Dancing on a string

The life of a puppeteer

Bringing puppets to life is only part of the fun for professional puppeteers—there’s also boredom and lots of time spent away from home.

Bringing puppets to life is only part of the fun for professional puppeteers—there’s also boredom and lots of time spent away from home.

Being a traveling puppeteer is kind of like being a rock star. Well, OK, there aren’t really any groupies and hardly any trashing of hotel rooms. But the endless hours on the road, traveling from city to city? Playing live to adoring audiences? Excited fans asking for your autograph? Puppeteers Allison Cossitt and Ezra Homison of Tears of Joy Theatre know all about that.

Based in Portland, Ore., Tears of Joy Theatre takes its shows on the road every year, giving performances to elementary and middle schools all over the West Coast. Cossitt and Homison recently stopped in Virginia City for a show. They’re heading back to Portland to debut A Fig For Such A Life, written by Homison, and then it’s back on tour again, through May 2005.

This year, they’re performing Ride the Red Mare, based on a book by sci-fi/fantasy author Ursula K. LeGuin. It’s the story of a young girl on a journey to rescue her brother from trolls. She receives unexpected help from a toy wooden horse that comes to life to protect her.

“It’s about family bonding,” explains Cossitt. “You may fight with your siblings, but deep down you really love them.”

The company chooses diverse, multicultural stories; recent selections include the adventures of the Greek hero Perseus and tales of Anansi, the African trickster-god. Though they try not to be preachy, the stories usually involve a moral lesson for the young audience, too.

Another difference between puppeteers and rock stars: Cossitt and Homison aren’t just the performers—they’re the roadies, light and sound techs and everything else. They set up their own stage, do their own voices, and, with the help of what Homison calls their “box of tech,” control all the visual effects themselves, through switches and foot pedals. And, of course, they’re in charge of maintaining the puppets as well.

“There’s all sorts of painting and repair,” sighs Cossitt. Costumes get torn and fingers snap off regularly during travel. Marionettes are particularly troublesome, because their delicate strings break easily and must be carefully resewed. “Five-minute epoxy is our friend,” Homison says, laughing.

So how do you become a puppeteer? After earning his master’s in theater, Homison happened to catch a Tears of Joy production in a Portland bookstore and auditioned for a part. When they offered him a job with their company, it just so happened that they also needed a female puppeteer. Enter Cossitt, who began acting in seventh grade and who also studied theater in college. “Most normal theater doesn’t excite me at all,” she says, but puppeteering gives her the opportunity to do voices, which is her favorite. “Voice work is a big part of all Tears of Joy shows,” explains Cossitt. “It’s something we take a great deal of pride in.”

Of course, touring for months at a time can be grueling. “There’s nothing to ground you,” Cossitt says. “We see a lot of hotel rooms.” With a van full of equipment, there’s not much room for personal possessions, although Cossitt’s two pet rats add a touch of home. Many of the places they visit are unfamiliar; this was their first visit to Nevada.

Still, they say, despite the hardships of being on tour, the job is worth it. “It’s a really rewarding experience, working with kids,” comments Homison.

“The kids are so excited to see you, it really fuels you," Cossitt adds. "It’s nice to do something that you feel good about and believe in." And how many rock stars can say that?