Unusual puppet show debuts at La Jolla Playhouse for three free performances

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

Iain Gunn, half of a “contemporary hybrid puppet company” called Animal Cracker Conspiracy, is bringing his new, no-strings exploration of modern urban development to La Jolla Playhouse, June 19-21.

Gunn describes “Paper Cities” as a multimedia puppet theater piece about the recurring desire of humans to design and build an ideal city.

“It’s a wordless performance involving giant, tabletop and shadow puppets accompanied by video projections and live music,” he said. “All these combine to reflect our experience of the modern cityscape.”

Funded by a 2013 Creative Catalyst grant from the San Diego Foundation, which encourages the pairing of local artists and nonprofits to develop dream projects for public display, “Paper Cities” developed out of a series of conversations Gunn had with his wife and longtime collaborator, Bridget Rountree, about their love of books, paper and trees. Rountree received her own Creative Catalyst grant last year, and presented a mixed-media art show this April. She and Gunn have been working together since 2003.

“We had an art-and-performance connection from the beginning,” Gunn said. “When we met, I was already doing puppetry and circus arts and hanging upside-down on a German wheel in the old Children’s Museum, where I had a studio. She was just back from an African art retreat in Capetown, and we started making cardboard sculptures together.”

So much of the knowledge and materials they shared came from nature, Gunn noted, but things have changed in the digital world. “We used to rely on paper — books and newspapers — to understand the world around us, and cities were designed on paper,” he said. “Now knowledge is flying through the air at amazing speed. ‘Paper Cities’ springs from our attempts to examine these changes.”

The show itself keeps on changing, which is not surprising: it’s a work-in-progress, a first-workshop version of what is meant to be a fully-developed piece next year.

“It’s becoming a kind of duet between human attempts to construct a city and the primordial wild that exists within the same space,” Gunn said. “The Coyote has become a significant character, and the story is now about people and nature crossing paths.”

“Paper Cities” will surely be a far cry from any puppet theater you may have ever seen, unless you caught the Conspiracy’s haunting performance of “The Collector” at UCSD’s Loft in February 2013.

“We’ve created a compelling new way of storytelling,” Gunn said. “It’s experimental puppet theater for adults, and this is the most adventurous piece we’ve ever done. We’re integrating ourselves as actors, using props as characters, and adding various objects to constantly recreate the set.”

“Paper Cities” also includes a third human onstage, actor/writer Molly Maslak, who “graduated” from a 10-week puppetry intensive Gunn offered as part of his grant.

The fourth participant is Terry Hovey, a multi-instrumentalist who is creating the show’s soundscape and will solo on saxophone, clarinet, vibraphone and gamelan gongs.

Behind the scenes are director Lisa Berger and movement director Liam Clancy, both of whom Gunn and Rountree have worked with before, and the Playhouse’s resident dramaturg, Shirley Fishman.

“This piece is a challenge for me, but I’m wholly engaged,” Gunn said. “And I hope our audiences will be too.”

If you go:

“Paper Cities” is onstage  8 p.m. June 19-21, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive on the UC San Diego campus. Tickets are free, but RSVP is required at (858) 550-1010. lajollaplayhouse.org/paper-cities

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