January, I was preparing for a move from my old residence in the Boston area, to a place where I had always dreamed of living. After a house came on the market that stole my heart, I began to plan the next chapter of my life. As a professional visual artist and teacher, my theatrical stirrings were about to go unactualized if I didn’t explore something soon. Part of packing up my boxes of belongings, were the aspirations in my destination. I craved something performative in my new life.
I Googled “Cape Cod Puppets”, or some such combination of words, and up popped Dream Tale Puppets, Creator Jacek Zuzanski. I called him. I must have been somewhat dissociated because I hardly remember our conversation. I was expecting a disjointed exchange, and a weak, bored voice on the other end of the phone. From my end, it felt impulsive. How could something come out of this? What I do remember is the responsiveness of the other person’s voice. He listened to me and he sounded intrigued. My surprise gave way to a glimmering reality that there might be a way to hear myself reading a few puppet voices. He suggested that we do a read-through from scripts of Jack and The Beanstalk, and The Three Little Pigs. I was in!
During our first Zoom “audition,” I was aware in my peripheral vision, of his intermittent curled lips and occasional vibrating shoulders. He was laughing at my interpretations and engaged in my characters. He would stop me sometimes, to offer a hint of a hint for improvement, but he never criticized.
“I think you have lost the mother,” he said gently, one day, referring to the mother pig. If I was unable to re-direct my previous interpretation, he might offer up a quick facial expression, followed by the character’s line.
It was enlivening and instead of feeling stymied, I felt free to try again. The process took lots of repetitions, but he was a masterful teacher, infusing countless rehearsals with humor and educational jolts about the craft of theater. And he was patient. When he asked me if I could schedule an upcoming performance, I accepted.
Jacek Zuzanski, master puppeteer, and founder of Dream Tale Puppets believes that attention is the locus of his craft, and of theater. His performances ground audiences in skillfully nuanced characters, their motivations, and their emotions. His audiences are instantly watchful and curious because he introduces conflict, joy, sadness, questioning, anger, along with other human emotions. As our work continued, I was swimming in my ocean of familiarity and readiness to embrace a new set of skills. He made the characters in the scripts real and accessible to me. Our rehearsals were charged and engaging.
He had studied theater in Poland at the Theater Academy as well as with Jerzy Grotowski’s actors, and pantomime with Henryk Tomaszewski. He came to America as a puppeteer, capable of physical and emotional narratives, which are captivating. His puppet manipulations exceed any I had seen, both in skill, and in human depth. We are transported to physical and artistic methodologies, that soothe our frantic lifestyles. We are invited to watch and connect to childhood experiences that were long-ago perceived as lost. We are invited to be alive again.
Dream Tale Puppets represents Zuzanski’s honed model, which uses different types of puppets (each one, hand-made and gorgeously crafted by him), in the same performance. For children, this must be awe-inspiring. It is stimulating to see the performer transforming into a character with a mask, while other new characters are created by physical puppets, handled by that same performer. The Giant and Mrs. Giant are represented by Zuzanski donning a mask, and a bonnet, and his body is the puppet, in essence. The chicken is a marionette, Jack and his mother, and the bean-seller are stick puppets, and the harp is a figure puppet. His gymnastic rendering of each character is lively and real (aerobic!). He does not use a screen or stage that keeps the puppeteers invisible to the audience. When he performs his pieces, the narrators are visible, as are the puppets. This creates another level of intimacy and immediacy between audience and performers.
All are participating in a communal experience of storytelling, theater, improvisation, and joy, joy, joy. Perhaps one of the most complex and interesting processes has been the undercurrent of our collaboration. I am the voices for all the characters, and he operates the puppets. Sometimes he leads my voices with his puppets’ movements, and sometimes, my voices lead or initiate his puppets’ movements. So really, I am learning how to dance, and communicate collaboratively as well. It is an improvisation that we are in constant focus to create.
When performances are finished, and bows are taken, Zuzanski allows the families and children to hold and learn about manipulating the puppets. This offers an educational and hands-on experience for children, which is cognitively and emotionally beneficial. Touch is something children do best, and something they must have access to, in order to process. Feeling and touching the props, and the puppets, offers immediacy and intimacy of experience for kids. I witnessed a young boy, who had been afraid of the Giant, during the performance. Zuzanski initiated an interaction following the show, holding a puppet himself, as did the boy, and the two interacted. The boy faced his fears, and overcame a frightening experience, finding mastery in relating to “the Giant” (Zuzanski’s previous character). I was moved to see this transformational moment taking place for this young boy. Having studied Early Childhood Development in college, and teaching in classrooms, I recognized this exchange as deeply poignant, and most likely it was therapeutic for the boy.
My continued work with Dream Tale Puppets is fun and nourishing. I have found an outlet for my performing soul, and wherever it takes me, I am grateful that I made the call to Jacek Zuzanski of Dream Tale Puppets.
Some of us humans, and particularly artists, are in a perpetual search for identity. In my case, turning into an immigrant over twenty years ago