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Independent Eye’s ‘King Lear’ Kicks Off Puppetry Festival

Two actors, 20 puppets, and Shakespeare’s text will dazzle you

Companion Viewing

"King Lear" (1971, directed by Peter Brook and starring Paul Scofield)

"King Lear" (1974, starring James Earl Jones)

"Ran" (1985, directed by Akira Kurosawa)

On Friday night 10th Avenue Theater and the San Diego Guild of Puppetry kick off a month of puppetry performances with the Independent Eye’s "King Lear." Two actors use 20 puppets to bring Shakespeare to vivid life.

Photo caption: Conrad Bishop uses glass bought at a hobby shop that he paints for the eyes o...

Photo credit: Beth Accomando

Conrad Bishop uses glass bought at a hobby shop that he paints for the eyes of his puppets.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul then these puppets reveal an unexpected depth of emotion that captures your imagination thanks to the creative duo behind the Independent Eye.

Conrad Bishop plays King Lear, and his creative partner of the past 54 years, Elizabeth Fuller, plays the Fool with a red nose and Three Stooges wig.

"And all the other characters are puppets," Bishop said. "It’s sort of the same problem a ventriloquist has [with an audience] being able to focus on the puppet because it is more interesting than you are. The nature of the puppets is something that brings out the voices of the text more strongly than conventional acting. It is possible for us to do what I think of as much more Elizabethan acting, very full-bodied, very gestural work that meshes with the text very strongly."

"It also means that we can do the whole play with a very small number of people," Fuller said. "But it means that the soul of the play is condensed down to a very compact thing. It takes you between the worlds to a place where a conventional play cannot go."

Nothing conceals Fuller and Bishop onstage as they employ 20 puppets of varying kinds to bring Shakespeare’s "King Lear" to life.

"It’s in a very small space," Fuller said. "It’s only six feet wide at the front and four feet wide at the back. He sits on his throne and I sit on my little dentist revolving stool in front of a laptop and I run the lights and sounds. As we say in the prologue, this is as performed by Lear in Hell. He’s storytelling his own tragedy."

"It’s really his own puppet show because his whole world has been a world of power and so he feels that he’s in control but he’s now learning that one doesn’t control life in that way," Bishop said.

Attending a puppet show where the actors operating the puppets are in full view requires a special kind of suspension of disbelief and a special collaboration between the audience and performers.

Fuller said they use the prologue as a means of breaking the ice.

"There’s a very formal tradition in classical theater that there’s a little speech at the beginning right before the play begins and the Fool does that and he has a staff and he raps three times on stage so I rap three times on the stage, but the third one gets my big toe and that undercuts all of the majesty right there," Fuller said. "We give people a personal connection and then the absolute ridiculousness of trying to be pompous. And so by the time we get to actually dealing with Lear, it doesn’t seem like it’s church."

Independent Eye On Puppet Making

Bishop creates each of the puppets himself.

"I do a clay model, then we collaborate a lot in looking at it from different angles and [she might say] 'I don’t like the face, I don’t like the nose, nice chin, do it again,'" Bishop said. "Then when we finally have agreed upon the ultimate creature I do papier-mâche. It takes a long time but it’s very strong and light, and then eventually the bodies get built and we add a costume."

Fuller noted that "when the faces are sculptured they are not the same on one side as the other, they are very asymmetrical, which means as they move, as the eyes catch the light, they haven’t moved a muscle but there is the illusion that the face changes."

The eyes are amazing and seem to follow you as you look at the puppet. But Bishop admits, they are just items you can find at any hobby shop.

"The eyes are just glass globs that you get at a hobby store but they are flat on back and curved like a regular eye on front so they get a highlight and then I just paint the backs of them, usually have to scrape off the backs five or six times, to get exactly the right focus, in some cases they are very directly focused and in other they are not," Bishop said.

Photo caption: The Independent Eye co-founder and performer Elizabeth Fuller examines one of...

Photo credit: Beth Accomando

The Independent Eye co-founder and performer Elizabeth Fuller examines one of the puppets from "King Lear."

But there’s an inherent risk of being stereotyped when using puppets.

"Anytime you say the word puppet, children is what first comes into mind," Fuller said. "We say no one will be legally barred from this space, but we want people to go in forewarned. For one thing this is 100 minutes long with no intermission and it’s very dark and it’s in a foreign language, yes it’s English but it’s English from 500 years ago and a lot has changed. It’s complicated, it’s disturbing, it’s violent, and there's no happy ending."

But the play with the puppets elicits a surprisingly strong response from audiences who are often moved to tears.

Fuller put it this way: "If you want to feel terror you give yourself with great confidence to Stephen King and he comes through for you, he scares the living daylights out of you. If you want to feel loss and the wish for redemption, you give yourself to 'King Lear.'"

And to the capable hands and puppets of Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller.

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