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Larger than Life

DEREKH FROUDE/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Inside Sixth Street Studios, Charles Swanson, a puppeteer for Tucson Puppet works, lines up a series of puppets that will be reworked for the Puppet Works' upcoming show, "Harvest: Encounter in the Heartland." The show is a musical comedy for adults rife with sexual innuendo. The plot involves a peaceful alien who comes to earth and finds intolerant humans. Only one person in the town, a farmer's daughter named Angelina, understands the alien's peaceful nature.
By Biz Bledsoe
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday September 26, 2002

Sexual tension fills Tucson puppet show with fun

The smell of TecatÄ, the deafening sound of a train passing a few yards away, the sad strumming of a lonely banjo lament, the chaotic litter of artistic debris and dozens of colorful puppets set haphazardly under dim lighting all combine to make the scene inside Sixth Street Studios, home of Tucson Puppet Works.

A friendly-looking puppet sits atop one of the many cluttered tables in the back room of the studio. In his present condition, he is nothing more than a green, football-shaped head plastered with a toothy smile stuck onto a glass bottle. Despite the happy smile, it's clear that this is no human head; it belongs to an alien from outer space.

What happens when this alien encounters an Earth town full of hicks is the focus of "Harvest: Encounter in the Heartland," a puppet musical.

"Harvest is a musical comedy for adults," due to mature content and sexual innuendo, said Charles Swanson, a puppeteer with the troupe.

The plot involves the unnamed alien coming to Earth with peaceful intentions, only to find intolerant, chicken-farming humans who buy into the bad-alien stereotype.

"This alien is just on a really benign mission, but everyone thinks that he's evil and wants to destroy the planet," Swanson said. "They're kind of bumpkinish, they have cockfights and stuff, and they don't really know the world outside the chicken farm."

All the townsfolk are either afraid of the alien or trying to make money off him. Only one person, a farmer's daughter named Angelina, understands the alien's true nature.

"She's kind of a dreamer," said Tom Hodgson, music director for the show. "She wants more, while everyone else puts their agenda (and) their fears on the alien.

"They never give him a chance."

"Harvest" contains "mature content" and "immature humor," according to the group's press release. The show is complete with "all the sexual tension you'd expect from a modern puppet musical."
DEREKH FROUDE/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Charles Swanson plays with a finger puppet Friday during a rehearsal for "Harvest." Swanson is a puppeteer for Tucson Puppet Works, a troupe whose shows often include adult themes. Puppet Works performs in other parts of Arizona and New Mexico and is also involved in community service.

Other than the alien, there are four other puppets and various shadow puppets appearing in "Harvest."

There will also be a live band flanking the stage during the performance.

The music for the show is performed by Golden Boots, who will play country-tinged music with a banjo, drum, guitar and upright bass.

"There are songs in the show with names like, ╬I'm Counting Chickens but I'm Seeing Stars,' ╬We Don't Like Your Kind 'Round Here,' and ╬My Star System's so Far Away,'" said Hodgson. "There are lots of puns, innuendo and stuff," in the songs and in the show.

Several members of Tucson Puppet Works wrote "Harvest" in a collaborative effort, on behest of Greater Arizona Puppet Theater, based in Phoenix.

When asked by GAPT if Tucson Puppet Works was interested in doing an adult puppet show, their response was "Hell yeah," Swanson said.

"As for the title ╬Harvest,' we just wanted to stress harvesting connections, relationships, rather than destroying them," Swanson said. "The theme of the show is really tolerance and xenophobia. Right now, in a time when we're trying to start wars with other countries, and the rest of the world doesn't want us to Ě it's got to be a time to teach tolerance, and openness to people."

Where and When:

"Harvest: Encounter in the Heartland" will play at Sixth Street Studios, 44 W. Sixth St., this Friday at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. and Saturday night at 8 p.m. Cost is $5 at the door. The show will continue October 10 in Tucson at the Vaudeville Cabaret, 110 E. Congress St.

Tucson Puppet Works got its start in 1996 as Big Head Puppet Company. The first puppets were for an anti-Columbus Day parade in 1995.

"After that, we began making puppets with a guy named Dennis the Red, who is also another puppeteer in town," Swanson said. "We started making hand puppets with Dennis in '96 for the Fourth Avenue Street Fair. And then we started getting more gigs and we got a studio."

Tucson Puppet Works has never been an entertainment-only group; its members, the number of which is constantly changing, are closely connected with Tucson's activist community, which helped the group make a name for itself.

"I guess the word just got around to the artist community, and also the activist community," Swanson said. "And through the artist community and the activist community we got into more schools, and when we got our space downtown (in 1996) that really opened us up."

After moving from its downtown location on Congress Street to its current home in Sixth Street Studios, Big Head Puppet Company decided to change its name to Tucson Puppet Works.

Surprisingly, Tucson makes a captive audience for puppeteers. Tucson Puppet Works caters to a large and diverse array of customers in the city, as well as in other parts of Arizona and New Mexico, and most of them aren't even children.

"We get a lot of work, and we're one of three or four puppet troupes in town," Swanson said. "Tucson Puppet Works does public and private performances, private birthday parties, adult-oriented shows, corporate parties, workshops in schools and tons of other stuff."

According to Swanson, the adult-oriented shows "can mean anything from really lurid sexual pornography with puppets," such as one recently performed at Plush nightclub, to more intellectual performances dealing with issues that are just too complex for children.

Other Puppet Works customers include local theater productions, such as the rock opera "Twitch," which is currently showing at the Muse Theatre, 516 N. Fifth Ave. Tucson Puppet Works constructed and operates the 15-foot puppet in the show.

Whether for artistic or activist purposes, Tucson Puppet Works is involved in a variety of community activities, ranging from the annual All Souls' Procession every Nov. 2 on Fourth Avenue, in which all Tucsonans are invited to dress up in costume and carry puppets, to Puppet Church on the second Sunday of every month at Sixth Street Studios.

Puppet Church involves a half-hour of puppet-told fables that usually have a moral.

Aside from "Harvest," other upcoming community events sponsored by Tucson Puppet Works include public workshops, held weekly beginning Oct. 1.

Here everyone is invited to come make puppets, for the All Souls' Procession with the fun gang at Tucson Puppet Works.

"We just have a lot of fun doing this," Swanson said. "We all have a love-hate relationship, but it's definitely more love than hate."


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