Pulling Strings

Denver puppeteer Annie Zook looks like a laid-back, middle-aged librarian from Kansas. But on closer examination, you'll see mischief in her eyes, and when she speaks, there's a hint of a squeak that just might turn into a fairy-tale character's voice at the slightest provocation.

Zook, who plays host this weekend to a biennial gathering of the Puppeteers of America's Great Plains region, started out as a fiber artist specializing in soft sculpture. "Then, when I had kids," she says, "the dolls started talking." That was more than eighteen years ago. In the beginning her career in puppetry took a nomadic route, but for the past two years she's settled with her husband into the Denver Puppet Theatre, a permanent compound on West 38th Avenue complete with a theater space and studio, a puppet shop and museum, a garden courtyard with a fountain and a couple of bearish, goo-goo-eyed mutts.

"It's Puppet Kingdom!" she says jovially, and it's certainly that: Wherever you turn, there are puppets with blank, painted faces staring back at you. Some hang by strings, their jointed limbs limp; others are draped over walls, fuzzy and friendly. Zook says most of her archive, a global collection that ranges from folk art to commercially made classics, has simply arrived at her feet--people find puppets in their attics and don't know what else to do with them, so they give them to her.

Puppets are an old-world form of entertainment that, like clowns, are not always entirely reassuring; even Zook, who thrives among the inanimate day after day, admits they can be creepy. Fear of puppets is not uncommon, the product of too many Punch-and-Judy beatings accompanied by irritating screeching and shouting that can be the stuff of bad dreams. Standing in the entryway to her puppet theater, Zook confesses, "I put a lot of the scary puppets up here, so if anyone's afraid of them, they don't have to come any farther."

Once inside the magical place, though, almost anything can happen. "Puppets are smaller than kids, so they do some imprinting to parent the puppets," Zook says. They warn the puppets of danger, she explains, or try to comfort them. "But sometimes," she adds, "they'll go completely the other way. They're all for the witch--eat 'em up!"

Bob Aiken, a puppeteer living in Estes Park, says point-blank that kids are the toughest critics. "If they're not interested, kids will just start talking to each other," he points out. "They're a very demanding audience." Like most other puppeteers, he watches their reactions carefully, constantly trying things out on them and fishing for the right reactions. "Involvement is the best response," Aiken says. "When kids laugh, it's not because it's what's expected of them. They laugh because they think something's genuinely funny." But they're also able to suspend disbelief long enough to be caught up in the story.

Unlike Zook, who manipulates her puppets from above or beneath the stage and isn't ever a part of the scenery, Aiken works in front of the audience, without the traditional puppet-sized proscenium and dressed in black to draw attention away from his presence. In one piece, a work called Creation that he'll perform here this weekend, he actually creates a world within a ten-foot fabric circle. "A spider spins its web in the circle, and then this round piece on the web unfolds into a landscape," he explains. "In the end, we have a picture of the world. My contention is that the first idea was a circle."

Aiken mostly stages shows alone these days, but he used to work with his wife, Kerry (who's gone on to become a children's librarian), under the guise of Four Hands and a Cloud of Dust. The name, he explains, comes from a strange experience: "We were taking our dog for a walk, and it ran around the corner of a building. And then there was just a puff of dust, and all you could see were two legs. It was kind of like, 'Hi-ho, Silver, it's the Lone Ranger!' That image somehow stuck--that idea of 'Here we come! Hi-ho, Silver!' A cloud of dust is like the great unknown." It's his way, you realize, of explaining what it's like to spend life dipped in a starry vat of magic.

Bob Krammer and Dug Feltch, the pair of geniuses behind the Krammer Marrionettes of St. Louis, also wear black and appear alongside their elegant creations, beautifully crafted characters likely to break out into show tunes and Forties-style tap-dance numbers at the drop of a top hat. The Krammer puppets have traveled the world and performed with symphonies.

Feltch--a great talker who segues from explaining why it's D-U-G, Dug, not Doug, to ranting about the trouble with television, to telling a story about how he once interviewed himself, all in the space of a few minutes--says puppetry offers children something real and human in what he perceives to be increasingly unimaginative times. "Before TV," he says, "puppetry was a wonderful hobby. For one thing, it was time-consuming. It's not over in two minutes." Puppets, Feltch contends, give children the strength to deal with issues in a safe environment. "We're purveyors of everything friendly, kind and loving," he says. "This is what we want you to bring to a show also. We're not millionaires, but if good wishes and love were bankable, there wouldn't be a bank big enough to hold all the good wishes we have."

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