News Column

Portland Press Herald, Maine, Off Beat column

July 25, 2013

YellowBrix

July 25--These puppets may be worked by hand, but they are quick on their feet.

They are the puppets of the Improvised Puppet Project theater troupe, and their nimbleness was on view last month when they performed "A Post-Apocalyptic Improvised Zombie Puppet Musical" at the PortFringe theater festival.

Now they're poised to show how quickly they can turn the lyrics of '80s pop tunes -- anything from Devo's "Whip It" to Poison's "Talk Dirty to Me" -- into 45-minute plays.

They'll do that on Sunday during their weekly show at Acorn Productions Studio in Westbrook. This week's all-ages theme, melding the recent heatwave with music from the Reagan era, is "80s in the '80s."

For those of you have never seen improvised puppet theater, here's a quick explanation from the owner of two of the hands behind the puppets: Puppeteer and actor Tara McDonough.

"We'll play a well-known '80s song on ukulele and mandolin -- maybe 'Whip It' -- and then we'll have the audience make suggestions based on the lyrics," said McDonough, one of three regular members of the troupe. "Then we'll do some short pieces based on those suggestions. After the intermission, we'll do a 45-minute piece."

A 45-minute piece based on a suggestion based on a song lyric, with puppets?

McDonough said she and the other performers will play characters too, so she will play a "human" character and her puppets might be her mother, her boss or her friend.

"It's sort of a 'Sesame Street' world, where the people and puppets interact," she said.

For Sunday's show, the company will have some extra performers -- a total of maybe six or seven, McDonough said. Not counting puppets.

McDonough spent time doing improv theater in San Francisco. When she moved back to Maine and wanted to do theater again, she and her collaborators looked for a way to stand out among theater groups.

Puppets were the answer.

As for making a 45-minute piece with puppets out of a suggestion, McDonough said romantic comedies work nicely.

Once, when doing their puppet improv, the group members got two suggestions: Do something with bicycles and do something with jousting. They did a 45-minute puppet romantic comedy with a focus on bicycle jousting.

"We all know what happens in a romantic comedy. Two people meet, things get in the way, there's a misunderstanding, and it gets resolved," said McDonough.

It's a fairly easy concept for improv actors to work with, she said.

Even if they've got their hands full with puppets.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

rrouthier@pressherald.com

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