A puppeteer often must do it all.
That’s the case at the Puppet Co., a professional organization in Glen Echo that produces everything audiences see on stage.
“We make the puppets, write the scripts, design and make the costumes and sets, and sometimes compose the music when we’re not using that of classical composers,” said Christopher Piper, artistic director. “And we create the video animations used in some of our shows.”
Not to mention acting.
Piper, his wife and managing director MayField Piper, and Puppet Co. CEO Allen Stevens each manipulate a variety of puppets. These include hand puppets, rod puppets, marionettes, masks, and costume figures.
Stevens agreed about puppeteer versatility: “What one of us can’t do, the other can.”
Their next show “Pinocchio,” playing Oct. 5 through Nov. 17, uses half life-size rod puppets performing in the Italian Comedia del Arte style, relying on masked figures and improvised sketches.
Piper explained that if a play they’re presenting is a fairy tale with multiple versions, it’s the Puppet Co.’s “tradition” to try to incorporate as many elements from them as possible. One example would be “Cinderella.”
“But when we’re dealing with literature, we try to stay as close to the book as possible,” he added. “It’s like an introduction to children’s literature for kids.”
That’s the case with “Pinocchio,” Carlo Collodi’s story about what it means to be real and how the easy way isn’t always the right way.
Regardless of source material, Puppet Co. gives every show a modern twist.
It all requires a great deal of energy – and passion.
“Christopher learned puppetry at his parents’ knee,” Stevens laughed. “For most professional puppeteers, it’s in their DNA. I have no excuse.”
Stevens developed his passion after seeing a puppet display in a store, which inspired him to “start making things”. At age 13, Stevens put on his first show for a birthday party.
Christopher Piper did indeed inherit his love of puppets from his parents, who were professionals. “I also started at 5 and did my own show at 12,” he said. “My parents created some of the puppets we use 60 years ago.”
Puppets have changed. Until the late 1990s, practitioners used a material called Celastic. Later they turned to neoprene rubber. But they also incorporate many traditional materials, such as wood, cloth and papier-mâché, as well as more modern ones, like foam rubber and Styrofoam,
The company’s puppet costumes are fashioned from various fabrics while puppet facial features are painted with acrylic paints.
Both Piper and Stevens performed at different times with Smithsonian puppet companies, but met only in 1980. They formed and incorporated Puppet Co. in 1983.
“My wife was going to work independently, but we convinced her to join us in 1987,” said Piper. “We’re a real team.”
Puppetry doesn’t have the same “cachet” as it does in Europe or Asia, he lamented. And decreased school district funding means field trips have declined.
“We liked to bring kids into the theater rather than go into the schools to give them a real sense of performing,” said Piper.
Now, families comprise most of the audiences, although teenagers may occasionally attend.
Still, the company has thrived for three decades and presented about 2000 performances of just one of its shows – “The Nutcracker.” It will do so again this year, Nov. 24 through Dec. 31.
“For ballet companies, their primary responsibility is to dance,” Stevens said. “For us it’s to tell the story. Some people have told us that they first understood the story after they saw our show. Even ballet dancers have praised it.”
“Pinocchio” has a running time of 45 minutes and Puppet Co. recommends the show for ages five and up.
The company performs at the Puppet Co. Playhouse, 7300 MacArthur Boulevard in Glen Echo.
For information about performance times, call 301-634-5380 or visit their website at www.thepuppetco.org.