|All Is But Toys
|From classical theater to modern political
commentary, small actors are taking on some pretty big parts.
|By Derek Armstrong
|Issue: March 2001
You walk into a 70-seat black box theater and
a pair of binoculars.
Mr. Smile, a.k.a. Macbeth, stands triumphant over a pile of
fallen figures in the Tiny Ninja Theater production of Macbeth.
In the early moments of Macbeth, you recognize the lead
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 Shakespeares
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 Centers 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.
Its 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 youre watching it, youre
aware that this piece of paper being moved by somebodys hand
is actually effective.
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.
Characters from Sams Dog & Pony Show flit across a
small stage during the International Toy Theater Festival.
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. Theres something
about the grand spectacle that can be created from the lowest tech
He did spend up a little for his sound systema Sekaku PAS 767
headset microphone and amplifierin 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 someones closet.
Given the absurd scale, the show got its share
of laughs at various points. Weinstein was initially taken aback by
thisI approached it very seriously, he deadpansbut
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 challengeand
what tickled the audiences funny bonewas 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.
John Bell gives flight to a metronome in Great Small Works
Toy Theater Of Terror As Usual.
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
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 its
not just politicsthe group and various offshoots have done dramatic
texts ranging from War And Peace to Faust to The Iliad.
One aspect of toy theater thats very intriguing is that
you can do it anywhere, says Bell. You could do it in
somebodys 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 Vermonts 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 screenespecially since not everyone
got binoculars at the door. The funny thing is that when you
start looking through binoculars, the scale disappears and its
though you were at the opera, says Bell.
Whether it will ever gain the popularity of opera remains to be seenand
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