<bt>Using the steel canopies gathered from pieces of umbrellas, George Mason University students construct skinless skeletons in the basement of the Performing Arts center. Then, "the cosmos gives us materials," said Prof. Lynnie Raybuck standing beside a shopping cart filled with pieces of clay, PCV pipe, cardboard and cloth fabrics.
Over the semester, Raybuck, a professor of dramatics, theater and puppeteering at GMU, and her class created life-sized puppets for the American Century Theater production of "A Flag is Born" by Ben Hecht.
Raybuck finds this type of outreach opportunity between community theater and the university to be important. "I always try to have a professional gig for my students in puppetry," she said. "It's very difficult, as are all collaborative efforts. Then there is the time restraint. But that's part of the process. That's a lesson that I want them to learn."
PUPPETS IN theater present both possibilities and difficulties. While puppetry is at once a "visual language in the theatrical medium. It's animated sculpture, and not necessarily representational," said Raybuck. A puppet does only what it is built to do, and in the changing needs of the live stage, puppeteers find themselves awake long hours into the night, restringing and setting a puppet, so that it might move in a different way, or express a different emotion and meet the needs of a scene.
"You have to build the expression in," said Raybuck, "though people always say they see the faces moving. It takes the audience places humans can't take them."
The puppets featured in "A Flag is Born," are the Angel of Death and Saul. The Angel of Death "requires three people to operate" said Andy Tonbau, 16, a stagehand at American Century Theater. "We named him Spike."
Andy controls the movement of the specter along with Genevieve James, and Kerry Stinson. ‘Spike’ was a collaborative effort between Raybuck and her students.
"The hardest part was probably figuring out the mechanism for the death puppet's arms," said GMU junior Charity Long. "We went through several trials, trying to find the right controls. In the end, each arm was about 8 feet long."
A longtime fan of The Muppets, Long also sings and designs costumes. Puppetry is "a great way to combine my skills in one medium," said Long.
Shane Wallis is the actor who portrays the Saul puppet, bracing the carriage on his shoulders, and donning the clay sculpted head. Saul, the brain child of Raybuck, is at once surreal and symbolic. When the arms of the puppet are extended, Saul and his sword fill the stage.
"For some of us, it's real and attractive, for others, it's scary," said Raybuck. "A Flag is Born" runs until Saturday, April 24.