Adult Puppet Theater grows in popularity in Phoenix

(Keerthi Vedantam/DD)

Rows of puppets sit on a shelf, mouths agape and eyes blank. Stacey Gordon pulls one off the shelf and turns it to me.

“You’re ugly,” the puppet tells me matter-of-factly in a high-pitched, yet sincere voice.

We stare at each other for a moment.

I can see my ugly reflection in his big, unassuming doe-eyes.

It’s a hand puppet, crafted out of scrap pieces of felt, fuzzy socks and round plastic spheres for eyes. With Gordon’s skillful hand, it transforms into a tiny monster with its own quirky mannerisms, cocking its head between sentences and sighing with exasperation.

“Puppets can get away with saying a lot more,” Gordon tells me, absentmindedly moving the puppet’s mouth as she talks.

Gordon has been making and playing with puppets since she was in high school. Most recently, she was cast as Julia, the newest puppet on “Sesame Street” in ten years. Since moving to Arizona in 2001, she has been an active member of the puppet scene in Phoenix.

Her work appeared at the Great Arizona Puppet Theater and in her own workshops where she teaches others how to make and use puppets. Her audience and clientele are largely made up of adults.

“There’s something about puppetry that allows you to let go of social norms and just dive into your imagination,” Gordon said. “That’s why adults love it so much.”

There’s a strange dichotomy that makes adult puppetry so popular in Phoenix; Puppets with big eyes and big mouths which appear childlike speak in an uncouth or even vulgar manner, defying expectations.

What was once a niche market of local entertainment is now coming out of the woodwork as more adults attend puppet-building workshops and shows.

All Puppet Players, a puppet theater troupe in Phoenix, plays upon this polarity in their shows.

Their last venture, “Die Hard,” sold out nearly every night it ran. The audience was filled with puppet enthusiasts, parents on rare date nights, and out-of-towners who wanted to see a show. All audience members must be 17 years or older to watch their puppets — some human-like, others furry monsters — curse loudly and gesture wildly.

It was a struggle for All Puppet Players founder Shaun McNamara to move the business to Phoenix. When he established the puppet troupe in Santa Ana, California, his wife got a job in Arizona and he had to uproot his life and move the successful business.

“Turns out, Phoenix is full of weirdos,” said McNamara. “That’s probably why we do so well here. It’s a quirky downtown community.”

They play they’re rehearsing, “Fifty Shades of Felt,” opens on Feb. 9 and features some very risqué scenes from very nonhuman characters. It’s a popular show they’re reviving as “Fifty Shades Freed,” the movie, comes out in theaters the same day as the play.

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“Phoenix has such a small and unique arts community,” McNamara said. “It’s not really established, so they welcome new and different creative talents.”

Besides All Puppet Players and the Great Arizona Puppet Theater, there are dozens of adult puppeteers scattered across downtown; the aspiring, the occasional and the I’m-reluctant-to-call-this-my-job-but-it’s-my-job puppeteers.

Very few adult puppeteers in the Valley start out embodying a character through a puppet. More often than not, they start by embodying the character in themselves. Devon Nickel was an actor at Nearly Naked Theater before working through puppets.

“It’s a different experience, bringing life to a puppet,” Nickel said. “Adult puppets are so much more brutally honest, and that makes it all the more fun to play one.”

During rehearsal, a condom is flung into the crowd.

“See,” McNamara said, “This is the kind of stuff you can’t do without puppets.”

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