stories.

More than 15 years ago, Wilhelm landed her first real job working for Lakeville's Puppet Wagon, a traveling puppet show that visits the city's parks each summer. Each week, she helped write a new puppet show and brought it to kids in the community.

Now that she and her husband have their own theater company, Mad Munchkin Productions, she's again taking her puppets to the people, bringing two Halloween-themed shows to six different garages in the metro area.

"Our goal was to bring puppetry into communities," Wilhelm said. Families can walk to shows and "hopefully spend some time together before we go inside for the next five months."

The tour, called "The Spooky Spectacular and Harvest Hullabaloo," features two newly written shows performed one after the other, with refreshments and time to meet the cast in the middle.

"Our intent wasn't to create a super-spooky experience," she said. "They're just really fun."

"The Great Candy Caper," a story about monsters whose variety show is threatened when someone starts stealing Halloween candy, is for younger kids. "Late Night with Pumpkin Headerman" is done in a talk-show format and features various ghoulish guests. It's aimed at ages 13 and older, but is still appropriate for all ages, Wilhelm said.

Both shows include a cast of six humans and seven intricately made puppets, including Z Munch, a purple-headed zombie with eyes popping out of its sockets, and Windy Britches, a flatulent ghost pirate.

Highlights include a rap about ancient Egypt performed by Cleo, a mummy that looks like Cleopatra, and an infomercial in which Slimy Sea Serpent, a blue monster with a lisp, tries to sell the audience an outlandish appliance. A composer wrote original music for the shows, including shadow puppet sequences in each.

Simple set, elaborate actors

Because the show travels, it must adapt to different garages. Therefore, the set is simple, with most of it sitting on tabletops, said Alan Pagel, Wilhelm's husband and Mad Munchkin's technical director.

But the puppets, made of papier m che, foam and cloth, are detailed, Pagel said. Wilhelm made a few, and several cast members also created characters.

"Laura spent a lot of time sewing all the little costumes for the puppets," Pagel said. "So that part is very elaborate."

Wilhelm's love of puppets was cemented during a college trip to Europe, when she discovered the wide range of puppetry styles that exist there, she said. In the United States, people think of puppets as mostly for kids, but in Europe, they're "much more a part of everyday life," she said.

Now, exposing more peo- ple to puppetry -- arguably the world's oldest form of storytelling -- is "a little bit of a soapbox of mine," she said.

"Puppetry has absolutely no limits," she said. "You can design it to specifically have the effect on the audience that you're looking for."

But some people are intimidated by art, and going to see theater can be expensive. That's why these shows are free and meant to be easily accessible, Pagel said.

This is the first time Mad Munchkin Productions has performed in garages, Pagel said. The show is funded by a $5,000 Metropolitan Regional Arts Council grant, which stipulates that recipients make art accessible to the community.

The company of nine collaborated to create the two shows, Wilhelm said. They worked backward, inventing the cast of "crazy Halloween characters" first and later developing the relationships between the puppets and the scripts, Wilhelm said.

Coming to a garage near you

There are four more "Spooky Spectacular" shows left on the garage tour, plus two "Candy Caper" performances at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre next weekend. All of the garage shows are at the homes of volunteers who are not only hosting but promoting them in their neighborhoods, Wilhelm said.

Wilhelm hopes to see 150 people at each outdoor performance. If they're successful, "maybe we'll have an annual Halloween tour," she said.

One host, Joanne Mosier of Lakeville, lives next door to Wilhelm's parents and has known Laura since she was a teenager. "She's just a hoot," Mosier said. "Laura's always been so creative, so fun and so outside-the-box."

Mosier's youngest daughter, Sarah, loved to watch Wilhelm's Puppet Wagon performances, and the family has attended many Mad Munchkin shows. When Laura asked if she might use her garage for this project, "My husband and I didn't even think twice -- we just said, 'Of course,'?" Mosier said.

Mosier hopes the performance will help build community. "This will be kind of a cool way to bring the neighborhood back together again and do something different," she said.

Erin Adler -- 952-746-3283

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(c)2013 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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