“It’s in the house,” Verne whispers, in terror, into the phone held tight in his hand. A green, web-footed monster jumps on the stage; splashing sounds come from the speakers. The arrival of the monster has been long anticipated with much of the first act of “A Nighttime Survival Guide” seemingly leading up to this point.
It’s the story of a preteen boy living in Arco, Idaho and his penpal Aki, a girl in Japan learning to survive the night and how to get rid of monsters that might be real.
Three performers handle the limbs and head with rods connected to the puppet’s appendages. They are dressed in black—meant to blend into the background, but too present to be ignored.
Verne bows to the monster puppet—a Kappa—and it bows back. “Bow again, a little lower this time,” says Aki over the phone.
He does. The monster bows again.
They repeat the process once more and water, which gives him power, spills from a dip in the kappa’s head, leaving him comatose. A sense of relief waves over the audience.
The kappa puppet, along with the two other puppets which make an appearance later in the play, an akiname and tsukumogami, are built in a style meant to emulate the traditional Japanese Bunraku. This type of puppet theater relies heavily upon the performer handling the puppet.
“People who do bunraku, they study all their lives just to do simple movement. It takes a lot of work and it’s physically really demanding. You have three people crowded around a puppet and they’re crawling all over the place,” said Theater Arts Professor Michael Baltzell, who designed and built the puppets.
He based the puppets on monster designs by illustration and drawing professor Bill Carman. “Because it was Japanese-based in the story, we decided to try to embrace the bunraku style, the Japanese puppet theater, so there is anywhere from a single individual to up to three people manipulating one puppet at one time,” Baltzell said.
Creating the puppets was an involved process, and one which was different in many ways—partly due to the collaboration, Baltzell said, but also because the use of traditional Japanese monsters demanded a certain amount of adhesion to the traditional image.
While Carman adapted the monsters to his vision, it was not the be-all-end-all of what the puppets had to look like.
“What I didn’t want to do was describe the monsters too specifically,” Carman said. “Because I’ve been in situations where the art directors or editors want you to just execute their ideas, and no artist wants to do that.”
Because Carman took this approach, it made the collaborative element of the puppets somewhat more intuitive.
“None of it was a strict reproduction of any one part of the design,” Baltzell said. “So it all turned out sort of collaborative.” The puppets couldn’t be direct copies of any one part of the design; Carman made decisions in his designs based on the play and he didn’t want the exact traditional design primarily because the monsters were being seen by a western boy.
Creating puppets, though, is more than just taking a design and bringing it into the 3-dimensional world. Professor Baltzell also had to consider all the details of the puppets, from the material they were made of to how the monsters would move.
“I started with the tsukumogami,” Baltzell said. “So I started with the watch, actually the first watch that comes out. And that I did research on how to do that manipulation. Because, you know, it wants to be mechanical because it’s a mechanical thing that’s come alive.”
To get the mechanically organic feel of the movements, Baltzell researched robotic hands. “I found a couple of sources of how people were making sort of do-it-yourself robotic hands. And that was what it was based on, was that sort of mechanics,” he said.
The materials used were important for creating the right look for the creature.
If the tsukumogami had been made of foam rubber like the kappa and the akiname, it would’ve looked all wrong.
Whereas if the kappa and akiname had been made of the same material as the tsukumogami, their texture wouldn’t have been there to make them lifelike.
“I’m fond of the material of foam rubber to work with,” Baltzell said of the material used for the kappa and akiname. “You know you can squash it up and move it. It feels alive to me. It feels like skin and looks like skin.”
The material also has the added bonus of being malleable enough so the entire head of the kappa puppet was one piece of foam rubber, and looked more organic, according to Baltzell.
“For me it’s sort of a process thinking, well, that’s sort of how your body makes itself,” he said. “Sort of folded around, and it’s better than sort of cutting out eyebrows and gluing them on. It feels more real to me, more interesting.”
The puppets, though, are still just puppets without the performers who handle them, called silhouettes.
“They certainly did a great job making the puppets come to life. After all, they’re just dolls until somebody, an operator, somebody who wants to invest life into them does that,” Baltzell said. “They’re more than stagehands, there’s a sort dance theater element to them.”
Because the puppets were created after the bunraku style, the performers had to play an integral part in the story, implying although these monsters seem real, their actual reality is meant to be questioned.
Baltzell said the silhouettes “not only operate the puppets, but they also expend they reflect other action in the play that has to do with father figures, and they sort of move the story along.”
Junior multi ethnic studies and French major, Jamie Thomas, went to see the play opening night.
According to Thomas, the show is to be highly reccommended to fellow students and community members.
“The highlight of the play were the puppets. They were intricate, well-conceived and they captured the fantastical elements of the story,” she said.
“Survival Guide” is a family-friendly production that combines fantasy and reality in a way that questions the facts the characters think they know.
“A Nighttime Survival Guide” is playing at the Boise Contemporary Theater until March 2.