'Society Of Wonder' Uses Puppetry To Deliver Social Commentary
Latest Playhouse WOW show features Animal Cracker Conspiracy
"The Society of Wonder" suggests that every backyard contains a secret portal to an underground kingdom of inspiration and hope. The six-part series of videos from Animal Cracker Conspiracy just premiered online as the latest entry in La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls, or Digital Wow Festival.
During Nazi occupation, Czech puppeteers delivered anti-fascist themes through illegal underground performances called “daisies.” That history of radical puppetry is something Bridget Rountree wants to tap into.
"You have the possibility to comment and say things that humans can't necessarily get away with saying if it's something that's kind of considered maybe for children, or are not seen as something that could potentially have a dangerous message or political message or social message," Rountree explained. "And so it's been able to kind of hide in plain sight and comment and do things for centuries and has been used that way, which we always love that."
Rountree, along with Iain Gunn, are Animal Cracker Conspiracy, a San Diego-based puppet company. Since they can’t perform live because of the COVID-19 pandemic, their latest project, "The Society of Wonder," just launched online as part of La Jolla Playhouse’s Digital WOW, or Without Walls, Festival.
Gunn described the project as "a mysterious series of 5-minute videos that introduce you to five unexpected characters who are brought together through coincidence, serendipity and happenstance, to form a society that reflects or is empowered by their gifts, their uniqueness."
It’s a production that’s arisen out of quarantine and the inability to get exactly what you want when you want it. So the pair made sets, props and puppets from what they had lying around the house like paper, cardboard and masking tape.
"So what we want people to experience is the wonder of what our human imagination is capable of in terms of taking crude and easily accessible materials and turning them into a story, creating a world out of that," Gunn said.
A world that pays homage to film noir and old radio serials like "The Shadow" and "The Crimson Avenger." It also draws on the street puppets of Java and Bali. Gunn and Rountree have traveled the globe in search of puppet history and to explore various styles and techniques.
"So we went to Java and when we were in Jakarta we saw some live shadow puppetry and we also experienced Wayang Golek, which is really like the street puppets that are used in Java and Bali," Gunn explained. "They have carved wooden heads. They have a torso that is suspended so it can turn, so the shoulders can turn. So the traditional dances of Bali and Java and Indonesia come from the puppet movements. So it's just very interesting art form because we both love dance, fine art and performance, and puppetry brings that all together for us."
The puppets Animal Cracker Conspiracy created for "The Society of Wonder" draw on the Wayang Golek style but in a Western way.
"In Wayang Golek they'll have like moving mouths, tilting heads and then the hands of the puppets are on rods," Gunn added. "So any puppeteer could actually hold all three rods — the central rod, the two arm rods — in one hand and manipulate that with manual dexterity, and then also have another puppet. So when we were first developing this film we did a lot of the shots where I would literally be holding the iPhone in a DJI Osmo mobile 2 Gimbal and puppeteering all with my other hand."
To a non-puppeteer, it's like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. The puppets also have a vintage look.
"Bridget and I papier-mâchéd them and she added in texture of vintage newspapers," Gunn said. "So there's actually words and language like embedded into their faces and into their arms that you can see or maybe not see depending on how much you want to scrutinize the little films."
Gunn and Rountree created six puppet characters that have a retro feel yet also seem to be from a world very much like our own.
"So it's an alternate reality," Rountree said. "But it relates to a lot of the issues that we're dealing with environmentally, socially and politically and definitely with an absurd tone or leaning, and that feels very timely right now."
Helping to bring this alternate reality to life is Margaret Noble.
"I list myself as sound designer, but there are many elements to sound design," Noble explained. "Sometimes it's composing sounds, sometimes it's recording sound. Sometimes it's collaging and cutting up sounds. But essentially it's putting together lots of little tiny pieces to make the world come alive, the visual world."
The puppets don’t speak so Noble has to create sounds that evoke their inner emotions.
"We have a great rapport with her," Gunn said. "We lean toward puppets not speaking. So we're visual storytellers in that sense. Margaret creates their voices in a sense. So we make an episode and send it back and forth to get edits and clarity, and then send it to Margaret and wait till she sort of sends us this special present of her interpretation with the sound. And we just got the first sound design version of Episode Three last night. It's fantastic, it's great. It's like opening a magic box, cranking the little arm, and then the sound comes like, wow!"
Rountree added: "She just adds a constant layering of little sound cues of where we are setting the tone. She paces it, sets the pace, sets the environment through sound, adds their voices. So she's always reinforcing the story in that way."
Creating a brave new world through puppets can be liberating.
"If you're doing live-action, realistic sound, you're very focused on being as accurate as possible," Noble said. "But here, there's no boundaries and any puppet could make any sound. Any world could make any sound, sound doesn't have to be literal. And often it's more interesting when it isn't and it's symbolic or expressive. It's about reading symbols, sounds and gestures, and it has a little bit of darkness and mystery."
There are many mysteries to unpack with each episode of "The Society of Wonder" so sign up to be wowed by the latest entry in La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls Festival.