Treasure in the Triangle: Paperhand Puppet Intervention and Hidden Voices

In the past couple of weeks, I had opportunity to see inspired work from two theatre companies both unique to the Triangle, both at the zenith of their creative capacity. On the face of it, a documentary theatre company focused on social justice and a troupe that puts on large puppet musical extravaganzas might shun comparison. And yet Hidden Voices and Paperhand Puppet Intervention both make an art of opening up the circle of society by bringing out the stories of the neglected and disempowered.

Every year, audiences of thousands are treated to a brand-new fable of social relevance told through stunning and imaginative puppeteering and set to a vibrant new musical score. Paperhand is based in Saxpahaw, and its big annual outing is at UNC’s Forest Theatre in August and early September with some encore shows in Raleigh. This year their offering was "A Drop in the Bucket: the Big Dreams of Tiny Things," brought to us by the magic of magnification created with oversized props and puppets. (Proppets, perhaps?) We are introduced to a world where overlooked objects, such as a thumb tack, a marble, a needle and thread, take center stage and their tiny stories spin out larger than life. We follow whimsically a drop of water along its life cycle. We land inevitably in the lives of children, that most precious tiny treasure in our midst.

Looking around, there are hundreds of us, all enjoying the music, the relaxed atmosphere on a late summer evening. Raised hands indicate nearly half the crowd is brand new to Paperhand. My neighbor comments on what a wonderful community event this is. His grandkids are there, attentive to each plot twist. We all cheer when something good happens, boo when a character behaves poorly, and we clap for the performers, so many of whom are delightful amateurs. The heart of the play seeks to release children from consumerist cultural blight and into a full embrace of their birthright of adventure, imagination, and exploration in worlds both external and internal. The animal spirits of the owl and fox serve as the final objects of our collective meditation. Day has turned to night, and the puppets are made of light and shadow. Giant, luminescent, the owl and the fox move into our midst and all the children rush to touch and to make contact. Magic. The children are now lit from within.

Hidden Voices is an effort led by a friend, Artistic Director Lynden Harris, and a friend and colleague, Associate Artistic Director Kathy Williams. For a dozen years, they have made it their mission to tell the stories, as their name implies, of the silent and the muted. Past subjects have included survivors of domestic violence, the homeless, spouses of veterans, students in the school-to-prison pipeline, and Chapel Hill’s historic Northside neighbors. Their work is broader than the theatre itself; other arts are often used as well, the goal being to get the marginalized and often victimized to share their stories.

Hidden Voices’ most recent presentation—monologues from men on Death Row—challenges our preset understanding of villains and victims. These monologues were shared this weekend at a fundraiser at The Historic Murphey School in Durham along with songs from John Flynn, a disarming and full-voiced folk musician. These heart-wrenching and eye-opening pieces are part of a larger effort of Hidden Voices called Serving Life “collaborating with staff and inmates to write, reflect and consider the necessary foundations for change in our communities and our criminal justice system.” This is no easy task earning the trust of prisoners and the (perhaps more impenetrable) penal system that holds them. There are no doubt ups and downs with this mission-driven work, and these pioneers deserve support. If there was a Paul Green award for Social Justice in the Arts, Lynden Harris and Hidden Voices would take it home.

Hidden Voices reading inmate monologues at UNC's Pit, on Sept 14

Two very different theatre organizations, but one can’t say enough about either of them given their dedication to and capacity for using theatre for community enrichment and social change. Both regard the process of creating the work as sacred in itself. This is a key part of their integrity. Long may they run, these theatrical treasures of ours here in the Triangle.