Tabletop theater: La Jolla Historical Society to present ‘Smallest Show on Earth’

BalDor Puppets' multifunctional puppet theater is made of paper, wood and watercolor.
(Pablo Mason)

After more than 20 years of bringing a paper theater festival to UC San Diego, Scott Paulson is creating an exhibition of the Victorian-era treasures for the La Jolla Historical Society.

“The Smallest Show on Earth: Paper Theaters Explored” will be on view at the Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage Gallery starting Saturday, Sept. 24, and will contain paper theater replicas, posters and accessory exhibits that showcase iconic local stages of yesteryear.

“Paper theater was an amazing souvenir that one could buy in Victorian-era London when you saw a play somewhere,” Paulson said. “You would see the play and there would be a poster for sale that displayed architectural aspects of the theater. Families would buy them and would cut it out and paste it onto something substantial and they would build a more permanent theater that looks just like where they were. There would be paper dolls wearing actual costumes from the plays they just saw. The dolls looked like the actors. There would be a condensed script from the play, and scenery sheets you could drop down. Families could re-create the play ... at home on their tabletop.”

Many of the pieces in the exhibit are reissues of posters and theaters from Pollock’s Toy Shop, a London landmark made famous by an article written about it by Robert Louis Stevenson, who also wrote “Treasure Island.”

San Diego-based artists Iain Gunn and Bridget Rountree of the hybrid puppet company Animal Cracker Conspiracy also have lent contemporary paper theaters to the exhibit that blend fine art, puppetry, performance art, physical theater, film and mixed media.

Further, Paulson engaged members of the Pan-Asian Staff Association of UCSD and local artist Carin Wallace to create original theaters inspired by the Hawaii Theater and Black Pioneers of La Jolla, respectively.

Paper dolls by artist Carin Wallace
(Pablo Mason)

“It’s so important for a historical society to call attention to town founders,” Paulson said. “We had some special help re-creating La Jolla of the late 1800s, when there was a vibrant, active community of Black business owners, homeowners, entrepreneurs. We had an artist create paper dolls based on those founders,” along with replicas of local theaters that no longer exist, such as the Granada Theater that closed in the 1950s.

The set pieces, dolls and scenery stages within the paper theaters will rotate in and out for different “productions” through the coming months.

La Jolla Historical Society Executive Director Lauren Lockhart said the exhibit is fitting for Wisteria Cottage given La Jolla’s “rich history of theatrical productions.”

“We saw this as a chance to present these paper theaters to new audiences,” Lockhart said. “We’re committed to finding new and creative ways to bring performance and theater to our space, so we built upon the objects in the exhibition and built performances and public programs so the public can return and participate.”

Planned public programs include performances with live musical accompaniment, a La Jolla miniature opera, and workshops featuring hands-on art-making such as a thaumatrope, a paper toy that creates an optical illusion.

“Paper Cities” by Animal Cracker Conspiracy
(Pablo Mason)

“This exhibition offers an intimate viewing experience,” Lockhart said. “They are physically small, but when you lean in and see them closely, you will be amazed at the detail and intricacy you see, the materials we have about them and the productions they reference. They are really impressive; they are going to draw you in.”

Paulson agreed, saying the exhibit is “very much like paper theater itself. It draws you in and encourages you to take a deeper look.”

“There is something magical about taking something as grand as theater and celebrating its charm in miniature,” he said. “Paper theater is two-dimensional, but all these layers really add up to something of surprising depth. Once you draw the curtain, you see a set piece here, a stage there, you can see through it. You could present Shakespeare or great battles. It was a wonderful hobby that is long overdue for a comeback.”

‘The Smallest Show on Earth: Paper Theaters Explored’

When: Saturday, Sept. 24, through Sunday, Jan. 22

Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays

Where: La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage Gallery, 780 Prospect St.

Cost: Free