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Duke professor brings puppet show to Durham

Puppets, paper hats and a lot of magic: these are the elements behind Manbites Dog Theater’s newest show, The Paper Hat Game, premiering this Friday.

Promoted as a unique combination of theatrical techniques, the play brings the city of Chicago to life using only five puppeteers, videos and an intense soundscape—all on a stage two feet wide and just under four feet long. Director and writer Torry Bend, also assistant professor of the practice of Theater Studies, based the story on the life of her good friend: the play follows Scotty, a man who begins giving out paper hats on the Chicago train he rides every day. Scotty has a love/hate relationship with the city of Chicago due to his problems with mugging and other violent crimes, which he tries to counteract with his childlike gesture. Eventually, he becomes known as “the paper hat guy.”

“The ‘hatting’ was a way to have a lovely relationship with Chicago, but on the other hand he was afraid of just walking down the street,” says Bend.

In the end, Scotty’s paper hat prank comes back to help him through his hard times, with those he inspired returning the favor. This sense of whimsy and playfulness led Bend to consider puppetry as her medium of storytelling.

“I feel like there’s something very magical about puppetry and video. And to me, Scotty’s story has magic to it,” she said. “It’s the kind of thing you hear people say, ‘it could only happen in this city…I am sort of blessed to be a part of this moment.’ And to me that’s what puppetry and video do. They have a similar quality…you can’t quite believe your eyes, even though you know you can.”

The show was originally workshopped at Duke, where it saw two runs and received a warm reception. But Bend wasn’t fully satisfied with the final product.

“After the run at Duke it became clear that there were a lot of things that needed fixing, and that we weren’t really finished yet,” she said. “We wanted to remount it and really polish it up and get the number of puppeteers down.”

Eventually, Bend hopes to bring the show to bigger audiences in Chicago or New York, and the original number of seven puppeteers was too many to travel with.

Downsizing, however, poses some new challenges. With around an hour of runtime and only five puppeteers, the actors are kept busy.

“There’s just so much happening backstage,” Bend said. “There are moments when you look backstage and there’s one puppeteer crouching under another…it becomes like a jungle gym.”

Monet Marshall is one of the puppeteers involved in the behind-the-scenes playground. After recently moving to Durham from New York, she was looking for fun activities when she saw an advertisement for auditions to be in a puppet show. The experience, she says, has been incredible, allowing her to learn about the body’s capacity for storytelling through her job as a puppeteer.

“Individually we’re not really doing anything…everything works together,” Marshall said. “Being in a puppet show, you learn a lot about yourself and about how your own body works. You take something that’s inanimate and breathe life into it and that’s really exciting.”

For Bend, The Paper Hat Game is all about connections—including the one between Duke and the Durham community. Because the show was born at Duke and originally performed within the Theater Studies department, she hopes Duke students will come see the show and increase the arts connection between the school and the city.

“It means a lot to me that this started at Duke and is moving into Durham,” she said. “I love seeing that connection. Getting students out [into the community] is fantastic, and hopefully that’s what will happen with this show.”

The Paper Hat Game will run from October 18-November 3 at Manbites Dog Theater.

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