Buntport's Tommy Lee Jones puppet doppelganger a group effort

Tomorrow night, Buntport Theater will open a new show, inspired by a true event, called Tommy Lee Jones Goes to Opera Alone. But the title belies the community effort it took for Buntport to produce and animate a nearly life-size puppet of the solitary actor.

The Buntporters were inspired to write the show after members Brian Colonna and Hannah Duggan spotted Tommy Lee Jones at the Santa Fe Opera, by himself, buying tickets to La Boheme. The hard part was finding a way to bring Jones to life realistically. "Hannah said, 'We should make a puppet.' None of us were puppeteers," Colonna notes, adding that it was simply a way to convincingly capture Jones' demeanor.

So, naturally, with no experience in either the production or animation of puppets, the artists of Buntport set out to realize the ambitious goal of immortalizing Jones in plaster. But they did have some help.

"We started with the hands," Colonna says, launching into the story of what are clearly the puppet's focal points. Slightly large for the body, carved from wood and fully jointed, the hands imitate human movements. It took a woodworker to achieve it: local artist Kagen Schaefer.

Schaefer most often makes puzzle boxes. On his website, he describes carving as an "ancient pastime" and wood itself as a "timeless material." His works are feats of craftsmanship; one masterpiece, a "pipe organ desk," has drawers that play notes as they open and close. Buntport brought Schaefer in to lend his expertise on the hands -- which turned out, Colonna says, as "the most compelling, interesting things to look at."

To help give them some direction in how to animate Jones's hands, the Buntporters sought out Corey Milner, a teacher of robotics at Sierra High School in Colorado Springs. Milner helped them rig the hands to corresponding gloves using fishing wire; the movements of the puppet hands are directly related to the movements of the gloved puppeteers'. Colonna gives all the credit for this to Milner. "It was technically much beyond what we could have achieved," he says.

Making the rest of the puppet, which stands at a height of just over five feet, was a tiresome trial-and-error process, involving styrofoam, plaster, paint, sticks, string, ping-pong balls for the eyes -- anything to achieve the right look. Economy was crucial, which is why styrofoam was an ideal medium for the project. "It's cheap and easy to work with. You can make mistakes--which we did," Colonna says, and laughs.

But in the end, the company came up with something that bears a startling resemblance to the actor.

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Like most Buntport projects, bringing Tommy Lee Jones to life was a group effort. The puppet is animated not by any one actor, but by blacked-out ensemble members Colonna, Erin Rollman and Evan Weismann -- one for the head and one for each side of the body.

Working a puppet hand is not always as intuitive as working your own; it was a learning process. "There were times that it was really good," Colonna says, "and there were times that it was like, 'God, I am really fighting against the right arm today!'"

The ensemble members had to find a way to choreograph their movements cohesively, unifying them to create the single character of Tommy Lee Jones. Lining up the puppet's movements with its "voice," provided by Erik Edborg, was itself a sort of ballet. Edborg had difficulties in voicing the puppet without moving, Colonna says; it was easy to "forget how much you gesture... he was blacked out, completely still, but also had to be vocally interesting."

With the four puppeteers working together, along with Hannah Duggan playing the cafe waitress, nearly the whole ensemble is on stage at any given time. Samantha Schmitz will be operating the light and sound board, making the show -- like all of Buntport's works -- an exercise in collaboration, a true ensemble operation.

"Each piece grows from a collaborative process, without specific directors or designers," Buntpport's website states. "We brainstorm our way to any given solution, relying on the combined skills of the whole ensemble."

Tommy Lee Jones Goes to Opera Alone opens at 8 p.m. Friday, March 16. To learn more about Buntport, reserve seats for a show or play a game in which "prognosticator" Tommy Lee Jones tells your future, go to Buntport's website.

To learn more about Kagen Schaefer and his puzzle boxes, go to his website, or watch this video of him demonstrating his pipe organ desk:

To find out whether Corey Milner is available to help you build a robot, visit Sierra High School's website.

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