Puppet theatre tearing down walls

by Lenise Willis

Whether sitting on a couch with Netflix, hiding feelings behind a text message, or stalking friends on Facebook, our culture has some pretty innovative ways to “socialize.” While technology is useful for keeping in touch over long distances, it has also supplanted face-to-face interactions and personal connections, causing more and more people to lose touch with one another and the beautiful world around them. Aiming to tear down our anti-social walls and helping people to reconnect with one another and the Earth is a touring puppet theatre, which will be visiting Carolina Theatre for the first time in September.

“My hope is that people will walk away feeling inspired,” said Donovan Zimmerman, co-founder and director of Paperhand Puppet Intervention. “I hope that audiences will have a deepened sense of connection with their own humanity, creativity, with each other as a community, and with the world and all its beautiful beasts.”

The idea for the theatre, founded in 1999, began when Zimmerman and co-founder and director Jan Burger, both social and environmental activists, met at the Haw River Festival, a three-week environmental education event for elementary students. The two hit it off and decided to produce a puppet show for kids the following year, and even began using large puppets at protests.

“We had both been involved in activism on a variety of issues we felt important enough to speak out about,” Zimmerman said. “We made giant puppets and took them to protests to put another face on these demonstrations. There was sometimes a lot of anger and we wanted people to see another side, more of the beauty and inspiration.”

Zimmerman said the idea eventually led to the creation of the puppet theatre, with the name Paperhand Puppet “Intervention,” to call out its intent to raise awareness and call for action. The troupe’s vision is inspired by their love for the earth and its creatures as well as their belief in justice, equality and peace.

“We imagined a giant papier-mâché hand reaching down from a cardboard cloud, tapping people on the head and saying wake up,” he continued. “We simply did not want to make art that was fluffy, comfortable entertainment. We aim to create work that engages, moves us and holds space for transformation toward a more pluralistic, egalitarian, just, and less violent world.”

“This includes speaking up and out for the foxes and squirrels, the oppressed and ignored, and the trees and oceans. Art, much of it, has always been activism. Art has always had messages and we hope to carry on that tradition to help make the world a better place.”

The puppet troupe has now had 17 annual “puppet pageants” and last year had its record-breaking audience of more than 16,000. In 2013 it received the Goodmon Award, which honors outstanding leadership in the community.

“Each year we assemble a team of musicians, artists, dancers and tinkerers to create the craziness we envision.” said Burger about their annual show. “This time we are super lucky to be working with the amazing Tarish Pipkins A.K.A. Jeghetto the puppet maker. He gives life and articulation to scraps of wood and cardboard destined for the dumpster. I am mesmerized when I watch his puppets snarl and jump like real animals. We are also experimenting this year with using repurposed plastic bags and VHS tape to simulate fur and feathers in our creatures. It’s fun and feels good to come up with new uses for that stuff.”

This year’s show, The Beautiful Beast, compiles ancient stories, myths and legends as it examines how we decide what is beautiful and what is a beast. The story is brought to life with many-legged stilt walkers, multi-person marionettes and shadow puppetry, all woven together with live, original music.

“The theme is reflected in the title as it speaks to the beauty inherent in every creature, monster or beast,” Zimmerman said. “Every dragon, giant bear or sea monster ever attacked or destroyed by humans has had another story. Perhaps they had children to feed or another important role that we, as humans, could not comprehend. We wanted to shine some light on some of the aspects and nuance of these creatures’ complex and compelling tales. Also, a big piece was looking at ourselves and the paradox of our existence.”

The stories are performed by a cast of more than 20 puppeteers and six musicians, including renowned violinist and composer Jennifer Curtis. !

LENISE WILLIS, a graduate from UNC Chapel Hill’s journalism school, has experience in acting and ballet, and has been covering live performances since 2010.


Paperhand Puppet Intervention performs The Beautiful Beast at the Carolina Theatre, 310 S. Greene St., Greensboro, September 17 and 18. For tickets and more information visit or visit