Let's face it, puppets are cool. Automata, the non-profit experimental puppet theater and workshop that is quickly gaining a reputation as the center of cutting edge puppetry in Los Angeles, is yet again proving just how cool puppets can be with their latest production, Exhibit A, which opens today, for a two-weekend run. But the puppets you'll find at Automata aren't your average goofy, fuzzy, kid-stuff. L.A. Weekly sat in on a tech rehearsal this weekend and got a sneak peek.
In the show, a cast of life-size strangely beautiful puppets and live actors all play a number of different characters, mixing and melding personas in a dance both graceful and jarring. But the show goes beyond just entertainment value. Susan Simpson, the director of Exhibit A and co-founder of Automata, has a sophisticated vision of what this show can accomplish in the local arts community, both educationally and politically.
Exhibit A focuses mainly on the inner lives of some key members of the Mattachine Society, one of the very first homosexual activism groups in the United States when it was founded in L.A. in 1950. By the 1960s, the organization had chapters in cities all over the U.S.
The script uses journal entries, personal letters and other archival documents (including a manifesto) from the lives of the Mattachine society's founders, most notably labor activist and outspoken member of the communist party Harry Hay, as well as noted modernist architect John Lautner, whose Silvertop House, with it's sloping roof and bold design, is still a prominent fixture above the Silver Lake reservoir today.
The history of gay rights activism in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 50s goes hand in hand with the radical and socially progressive atmosphere rooted in Silver Lake during that time, so much so that for a time the neighborhood was actually colloquially referred to as “The Red Hills.”
Hay was an outspoken gay rights activist who first came out to friends and family in 1931, long before that was socially acceptable. Several years after founding the Mattachine Society, he was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities for his public support of the Communist Party. He later went on to co-found the Los Angeles chapter of the Gay Liberation Front and the Radical Faeries, a cross-cultural network that actively rejects societally-imposed heterosexual lifestyles that today has thousands of members all over the globe. Hay remained a gay rights activist until he died in 2002 at the age of 90.
One of the non-puppet performers in the play, Mark Simon, knew Hay personally. “He was an impressive person,” says Simon. “When he walked into a place, there was no mistaking that he was in the room. Really, he is on par with Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a real civil rights hero — and an unsung one. The piece is a fascinating way to understand the history of the Red Hills and the way Susan has put the pieces together to explain the unexplainable is very inspiring.”
“I definitely think people should know who Harry Hay is,” adds Simpson.
Exhibit A mixes this rich and not-widely-known history with fictional elements to explore themes of revolution, secrecy and a space-age vision of utopia. “I don't really like to make things that are didactic or historically accurate,” Simpson says. “It's all a part of my fantasy.”
The production style also innovates, mixing a creative range of audio/video projection techniques, creating a colorful and unexpected visual smorgasbord. Camcorders are used to create giant close-ups of the puppet's faces and live animation with props backstage serve as a versatile and ever-changing stage set. The puppets themselves are atypical: gangly, constructed of rickety wooden beams and hardware, and topped with lifelike collaged paper faces.
The piece was first conceived in 2009 and has evolved into a more complete form over the past year. One section was also included in the NOW fest at REDCAT last spring. A clip of that performance can be seen below:
A puppet show taking on complex social issues and sending powerful messages is pretty uncommon. The spontaneous animation of raw materials is both uncanny and bewitching, with moments where the puppets seem so bizarrely alive that the spectator may be left with questions as to whether we might one day be legalizing inter-puppet marriage. And if puppets can fight for gay rights, then maybe there really is no limit to what puppetry might be able to achieve.