Interview with Connor Hopkins of Trouble Puppet Theater Company

Trouble Puppet Theater Company’s production of Riddley Walker was the first professional puppet show I have seen. I was blown away by the technical skills and emotion these puppeteers imbued in their puppets.

Riddley Walker showed at the Salvage Vanguard Theater from September 29 – October 16. Didn’t get a chance to see it? The Trouble Puppet gang will be at the Austin Puppet Incident December 9th and 10th. Get more information here:

Riddley Walker is an adaptation of Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel. Set two thousand years after a nuclear war has destroyed civilization, the novel takes a darkly humorous look at the rudimentary lives of a cast of characters set in the English county of Kent. Church and state have combined into one institution and the misinterpreted mythology of old war stories and Saint Eustace, an old Catholic saint, are enacted in puppet shows within the play.

Connor Hopkins, Artistic Director, founded the company in 2004. Hopkins and his plays have been the recipient of numerous awards, including a B. Iden Payne award and a project grant from the Jim Henson Foundation. Here, Connor talks about how they chose Riddley Walker and what to expect if you haven’t attended a puppet show before.

Please give us a brief history of how the Trouble Puppet Theater Company came about.

I’ve been making puppets and shows for about 13 years here in Austin, but decided to get “serious” –if I can use that word in regard to puppets— around 2004. So I changed the name from the long, unmemorizable one we had, and Jeanine Lisa came on board, and Trouble Puppet got on its feet. We added Kathryn Rogers as a Producing Partner after a few years and now we have a fairly large crew, with many who put in a lot of time making sure we keep all engines firing. They help keep up with the website and the open workshops and the occasional work/cleanup days.

How does using puppetry differ from other forms of theatre? What are the benefits and challenges of using puppets to tell a story?

The simplest way to put it is that, given time and practice enough, you can make a puppet do pretty much anything an actor can do. But you can’t make an actor levitate, or disappear, or die onstage the way a puppet can. No matter how great the performance, you know that actor’s going to get up once the light goes down and walk away.  When a puppet dies and the puppeteers release it and walk away, you know that puppet’s not going anywhere. Its breath has truly left it. It’s dead.

Also, there is the fact that the puppet isn’t, for example, a 26-year-old white American pretending to be a 57-year-old Polish immigrant. The puppet was made a 57-year-old Polish immigrant.  Yes, there are the constraints involved with being an inanimate object, but those are less binding than the constraints of having an identity distinct from the character’s. The puppet’s only identity is the character.

What was the inspiration behind choosing Riddley Walker for this fall’s performances?

First of all it’s a brilliant, challenging, deeply strange book and that always makes you want to climb inside it by making a show out of it. The language- a broken dialect reflecting thousands of years of linguistic mutation- provides a key to the mystery of Riddley’s culture and their version of history.

Also, we were lucky enough to get in contact with Mr. Hoban [author of Riddley Walker] through our Partner Kathryn Rogers, and he was supportive, so it seemed like a perfect time to do it. I’ve wanted to for ten years, since I first read it and saw it had puppets in the story.

If someone were attending a performance for the first time, what would you like him or her to know about a Trouble Puppet show? In a similar vein, what do you hope a new audience member will come away from a performance with?

This show is our most ambitious yet, but it is still a typical Trouble Puppet show. It asks a lot of the audience in terms of paying attention, openness to the process of puzzling out its many elements, and willingness to have fun with the situation. I think what people like about puppet shows like ours is the fact that, while you may be surprised and hopefully amazed at how lifelike and compelling puppets are as characters, you also get to see in plain sight how we make that happen. It’s an illusion that’s not an illusion because its mechanisms are on display. We are all here in a room together and you can see me manipulate the control rod, see me stuff that object into the puppet’s hand, see my mouth move when the puppet speaks. But it doesn’t undo the magic of watching the puppet live onstage. And that makes it comfortable and engaging for the audience when the puppeteer looks out at you and says “Well, that’s a long story, innnit? Whyn’t we just skip to the end? After all, this here’s a show, we can do what we like.”

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The Austin Creative Alliance is a nonprofit performing arts service organization working to cultivate an environment where the performing arts can grow and flourish. We serve over 130 arts organizations with marketing, ticketing, audience development services; AEA paymaster, information & referral services — plus access to affordable health, liability, and event insurance. We also provide online professional development seminars, fiscal sponsorship services for emerging arts groups, host annual unified general auditions, annual theatre industry awards, and consistently advocate for the many benefits the arts bring to our quality of life.

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