On World Puppetry Day, Halloween Every Night talked to veteran puppeteer Alex Evans of LA's Bob Baker Marionette Theater about the centuries-old art form. / Photo courtesy of Bob Baker Marionette Theater
Ever wonder who’s pulling all the strings? Alex Evans is a guy who thinks about it a lot. Like, for years.
On World Puppetry Day 2022, Evans is talking about it, too.
Evans, the executive director and head puppeteer of Bob Baker Marionette Theater celebrates the art of puppetry as a matter of business. Since 1963, the theater has been entertaining guests, “pulling the strings of family fun,” as their website says, and preserving its rich and valuable history. The theater was even named an official Los Angeles historic-cultural monument in 2009.
First discovering the institution through a google search of “Los Angeles Puppetry,” Evans joined the theater in 2007 as a volunteer, and soon fell in love with both the theater and the art of puppeteering.
“There’s never a dull moment” he says, “There are pieces of history and magic everywhere, and it is so fulfilling doing these shows for all of the kids and adults, and making new puppets and looking at old puppets – I love it.”
Evans recalls how he felt after seeing his first show at Bob Baker Theater: “I was captivated by the possibilities of things you could do, it was so imaginative.”
Cabaret-style puppetry in particular is so unique. “You can see the puppeteer while the puppets perform, and the mechanism behind it, he says. “It is this wonderful moment — it is almost like a suspension of disbelief — where you’re being shown that it’s a puppet and yet you’re getting lost in this charming character. It is this beautiful experience of seeing both the behind the scenes and the front of the scenes at the same time.”
Puppeteering diverges from different methods of storytelling in other ways as well. “It’s gestural,” Evans says, “Realism is never the goal with puppetry. The goal isn’t to make a life-like figure, but to draw upon empathy and feelings in order to tell a story. You take a happy movement and a sad movement and explore how they connect to each other, it’s not real and yet it plays with real emotion.”
There is also an unparalleled intimacy to the relationship between a puppeteer and the puppet, one which Evans describes as transportative.
“The best feeling is to be able to disappear into the character. It is less of the puppet embodying me, but me embodying the puppet. I am constantly trying to think about what the puppets would do or feel” he says. It isn’t as simple as pulling a few strings, there is a deep connection between the two, and they work together to tell a story authentically and organically.
There is also an element of escapism to puppeteering, Evans says, as well as a vulnerability his younger self would never have imagined achieving on stage. That escapism, and that deep connection with the art form, almost feels like a superpower.
As beautiful as this artform is however, some still feel apprehensive. Puppets are often overlooked, disregarded simply as something scary and supernatural despite centuries of history. Films and entertainment have occasionally used puppets to invoke fear.
Evans says he understands where people are coming from.
“It is scary or creepy removed from the context of its original purpose” he points out, “but to limit it as such however, is tunnel vision. You’re missing out on the whole world of expression and what the puppet can do.”
Evans’ words strike a chord. People tend to fear what they do not understand, and the only clear way to acknowledge and surpass such notions or concerns is through first-hand experience. At the theater, Evans has seen this change in action.”There’s nothing more fulfilling to me than to have someone coming into the theater with such fears and leaving smiling, their mind changed” he adds. The old saying continues to ring true, knowledge is power.
With the intent of recognizing puppetry as a global art form, World Puppetry Day reminds us of the magic that puppetry holds. There is no other art form quite like it, and it stands alone in its value and power.