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Arts & Culture

Max Daily's 'Henri Steals an Elephant' will steal your heart

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Lou Mora
Artist Max Daily is shown in an undated photo. Daily's puppet show, "Henri Steals an Elephant," returns to Marie Hitchcock Nov. 5, 2021.

The return of an audience favorite at Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater comes on the heels of pandemic-era Instagram teatimes with an eccentric, prolific artist — and his friend Henri.

Through the height of the pandemic, every afternoon, artist Max Daily would go live on Instagram to a loyal group of "Tea with Henri" followers to share a cup of tea, usually broadcasting from San Diego landmarks or pretty scenery.

The project was an incredibly wholesome display of all-ages community. Kids at home would pour their own cup of tea, and together, they'd take their first sip and say "mmm" in unison, alongside their pal Henri.

One detail: Henri is a hand puppet.

"He's like an old retired French guy. He's from the Normandy area. And you only would really know that by his striped shirt. And he loves tea," Daily said.

Daily will resurrect "Henri Steals an Elephant," his Henri-centric show this weekend at the historic Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater in Balboa Park.

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Max Daily
Max Daily's puppet, Henri, considers where he might find an elephant. "Henri Steals and Elephant" runs at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater Nov. 5-7 and Nov. 12-14, 2021.

In the show, Henri, who is often bored, discovers that the circus is coming to town and is struck by the urge to join. But first, he needs an elephant for his tricks.

"But he doesn't have an elephant. So he goes to the San Diego Zoo to get one. That's kind of the show. It's real basic, just silly fun," Daily said.

The joy of pretending

"Henri Steals an Elephant" uses hand and shadow puppets with a single puppeteer. In traditional hand puppetry, the main character never leaves the puppeteer's dominant hand, which frees the other hand up for secondary characters, objects and props, or things like music, sounds and other stage effects.

Audience interaction plays a big part — they often know more than the puppeteer or the other characters, like a police officer searching for the stolen elephant (or "fanfafan" as Henri says).

"It's interesting, especially watching kids. They don't seem to care if they can see the puppeteer — their willing suspension of disbelief," Daily said. "That's what's so much fun. For me, pretending that I don't know where the elephant is. Obviously I know where it is, but the kids get worked into a frenzy."

This sort of performance is rooted in commedia dell'arte, the humorous, often improvisational theater style which emerged in the 16th century. Punch and Judy-style puppetry is another example.

In his early career as an artist and performer, Daily turned to puppetry because of its accessibility when he was writing plays and developing big ideas. Puppetry was an easy way to pull them off, he said.

"Anyone can put on a show or express what they're going through. Really. I mean, that's how I got into puppetry, too. I was writing plays and I was like, oh, how am I going to do these? How am I going to put this on? I don't have a budget. I don't have actors. So I started cutting figures out and making my own little sets and just going through the plays that way," Daily said. "It's very inclusive. And it's something that anyone can do without a theater company or a budget or anything. And it's easy to learn, too."

A return for Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater

Nestled towards the south end of Balboa Park, the theater was established shortly after World War II, when the Navy returned the park's buildings to the city. The first performance at Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater was in 1947, a marionette show with Hitchcock and her sister, Genevieve Engman, and the space has been used for puppetry performances until COVID-19 shut down performances in early 2020.

The theater reopened in October with performances of Kaivalya Arts Puppet Company's "Mr. Cat and the King of Autumn." Daily, who is vice president and creative director of the puppet theater, said that the audiences have been slow to return — understandably — but he hopes Henri will help.

"He's a familiar show and a familiar character that some of our fan base already know," Daily said. "Hopefully that will get people to be like, 'Oh we can go see Henri again finally.'"

"Henri Steals an Elephant" will run for just two weekends, Nov. 5-7 and Nov. 12-14.

On Friday, Nov. 12, there's a special presentation at 6:30 p.m. It will feature the puppet show, plus live music from the Morning Glory Family Band, and a tea party broadcast on Instagram for anyone following along at home — just like old (pandemic) times.

"We're going to do another special 'Tea with Henri' live with the whole audience in the background, and everybody will do their 'mmm' together," Daily said.

Plus, Henri — who has been known to start his shows with a teacup drum solo — will even perform with the band. This special feature is $10, while regular puppet shows are $5.

Max Daily's immersive, eccentric art

Also a visual artist, Daily won the San Diego Art Prize in 2018, chosen to pair with the established artist recipient Bob Matheny. For his puppetry, Daily received the esteemed Jim Henson Family Grant for his production of "Peter and the Wolf," which he hopes to resurrect at the puppet theater soon.

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Thomas DeMello
Max Daily and Henri greet their fans during an Instagram Live on the "Tea with Henri" account.

A third generation San Diegan, he started out in the theater department at San Diego City College, doing a lot of acting, improv and eventually set design and scene painting, and eventually majored in puppetry at Cal Arts.

Other immersive, performance projects of Daily's include a flea circus and the Oslo Sardine Bar in Seaport Village— a real shop and restaurant dedicated to serving canned fish.

Inspired by the sardine shops ("conservas") he encountered while traveling in Spain and Portugal, and the neat shelves of brightly colored products, he wanted to bring that to San Diego. And in a roundabout way, he was inspired by the emergence of the craft beer scene in town.

"You walk into a bar and there'd be like, 100 different types of beer. What if you walked in and there were just 100 types of canned fish and only one type of beer?" Daily mused.

The project came to its salty fruition towards the end of a solo art show at Bread and Salt many years ago. The gallery's Tom DeMello suggested using the empty "Not An Exit" space to try out the sardine bar concept in a pop-up form. It was a tremendous success, and Bread and Salt kept the shop onsite — until it became a mobile shop and finally, this current location at Seaport Village.

"What was supposed to be a one night study on if people would eat sardines turned into, like, a six year, constantly changing project," Daily said.

Daily's art can be seen as a gimmick at first — wild, fun and nonsensical ideas. But giving these concepts long-term, thoughtful commitment, Daily turns them into something genuine and profound.

"First and foremost, I'm a storyteller, and that's always what I tell people. I have a story to tell, whether it's my story or a character's story or whatever that is. And then what I do is see which medium is going to best serve the story, or what medium is easiest for me to produce it in right now. So a lot of the times that's theater or puppetry, and sometimes it's just flat work and illustrations," Daily said.

"Even with the sardine bars, people are always like, 'Why do you do this? What's the point?' And the best answer I could come up with was 'Well, I'm just sharing a part of me.'"