Go Deeper

Puppets Aren’t Just For Kids: Catch Up with Little Bunny Voodoo

Posted September 11th, 2009

Alisa Sickora Kleckner and Chris Kleckner are the wife-and-husband team behind Little Bunny Voodoo, a puppet theater company that “makes works of puppetry for the mature person.” For their third Philly Fringe show they are presenting Fractured Scary Tales: The Black Cat, a work after the famous Edgar Alan Poe story. Tonight and tomorrow night, the show will be almost entirely a movement piece along with music, permeated with and the couple’s usual brand of fantastic puppets, humor, and boundary-pushing.

Alisa and Chris, now in their mid-thirties, first met in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania in the late 1990s, while Alisa was working on costume design and Chris was doing at tech at the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. Puppetry really became their signature art form in 2000, when the two attended what turned out to be the final Jim Henson Festival in New York City.

“My love for puppetry was really born there,” explains Chris. “Up until that point I had a very American view of puppets—as Muppets really, very child oriented—that [festival] was my first experience of puppetry for adult audiences and it completely shattered my view of puppetry.”

“And one of the best if not the best thing I’ve ever seen was a show there,” remembers Alisa. Chris adds, “Within in five minutes I forgot it was a puppet.”

While neither Chris not Alisa is anti-children’s puppet theater (never fear—they are not out to beat up children’s puppets), it is just not what they are interested in creating. They make shows for “adult audiences,” a term they are a little uncomfortable with as it carries overtones of puppet porn. They do admit to having displayed a naked puppet or two, and about this Chris muses, “Don’t know where puppet nudity falls in the grand scheme of decency.”

After the jump: Leaving small town Pennsylvania, puppets in Prague, and bringing the puppetry back home.

But for American audiences, as Alisa points out, it’s a “constant struggle for people to take it seriously as adult theater.” Or, adds Chris, “As art as opposed to entertainment.” But on a trip to Prague, not long after they were married in 2004, where Alisa was took a 16-day master class with Mirek Trejtnar on puppet making, “there were 16 art, theater and puppet festival while we were there.” In Prague, puppets are big, and puppet theater affords the same breadth of expression as regular theater or film does in the United States. “If you go visit Prague,” says Alisa, “there are puppet shops.”

Like most U.S. citizens, neither Chris not Alisa grew up in a town where puppet theater for grown ups has probably ever been shown. But for both of them, their upbringings had unique influences on their growth as artists.

“A lot of heavy metal, a lot of farms,” says Alisa, who grew up near Sunbury in central Pennsylvania, where “70s clothes, 80s music, and mullets [are] still very popular.” But it is a beautiful area and Alisa grew up in an artistic household with a painter for a grandmother, a calligrapher for a grandfather, and an architect father. “I did a lot of crafts growing up.”

Alisa became involved in theater in high school, and then studied acting at Muhlenberg College. Unfortunately, due to a financial aid nightmare, Alisa left Muhlenberg, moved around the country a bit, and then ended up at Bloomsburg University, where she got a degree in fine arts, with her emphasis in sculpture. Her plan, partly inspired by a brief stint designing CD packages in Seattle, was to make a living as a visual artist, but as she explains, “Senior year I took a costume design class just because I thought it would be fun and I’ve been costume designing ever since.” What’s most exciting to her is “actualizing a 2-dimentional ideas on a 3-dimensional body and then having it move.”

Chris meanwhile grew up in the “very coal oriented” town of Hazelton, in Northeastern Pennsylvania. It is a place, Chris explains, where you “grow up trying to move out.” His family does not have an artistic background. His grandparents and great-grandparents were coal miners, his father is a factory worker, and his mother is a teacher. But during his high school years, Chris did a lot of board operating and set building at the community theater. Of the shows he worked on, Chris explains they were “primarily variety shows that featured condensed versions of musicals—hardly legal, barely artistic.”

Still, Chris credits the community theater for really giving him an opportunity to experiment with sets and lights. “Came into myself at community theater,” he explains. “Any person with some talent can step into lighting and set design. In a small community theater you can occupy those hats . . . so at a very young age I was experimenting.” Chris makes it clear that he is “not embarrassed about my past, but glad it is my past.” What connects Chris artistically to design work is how “I really enjoy sculpting light and creating worlds out of light,” he explains. “I realized I was much more interested in creating environments that art could be made within.”

Chris went on to study technical theater at Westchester University, and after graduating worked in a theater in Bloomsburg, where he would meet Alisa. After a stint in Allentown, the couple moved to Glenside and worked at Acadia University–Chris as the technical director (along with several other titles) for their theater program and Alisa is the resident costume designer and both are adjunct faculty.

Philly Fringe forced them to create Little Bunny Voodoo the company. (Little Bunny Voodoo is also a wooden puppet, something of a muse, who plays the host at their shows.) “We wanted to do a public performance—sink or swim and figure out if it was for us,” says Chris. After they came back from Prague, they were fully bitten by the puppetry bug, and they had all the tools to create a show, from making the puppets to building the sets to performing (along with some help from students). Their first Fringe show was Late Night at the Tiki Bar, in which all the Tiki mugs (most were gallon sized) were puppets, as well as the totem polls that flanked the bar.

For Tiki they controlled the puppets from under the bar with the aid of spy-cams to be able to see what they were doing. For the second show LIVE! LIVE! LIVE!-hoity meets the hood, “we were all in black and behind the puppets [in a particular puppet style]—we don’t specialize, whatever suits the purpose.” hoity featured a street about 16 feet long, and audiences inserted tokens and then could look through a window that opened up and witness a scene.

This year’s Fractured Scary Tales: The Black Cat has “four main puppets [that are] 18 to 24 inches, more stylized, expressionist puppets,” Chris explains. “Takes as much as a week working fulltime to make one puppet.” Alisa adds, ” Most made of neoprene—a rigid latex. Sculpted molds are made then cast. One made out of silicon rubber. Decide on substance by what it does and what it was.” One sequence features a pop up book with animated construction. And still, the duo claim they are working small this year.

Fractured Scary Tales: The Black Cat opened last night at Grasso’s Magic Theatre, 103 Callowhill Street. It runs for two performances tonight (September 11) and tomorrow (September 12), at 8:00 and 10:00 pm both nights.

–Josh McIlvain

Photos courtesy Little Bunny Voodoo, and by josh McIlvain