CHAPEL HILL — As puppets, masks, and stilt walkers weave stories together up on stage, the sky begins to darken and insects hum in the woods.
Composed of a collection of loose narratives about the Earth’s history and humanity’s place within it, “Invisible Earth,” Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s 14th annual outdoor show, melds poetically with the ambiance of UNC’s Forest Theatre.
The show opened Thursday and will run through Sept. 9 with performances Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Labor Day at 7 p.m. (There will be additional matinees Aug. 25, Sept. 1 and Sept. 8 at 3 p.m.) Those who miss the show in Chapel Hill may follow it to Raleigh and catch performances at the N.C. Museum of Art on Sept. 13, 14 or 15.
“Invisible Earth” deals with weighty and broad themes. Throughout the performance, the focus rests on issues related to the Earth, the environment, and what it means to be human.
“We always have messages and themes,” said Donovan Zimmerman who, along with Jan Burger, founded Paperhand. “There’s not always an explicit story, but there’s a narrative that flows through the shows.”
“Invisible Earth” is Paperhand’s biggest show to date. There are countless puppets, props, costumes and illustrative posters. The scale builds as the play progresses, and at one point the performers even use a giant Egyptian crane to lift a large mask into the air.
“The summer show has continued to grow since we started 14 years ago,” said Zimmerman. “We try to outdo ourselves every year.”
Zimmerman says his team begins working on each summer’s performance in May. The props, masks and puppets are created in Saxapahaw, and on Saturdays community members are invited into the studio to help out by adding layers of paper mache to various projects.
“We can’t do anything on this scale by ourselves. So it’s a group effort, and it’s really about investing the community in it,” Zimmerman said. “I think having people invested in the culture of creativity is really what I want.”
The performance, though its themes intertwine and connect, is composed of many different tones and methods of storytelling. Zimmerman likes to mix up the vibes a lot and let the show play host to a range of moods.
The music, written by composer Ari Picker and performed live at each performance, helps to signal those changes in tone.
This is the first time that Picker has composed music for a Paperhand summer show, and he says he’s never done anything quite like it before. He didn’t have too many opportunities to hear and see his music paired with the performance due to the ponderous, technical nature of the show, he said. As a result, changes to the score had to be made quickly and on the fly.
The music brings the movements of the actors and their props to life. In fact, because much of the play revolves around animals, the Earth, and the environment, music often takes the place of dialogue and narration.
When words are spoken, they are often poetic or rhythmic.
At the end of the show, for example, the voice of a young-sounding girl narrates a shadow puppet performance. She speaks of how important nature used to be to her and expresses her concern about humankind’s current blindness to its relationship with the environment.
“Now we are talking only to ourselves,” she says. “We are not talking to the rivers. We are not listening to the wind or the stars.”
However, she also expresses hope that humankind may re-open this conversation.
In many ways, this narrator and her shadow puppet show encapsulate the paradoxical combination of anxiety and hope that pervades the play. By interweaving her own story with the plight of the environment, this narrator illustrates the show’s larger suggestion that humans are inescapably connected to the Earth’s history, its creatures and its future.
Zimmerman says he likes to explore different concepts through the summertime shows. However, it is clear that underlying ideas and discussions of humanity’s relationship to the Earth are never far from the surface.
“The shows aren’t always about the environment,” he said. “But really, what else is there to talk about?”