AUSTIN: “Okay, let’s see the creation of the universe,” says Connor Hopkins, artistic director of the local company Trouble Puppet, by way of introduction to a showing of scenes from The Wars of Heaven, Part I. The piece, which had its official opening on April 30 and runs through May 17 at Salvage Vanguard Theater, is the first installment of a saga chronicling an ongoing struggle between fallen angels and the loyal fidelii, a rivalry so powerful that all earthly warfare throughout history is a mere byproduct. The entire three-part Wars of Heaven is planned to roll out over the next three years, with new installments in 2016 and 2017.
Hopkins has been at the helm of Trouble Puppet since 2004, when his politically edged stories and rough-hewn puppets could be found in local bars or Monkeywrench Books. Originally from Dallas, Hopkins felt drawn to Austin.
“It’s where oddballs from a five state-region go,” he explains. “They either go to New Mexico if they’re into that kind of thing, or they go to New Orleans if they’re into that kind of thing—or they go to Austin. So we’re somewhere in between New Mexico mysticism and New Orleans bonhomie. A little of both.”
Finding his métier was an accident, he says. Initially intrigued by the novelty of the form, it was puppetry’s location at the nexus of various disciplines that kept Hopkins coming back. Buttressing his construction and technical theatre skills with a gift for writing and a political mindset, he found himself uniquely suited to what soon became his life’s work.
Trouble Puppet producer Kathryn Rogers was formerly on the board of the Salvage Vanguard, the warehouse-like space in East Austin which serves as Trouble Puppet’s artistic and physical home, and allows the company to receive city financial support as a “sponsored project” under the wing of its 501(c)3 status. Hopkins earned his and Trouble Puppet’s keep there by helping with general maintenance (he actually framed most of the building itself). Rogers would regularly express her excitement about the company’s work when she saw him around; eventually she offered her services a co-conspirator. Now she is for all intents and purposes the face of the company, taking on ticketing, press and what seem like all the responsibilities surrounding the writing and fabrication of the shows themselves that aren’t taken up by Hopkins. (She even provided delicious snacks for the audience on the afternoon I visited.)
Trouble Puppet sells out the majority of its performances and is the premier (though hardly the only) company creating dedicated puppet work for adult audiences in Austin. Ellie McBride, who performs in the show and is a company member of Rude Mechanicals, told me that since Trouble Puppet’s popularity has led to more and more puppetry poppuing up a variety of local theatre, echoing a larger national and international curiosity about the form.
Rogers adds that the company is often asked to consult on other productions or ensembles newly exploring puppetry. Rogers says that theatre artists approaching puppetry often think “they’re going to the drama store and trying to buy a box of cool,” tending to underestimate the intricacies of the medium. For those who embrace the art form for more than reasons of fashion, though, there are rewards: Puppetry tends to draw a range of skilled artists seeking new horizons in performance and design beyond what they find in “meat theatre” (Hopkins’s term for live performance with people in it).
While Trouble Puppet’s creative family is on the whole a consistent and tightly knit one, the process of making the epic Wars of Heaven was somewhat fraught, with cast conflicts and changes in the normally dependable creative roster, not to mention Hopkins’s wife being pregnant throughout rehearsals (she gave birth two days before I spoke with him).
Many of the show’s battle sequences are portrayed with shadow puppets, often beautifully layered with multiple light sources, or merged with sleek projections thanks to the combined efforts of media designer Chris Owen and media integrator/sound designer K. Eliot Haynes. The overall effect is both ethereal and epic. And Justin Sherburn’s score stresses cello and choral elements, using samples of Austin-based vocal ensemble Convergence.
Trouble Puppet’s website describes The Wars of Heaven as “Miltonic,” the label is intended to represent the epic literary style of the work as a whole, not its content. The show uses a familiar narrative of the schism between Heaven and Hell as a springboard to depict some of the great battles of human history through the eyes of two angels—one fallen, one still loyal. The two are destined to meet again and again as their heavenly war plays out over thousands of years in and around human struggles in Egypt, Caledonia, Stalingrad and North America.
The repetitive cycle of destruction and reconstruction is broken when Cyrus, a fallen angel, and Iarath, one of the “fidelii,” make a pact to break the cycle of killing and set out to create their own society. As Hopkins explains, “All these citizens who object to the hierarchical nature of their society leave that behind and go out and create their own society which eventually develops into this…hierarchical society. So that even though it’s a mirror image of what it was, it’s a replication of the same thing. The opposite of Heaven isn’t an inversion of Heaven, it’s a flattening. So that there are no longer tiers of power, no longer rank, no longer coercion—equality.”
To see if a pact between angels can overcome such a human obstacle, however, we’ll have to come back in 2016.