All Is But Toys
From classical theater to modern political commentary, small actors are taking on some pretty big parts.
Issue: March 2001

Mr. Smile, a.k.a. Macbeth, stands triumphant over a pile of fallen figures in the Tiny Ninja Theater production of Macbeth.
You walk into a 70-seat black box theater and receive … a pair of binoculars.

In the early moments of Macbeth, you recognize the lead … from the gumball machine at your local five and dime.

With what some are considering a full-scale revival of a centuries-old tradition, these strange sights might soon become more common. That tradition is toy theater, and two popular engagements in New York City last fall identified what might be a genuine appetite for miniature theater performed by plastic figurines and cardboard cut-outs.

In August, puppeteer Dov Weinstein premiered his version of Macbeth at the New York International Fringe Festival, under the name Tiny Ninja Theater. Before a seating capacity of only 10 people, Weinstein used his own voice and dozens of inch-high toy ninjas purchased from vending machines to reenact one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies. Audiences found the show so beguiling that word-of-mouth kept it playing through the end of December at the Present Company Artspace. In November, Great Small Works, in conjunction with HERE Art Center’s Dream Music Puppetry Program, held its fifth installment of the International Toy Theater Festival over three weekends, gathering masters of miniature from all corners. With everything from tiny characters performing on matchbook stages to a ticking metronome that danced through the air, the performers delivered provocative messages unique to the reduced format.

“It’s interesting for us to see this old form and how we can reinvent it,” says John Bell, a puppeteer and spokesman for Great Small Works, the New York-based collective of performance artists formed in 1995 to explore theatrical social commentary on a small scale and budget. “While you’re watching it, you’re aware that this piece of paper being moved by somebody’s hand is actually effective.”

Characters from Sam’s Dog & Pony Show flit across a small stage during the International Toy Theater Festival.
It certainly captivated 18th- and 19th-century European audiences, who delighted at the miniature performance of such grand spectacles as dances, battle scenes and high drama. Flat figures cut from cardboard filled out the dramatis personae, moving among tiny sets and props of similar design. Great Small Works honors that tradition, developing segments of its ongoing series, called Toy Theater Of Terror As Usual, mostly with newspaper cut-outs that pass under a TV-sized proscenium arch. Tiny Ninja Theater gives the format a twist, but more accurately reflects our current notion of what constitutes a “toy,” with its dimestore plastic ninjas. Both end up being very technical operations, as they depend on props that must be manipulated in specific ways with great mechanical accuracy.

Weinstein knows a thing or two about how tricky it is. Sitting over the Macbeth setup, its briefcase-sized stage at waist level, Weinstein had to put all his extremities to good use. Because his hands were busy clearing or re-populating the stage with sets, ninjas and other players (the two leads were slightly larger and more whimsical figurines, known as Mr. and Mrs. Smile), Weinstein operated his two flood lights (for daytime) and blue light (for nighttime) with his bare toes. “It was important to me that the show was self-contained, and that everything be live,” he explains. When he did have a free hand, Weinstein would use a pen light as a spotlight, a so-called “push light” to simulate the weird sisters’ cauldron, and a red laser pointer to indicate blood. All of these he purchased at the hardware store. “If I had fancy lighting, it would have detracted immensely from the performance,” says Weinstein. “There’s something about the grand spectacle that can be created from the lowest tech means.”

He did spend up a little for his sound system—a Sekaku PAS 767 headset microphone and amplifier—in the interest of delivering the truncated text with crisp diction. (The show ran only 40 minutes, but that still would have taxed his vocal chords without amplification, especially during the Fringe Festival, when he performed 21 shows in 12 days). But the rest of his stage was outfitted quite literally with things he found in the trash. Weinstein built castle turrets out of milk cartons and hung his lights on a metal frame that had been discarded from someone’s closet.

John Bell gives flight to a metronome in Great Small Works’ Toy Theater Of Terror As Usual.
Given the absurd scale, the show got its share of laughs at various points. Weinstein was initially taken aback by this—“I approached it very seriously,” he deadpans—but soon grew to recognize the laughter as appreciative of his clever solutions, such that he would miss hearing it when he had a more academic audience. What provided Weinstein his greatest challenge—and what tickled the audience’s funny bone—was how to technically meet the demands of the text, given the limitations of his medium. In the banquet scene, the guests are required to stand and sit several times, so Weinstein glued seated and standing versions of each character on a cardboard sheet that he could rotate back and forth. Similarly, he attached ninjas to a fan that would open and close, so he could conceal and reveal an approaching army, which would move together in convoy. In ano-ther interesting innovation, he created the illusion of independent movement by fixing magnets to characters’ feet, then moving them across stage with the help of a second magnet he held underneath the stage. Cleverly, he also used the magnets to repel each other, magically knocking over his ninjas to dramatic effect.

The unexpected popularity of Tiny Ninja Theater is prompting Weinstein to consider a follow-up. “Originally, there was no next step,” he says. “Now, I have a feeling that I need to do another one, just to see. Does it lose its novelty? I have to answer that question.” Convenience store owners everywhere, stock up your vending machines.

Great Small Works also uses all manner of household items in its shows, giving further credence to the idea of toy theater as a do-it-yourself artform. “All you need is cardboard, glue and a matte knife,” says Bell, outlining the simplicity with which characters are created. “We use coat hangers or umbrella spokes for rods. Then you just need a photocopying machine and some interesting images.” Bell recalls one instance in which they clipped a newspaper photo of a woman in a Greek theater, and repeated it twentyfold to form a two-dimensional Greek chorus.

Although Great Small Works itself was not an entity until 1995, the first Toy Theater Of Terror As Usual was performed in response to the events building into the Gulf War. “We used the images of mass media that we got from the newspaper and kind of reconstituted them into a critique of that political situation,” explains Bell, who teaches theater history at Emerson College in Boston. The 10th installment of that series, “Stormy Weather,” ran at the toy theater festival in November. It featured such diverse elements as a windblown highway scene, in which toy telephone polls were buffeted by a fan as they receded into a backdrop photograph; articulated arms being pulled out of boxes of Altoids mints; a snake-like extension cord hunting among a sea of wall outlets and the aforementioned metronome on strings. The messages are abstract, often accompanied by excerpts of song, dialogue or poetry. A half-dozen puppeteers gather around the small proscenium stage, manipulating the images. And it’s not just politics—the group and various offshoots have done dramatic texts ranging from War And Peace to Faust to The Iliad.

“One aspect of toy theater that’s very intriguing is that you can do it anywhere,” says Bell. “You could do it in somebody’s home.” In fact, he says, Great Small Works has a standing interest in doing a tour of living rooms. How and where this would occur remains to be seen, but the group has prior experience performing in such settings.

Other groups interpreted the toy theater festival as broadly as one might imagine. While Vermont’s Unbarring the Door Theater Company engaged in a more traditional show about an immigrant Swedish family, using an interesting interplay of figures and silhouettes, Laura Heit of Chicago presented a variety of vignettes with characters created from matches and small drawings, by turns cute and morbid. This latter had to be projected on a video screen—especially since not everyone got binoculars at the door. “The funny thing is that when you start looking through binoculars, the scale disappears and it’s though you were at the opera,” says Bell.

Whether it will ever gain the popularity of opera remains to be seen—and both Bell and Weinstein frankly doubt it. More realistically, they consider it a valuable form with profound meaning for the select audience that seeks it out, practicable by amateurs on a small budget. “We had two workshops during the festival,” says Bell. “The first one, a lot of kids came. The second was over 90 percent adults. More than anything, it interests us to inspire other people to work in the form.”

To learn more about the International Toy Theater Festival, contact Great Small Works at 315 West 86th Street, #4E, New York, NY 10024, or by phone at 212-787-8457 or 718-499-0914. To reach Tiny Ninja Theatre, call Dov Weinstein at 212-769-8448. sd