By SAM THIELMAN
Puppeteer Basil Twist has been lurking outside the mainstream theatre scene for years, but he sauntered inside in 2008, when he and performance artist Joey Arias came to HERE Arts Center with Arias With a Twist, an extravagant burlesque love letter to fifties monster movies. Now, the puppet maker and manipulator is having his cake and eating it, too: He’s got one piece on Broadway (The Addams Family, for which he designed the enormous puppets), he’s working at California’s La Jolla Playhouse on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a documentary about his work (Arias With a Twist: A Docufantasy) opened to acclaim this spring at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Recently, TDF spoke to Twist about his offbeat career path.
TDF: Is puppeteering really in your family?
BASIL TWIST: It's actually not that uncommon. I meet a lot of people who tell me, "I'm a third-generation puppeteer, too!" In Japan or Czechoslovakia, a very specific tradition is passed down from father to son. It's totally different with me—my mother, who doesn't work as a puppeteer anymore, was part of a San Francisco puppet troupe that did shows at birthday parties and hospitals for children. So when I was a kid, I was around it and loved it. It was perfect for me—I was born a year before Sesame Street started, so I was a huge puppet-head. And my mother's father was a big-band leader who used puppets to spice up his act.
TDF: How does your commercial work interact with your more personal stuff?
BT: Well, they recently revamped Beauty and the Beast, and they asked me to come in and work on it, and that was great. It was great to do something really specific and then have it support my little funky studio in the village. I'd like to strike that balance. The other two worlds I straddle are downtown and uptown—where you do funky little things in the basement at HERE Arts Center and then you go do something at Lincoln Center. Which is not necessarily going provide a lot of stability, but gives you a lot of credibility.
TDF: Is it dizzying going from something as intimate as Arias With a Twist in the basement at HERE Arts Center to The Addams Family at the Lunt-Fontanne?
BT: It's the first time I've worked on Broadway. The other large-scale things I've done have been in opera—I did a Hansel and Gretel for the Houston Opera. It didn't have as big a budget as The Addams Family, but I was doing the whole thing—designing and directing. That was what made me think, "Oh, I can handle this."
TDF: How did you get involved with Addams?
BT: I was doing my Symphony Fantastique at the same time [directors Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch] were doing Shockheaded Peter, so we were both touring around the world and kept running into each other. They brought me in [to The Addams Family] to help with the puppets. We had these workshops, and I brought in my gaggle of puppeteers, and it was a really fun and really fertile time on stage. There were no union restrictions, and we could just play. It's harder to get people who are used to the Broadway model to play that way, where you start off in the morning, and then you don't even know what's going to happen by the end of the afternoon. And by the end of the day, we'd built eight giant tentacles.
TDF: Yes, tell us about the squid, which has a major role in Addams.
BT: Well, the squid we made in Chicago was a lot bigger. We did workshops with puppeteers to figure out how to get the big tentacles, and it wasn't that easy, because you don't work with experienced puppeteers on stage—it was mostly the ensemble. And it would have been one thing to just do the squid, but there was everything else to do, as well. Looking back, it was actually great to go to Chicago and make it really hard, because after we scaled it back, people were like, "Oh, my tentacle's only seventeen feet long instead of twenty-four? Piece of cake!"
TDF: How does it work?
BT: They're built like—you know those little wooden snake toys? They're segmented like that so that they can lean to one side or the other. They don't lean in every direction; they just curl, and they've got cables in them. The largest ones are mounted to somebody on a harness like a marching band would use for a drum or a glockenspiel. So you're standing there with a tentacle coming out of your chest, and you pull on the cables to make the tentacles turn to the left or the right. It's a hard structure inside, but then they're covered with a soft-looking silk. I like my things to have some kind sex appeal.
TDF: So what are you doing today?
BT: I am working at the La Jolla playhouse on a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Christopher Ashley. It's not a puppet production, but they wanted me to come and work on the fairy world, which is sort of set in a Victorian parlor. When we go into the land of the forest and the land of the fairies, the world turns upside down, so the parlor literally inverts and the laws of gravity are suspended.
TDF: Wow. What else does the future hold?
BT: I’m working on a piece with Mabou Mines, well, with Lee Breuer, and we're working with the Comedie Francaise in Paris and doing a version of Streetcar Named Desire.
TDF: A puppet version?
BT: Well, I had a piece at the Japan festival called Dogugaeshi. It's named for a technique that involves painted screens, and we're using them to create that world [of Streetcar]. There are other projects where I'm lending my talents to something. I'm probably going to work with Joey [Arias] on a concert that he's doing in the fall. Part of the reason for taking the work out in California, too, is that I'm looking for the next complete piece of mine, be it in a little tiny space or a big space.
I'm also working with Pee-Wee Herman.
Sam Thielman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He contributes arts and news reportage to Variety, Publishers Weekly, World Magazine, and Newsday. He reviews fiction, movies and live performance and writes a bimonthly column on graphic novels and cartoons for Newsday.
(Photo credits -- Top: The Addams Family, photo by Joan Marcus. Middle: Arias With a Twist, photo by Steven Menendez.)