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Trouble Puppet Theater Company crafts puppets for the people

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Trouble Puppet Theater Company founder and artistic director Connor Hopkins crafts puppets from basic materials like wood, paper, wire and cloth.

A simple yet precisely drawn diagram of a puppet hangs on a sheet of brown paper tacked to the wall of the workshop of Trouble Puppet Theater Company.

“Upper arm slightly longer than the lower arm,” a note on the drawing reads.

Other notes delineate more of the puppet’s proportions: “Elbows at waist. Wrist at hip.”

On Oct. 31, Trouble Puppet will open “Toil & Trouble,” its original adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” at Salvage Vanguard Theater.

And although the language of the Bard’s dark tale of murder, witches and the evils of power will be the same as Shakespeare wrote it, each character in “Toil & Trouble” will be played by a puppet roughly 3 feet tall with a papier-mâché head and two puppeteers behind it working every appendage.

“There’s a lot of choreography to what goes on on stage (in puppet theater),” says Connor Hopkins, founder and artistic director of Trouble Puppet. “You have to choreograph how to move two humans and one puppet for every character in the play. And it’s not possible to direct a scene the way you would with human actors — the rules are totally different.”

“Besides,” Hopkins explains, “if it’s something you could do with human actors then you’d just use only human actors.”

And Hopkins isn’t really interested in human actors.

“We’ll get queries from actors who are interested in working with us, and they’ll send us their head shots,” Hopkins says. “We’re, um, not really interested in what performers look like.”

But Hopkins is extremely interested in what his puppets look like, which is why he spends nearly three months before each new production in the workshop building puppets along with a team of theater company members and volunteers.

The Trouble Puppet workshop and headquarters is tucked into a back space of the warehouse-like Salvage Vanguard Theater in East Austin.

On a recent visit, Hopkins sat on one of the few empty chairs amid the clutter. Work tables nearby were crowded with scraps of wood and paper, power tools, hot glue guns, string, rope, cardboard and pots of paint.

Hopkins is arguably Austin’s master puppeteer. He started Trouble Puppet Theater Company in 2004 after taking up puppetry a few years before. With no formal training in art or theater (he studied creative writing in college), Hopkins took up the craft of puppeteering after impulsively volunteering to help out on a puppet show after first moving to Austin in the late 1990s.

For the first few years, Hopkins and his collaborators centered their efforts on street theater events or the occasional short staged show.

In the past few years, Hopkins and Trouble Puppet have grown their scope considerably, presenting several original fully staged productions each season, collaborating with other theater companies and garnering critical success and gaining an ever-growing audience.

Along the way, Hopkins himself has been awarded several fellowships at the O’Neill National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and has received funding for projects from the Jim Henson Foundation, the Muppet creator’s philanthropic legacy.

Puppet-only theater and puppetry in theater has been trending upward in past decade. Foul-mouthed muppets star in Broadway’s “Avenue Q,” and the opening scene of the hit musical “The Lion King” is nothing if not for its spectacular procession of giant puppets.

But Hopkins’ brand of puppet theater harks back to the darker, satirical centuries-old tradition — to the violence and irreverence of Punch and Judy, for example, or the socially satirical puppetry derived from the 16th century Italian theater tradition known as commedia dell’arte, where stock characters acted as stereotypes in mockery of human behavior.

Dark, often satirical and contrarian, sometimes violent (well, as violent as puppets can get, that is), Trouble Puppet shows are definitely not made just for children. (The company always suggests a minimum age for each of its shows. “Toil & Trouble” is recommended for children 10 and older.)

“(Puppet shows) that are safe for kids bore me,” says Hopkins.

Trouble Puppet’s most popular production has been “Frankenstein” — based on the original novel by Mary Shelley, not horror movie interpretations — which it has staged twice. Hopkins has also created a puppet theater version of “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s novel of working-class oppression in early industrial America. His show “The Case of the Haymarket Riot” dramatized the 19th-century labor unrest in Chicago. And last season he staged the dystopian science fiction novel “Riddley Walker.”

“Puppetry is the people’s art form,” Hopkins says. “If you have a roll of masking tape and some string and some newspaper, I can show you how to make a puppet.”

Yet for all its dark satire and portrayals of harsh reality, Trouble Puppet is still ultimately in the magic-making business.

All theater relies on the suspension of disbelief — the tipping point that lets an audience experience what’s happening on stage as a real event.

And with puppet theater, that suspension of disbelief must happen twice. First, you have to believe in the theatrical event. Then you have to imagine that the puppets are as real as any humans.

But that’s a leap audiences are only too willing and eager to make, Hopkins suggests.

“When a puppet dies on stage, when the puppeteers set it down and walk away, the audience feels it in stronger way than when a human actor’s character dies on stage,” says Hopkins.

“But then puppets are not props. They’re characters.”

“Toil and Trouble”