Connor Hopkins, artistic director of The Head, Trouble Puppet Theater Company’s latest work, wants people to learn things at his shows — just not in a soothing, Ken-Burns-documentary kind of way. “I’m not just trying to tell you what you might already know, but to give you an experience of it,” says Hopkins, who founded Trouble Puppet in 2004.
The Head, which runs through October 12 at the Salvage Vanguard Theater, is certainly an experience. Set inside one man’s head, it depicts a stressed and overworked mechanic as he struggles to navigate through the day, dealing with a slew of personal demons and faulty machinery.
“I feel like we have an ethical imperative to have a good story. The Head is about the human experience.” — producing partner Kathryn Rogers
Wearing jeans that look like they’ve built (and struck) a lot of sets and a gray MonkeyWrench Books tee that matches his hair, Hopkins drank a Fireman’s Four and moved comfortably around set Monday afternoon, making minor puppet repairs and jumping between different parts of the “brain.” It felt a little like being inside a bizarre, hallucinatory version of an intro-level psychology class as Hopkins traveled among different “lobes” on stage, making the dark, abstract structures rattle and shake.
While pointing out where the personal demons “hide" in the Limbic Lobe and how the Hippocampus lights up, Hopkins explained where the idea for the completely original show — which he wrote, directed and designed the puppets for — came from: “Just from a feeling I get sometimes. That you’re up here in your head, and you’re trying to make everything happen that you know needs to happen, and some days it’s just really hard. Some days you feel like the control room is very, very far away from the extremities.”
Expanding on the idea of a mechanic in your head that maintains the machinery, Hopkins started thinking about the idea of personal demons that sneak in and make the mechanic's life a whole lot harder: “gremlin-like but often much much bigger,” he explains. Bunraku-style tabletop puppets that match the abstract strangeness and darkness of the set play the part of the Personal Demons, with names like “I Hate Myself but I Hate You More,” a looming robot-looking puppet, or “Why the Fuck Not,"a mentally unstable-looking chicken.
As three puppeteers manipulate each of the puppets, which are both physically and visually gripping on the stage. In a Matrix-like scene, “I Hate You But I Hate Myself More” jumps up into the air with The Mechanic in an epic stage fight. The puppets freeze, and the data screen reads “error internal conflict.” The moment always gets a huge laugh from the audience. Kathryn Rogers, a producing partner at Trouble Puppet explains that it's “because they know exactly what we’re talking about.”
Full of fighting puppets, drunk puppets and even a scene that sort of simulates “puppet sex,” The Head is dark and strange, but also funny and very real.
The show, full of fighting puppets, drunk puppets and even a scene that sort of simulates “puppet sex,” is dark and strange, but also funny and very real, explains Rogers, because it "dramatizes internal conflict.” And it wouldn’t be the same through a different medium. For Hopkins, puppetry is the best of both worlds. It allows for incredibly cinematic moments, but it’s still a live, physical performance. Unlike a movie, a puppet show exhibits “a certain undeniable physical reality,” he explains. “You watch these people pick these puppets up and give them life.”
The city of Austin, Rogers and Hopkins agree, is finally catching on to the special magic and artistry of puppet shows as legitimate and important theater. In the past, Trouble Puppet has been treated almost as a “red-headed step-child” of the dramatic community, winning awards in such made-up categories as “Best Puppet Show” says Rogers. Around 2010, though the Austin arts community began embracing puppetry, and Trouble Puppet has been included in —and won— B. Iden Payne Awards in Outstanding Direction of a Drama, Outstanding Original Script and other traditional categories.
It makes sense, given the importance Trouble Puppet places on storytelling. “I feel like we have an ethical imperative to have a good story," says Rogers. "The Head is about the human experience.”
Or at least a version of the human experience, says Hopkins, who was unsure going into the show if people would come out thinking “that guy’s crazy.” So far, though, it seems to resonate. Hopkins spoke warmly about a gratifying experience for him on Sunday night, when “this old dude with a white beard comes right up to the front at the end of the show and says ‘I have one of those chickens in my head!!'" Us too, dude.