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'Society Of Wonder' Uses Puppetry To Deliver Social Commentary

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"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.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Animal Cracker conspiracy taps into the history of puppetry being both used for art and politics. The San Diego based puppet company just launched the society of wonder for LA Jolla, playhouses digital, wow. Or without walls festival KBB arts reporter Beth commando speaks with artists, Bridget Rountree, and Ian Gunn about their new show and the craft of puppetry. So animal Cracker conspiracy has been asked to partake in this year's wild festival with LA Jolla Playhouse. So what was this process like in terms of determining what you wanted to do?

Speaker 2: 00:35 We've been working on the society of wonder for the past four years. And so it is a project that was really close to us and we had been working on it. So we thought this was a perfect opportunity to pitch that to the Playhouse though, it took on a different form than we had originally thought it was intended to be a live performance with the pandemic that changed into us, making it into a series of short live action. Epic helps. We've been studying secret societies that are original idea. Many of them, especially in America, in the teams, twenties and thirties, was to do good on to others. So there would be groups of people who would join secretly and then endeavor to help their neighbors or help their city or town. Whereas a lot of what people believe is that secret societies are nefarious and they're trying to create habit. And we do see that today. So we wanted to set a different idea out there that we need to talk about these things we need to gather together. And we need to think about positive things that we can do. Of course, our whole ethos as puppeteers is to play with quite absurd ways of dealing with material like that. So this little show that we made has come out of all of that research, but in a comical twist.

Speaker 1: 01:57 So what can people expect from this online experience,

Speaker 2: 02:00 A mysterious series of five 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 it powered by their gifts, their uniqueness. It's kind of a production that has arisen out of the inability to get things that you need right now. We made everything in house, mostly using recycled materials, kind of low it's, all 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. And we want people to slowly be drawn in. It's a Fillmore, it's a modge to cereals like the Crimson Avenger and things like that from the thirties and forties

Speaker 1: 03:10 Convey a little bit of what your puppets look like because you talk about using recycled material and it has this very kind of do it yourself. Retro vintage-y feel, but also kind of surreal and other worldly. So how do you describe what this looks like to someone who maybe hasn't seen it before,

Speaker 2: 03:32 Or you went to Bali in search of traditional shadow puppetry. I mean, we weren't able to experience that. So we went to Java and when we were in Jakarta, we've saw some live shadow puppetry. And we also experienced when Golich, which is like the street puppets that are used in, in Java and Bali and other parts of Indonesia. So we, we created these puppets styled after when Golich, but in a Western way where we tried a bunch of different techniques. So even in wine, I go like, they'll have like moving mouth's tilting heads. And then the hands of the puppets are on rods. 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, two gimbal and puppeteering all with my other hand.

Speaker 2: 04:36 But description of the puppets, they really kind of came out of a kind of comic book, ethos, carved the heads out of styrofoam and Bridget and I paper machine made them. And she added in texture of vintage newspapers. There's actually words and language like embedded into their faces and into their arms. And we create, we wanted to create a kind of a cross section in six characters of our society. It's meant to be a world very much like our own. So it's an alternate reality, but it relates, I think, to a lot of the issues that we're dealing with environmentally, socially and politically definitely with an absurd tone. And that feels very timely right now because pandemic environmental collapse, fascism racism, all of these things are in our faces every day right now. So at some point it starts to feel absurd.

Speaker 1: 05:35 I've had the privilege of seeing your work over the years and you guys have always had a social consciousness to your work. And you've noted that that is kind of in the history of puppetry as well, that there's this sense of using puppetry for commentary.

Speaker 2: 05:51 The most famous example of that is the Daisy shows that happened in Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic during Nazi occupation, where puppeteers would put on little shows in the underground or underground spaces to pass on information, hidden amongst jokes and things that the puppets were doing. One of the things that we always deal with are enduring fascination with puppetry and its traditions around the world is this dual nature that it's for children and for adults. And so that's what we really wanted to capture as well with this series that kids are going to appreciate the art and the movements and the action. And I think adults will appreciate the sort of innuendo the apocryphal feel and the allegorical aspects of it. Yeah. I mean, historically, even in medieval times, puppetry was used to comment on the current aristocracy of the time and what was going on.

Speaker 2: 06:55 And it's always been an art form that is somewhat peripheral to the center. And so it doesn't have the same status as visual art, fine art theater. It's always kind of been the bastard child of those. So there's a certain power that you have the possibility to, to comment and say things that humans can't necessarily get away with saying it's something that's kind of considered maybe for children or are not seen as a, as something that could potentially have a dangerous message or political message or social message. 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. And think it's a, it's a powerful tool in that way because it's largely a notice and unrecognized as that.

Speaker 1: 07:52 All right. I want to thank you very much for talking about your wild product.

Speaker 2: 07:56 Well, thank you. Best fat. It's great to talk to you.

Speaker 1: 07:59 That was Bethel commando speaking with Bridget Rountree, Indian gun of animal Cracker conspiracy there show the society of wonder is now available through the LA Jolla playhouses digital. Wow.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.