After five years in Vegas, Shana Tucker was ready to come home.
She’d accepted a job offer from Cirque du Soleil in 2011. The high-profile production company needed a cellist who could sing – check and check – so she relocated. There, in Las Vegas, she played in the orchestra pit for the Cirque show “Ka.” She worked a rigorous schedule, playing cello and singing mezzosoprano parts full-time. By the end of 2016, though, it was time to return to North Carolina and work in a more collaborative setting – and make her own music.
Donovan Zimmerman of Paperhand Puppet Intervention called her almost as soon as she returned to ask if she would be in the pit for his company’s 2017 show, “Of Wings and Feet.” When Tucker said yes, she found herself in a fresh environment. Whereas “Ka” had been in production for years and the score was largely set, Paperhand produces a wholly new show every year, going from zero to finished in just a few months. And the music was like nothing she had done before.
“It’s really amazing, the amount of work they get done in a short amount of time,” says Tucker. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
“Of Wings and Feet” opens Aug. 4 at the Forest Theatre in Chapel Hill, with a 6:20 p.m. pre-show and 7 p.m. performance every Friday, Saturday and Sunday (with a Labor Day show, too) until Sept. 4. Afterward it moves to the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh, Sept. 8-10, and then to the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro, Sept 16-17.
The show features oversized, fantastic puppets, ranging from creatures like birds and tortoises to symbolic representations of the earth, the sky and water. There’s no explicit narrative, Paperhand co-founders Zimmerman and Jan Burger say, though there is a moral message to “Of Wings and Feet.” At one point in the show, there’s a funeral for facts and a silencing of science, which are followed by the rebirth of The Resistance, as represented by a giant puppet of African descent with a fist in the air. This bit is openly a call to action, Zimmerman says.
“Here we are at this moment, and you can decide to be a part of helping the planet and the people and the animals here, or hurting them,” he says. “We want people to join in on the helping side, take the Mr. Rogers way and be part of the solution.”
Burger feels a responsibility to make art that feels relevant and important and that resonates with people. He confers with his collaborators to that end, but the main way he gauges whether he’s on the right track is by how it feels to him. Zimmerman’s in a similar headspace. He wanted to reflect on humanity’s place in the world, both topically and in general, but he wanted “Of Wings and Feet” to end with hope, rather than on a minor chord.
“Paperhand has really become this community institution here in the Triangle,” says multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Henderson. “It’s a gift to the area to have politically conscious, thoughtful and really beautiful art that’s put on on this huge scale every summer that people can come revel in.”
Henderson has been in the Paperhand pit since 2010, and every show heparticipates in shifts him further into this production company’s very specific world. Paperhand’s musicians, notably, must be incredibly nimble and observant. The stage directions and choreography are loose and skeletal, and there’s no written score, either. Henderson, Tucker and the other musicians compose themes together, but also provide sound effects and react to the puppets’ actions in real time.
“We are real-time film scoring to match the action that’s happening onstage,” says Tucker. “I have never worked like this. I have never created on the fly in this way.”
Paperhand’s score is an interesting hybrid between composed and spontaneous music, Henderson says. Plus, this is the only project he’s worked with that expects him to provide sound effects. If an enormous puppet walks onstage and makes a grand gesture, Zimmerman explains, a “whoosh” completes the illusion. It draws the audience in, Henderson says, but this kind of playing requires constant attention.
“It’s in some ways the most dynamic kind of setting that I’ve worked in, because it requires intense focus and concentration,” he says.
Yet Henderson has been through the ringer a few times, as he puts it, and he knows he’ll come out the other side of “Of Wings and Feet” and that the show will be great. As for Tucker, she took her son to Paperhand shows as soon as he was old enough to not be frightened by its towering puppets. Now, she’s in the pit. And Burger and Zimmerman are ready to present their latest show, which they hope will be inspirational and affirming – narrative or not.
“Some people come up and thank us for speaking the language of dreams,” Zimmerman says. “Some people come up and say, ‘I can’t wait until you guys do a story again.’ I just say, ‘How did you feel?’ ”
What: Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s “Of Wings and Feet”
When: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (plus a Labor Day show) Aug. 4-Sept. 4; 6:20 p.m. pre-show and 7 p.m. performance; on two Sundays, Aug 27 and Sept. 3, there will be an additional show with a 3 p.m. start and 2:20 pre-show
Where: Forest Theatre, Chapel Hill
Cost: Suggested donation of $15 for adults, $8 for children (no one will be turned away)
After its Chapel Hill run, “Of Wings and Feet” shows at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh Sept. 8-10 and at the Carolina Theatre of Greensboro Sept. 16-17