By Claire Lui
“Nobody’s looking for a puppeteer in today’s wintry economic climate,” said Craig, the frustrated puppeteer in the 1999 film “Being John Malkovitch.” The movie, among other things, was a portrayal of the bleak economic and artistic climate for puppeteers. But New York, contrary to the film, is actually a thriving city for puppeteers, and Oliver Dalzell, 30, an Astoria resident, is proof that Craig was wrong.
Most people think of puppets as something for children, and indeed, Dalzell does work at the Swedish Marionette Cottage Theater in Central Park, puppeteering and building the sets for the fairy tale shows. He considers the show kid stuff, literally and figuratively, and sitting in the audience of “Hansel and Gretel,” it seems like an apt description. After watching the same production from backstage though, a totally different sort of view unfolds.
Dalzell, as the puppeteer behind the wicked witch, perches on a platform high above the stage with the four other puppeteers, manipulating the strings of the witch so that she bounces malevolently with each cackle. The puppeteers weave over and under each other’s arms, pulling one string taut and then letting another go slack as they move the marionettes around the stage. Like members of a corps de ballet, the puppeteers’ arms move in graceful motions, sometimes drooping low and then going up in a graceful arch. It’s a discovery to watch the beauty of the movement of the puppeteers — a beauty that the audience can’t see.
It’s this sense of movement that really interests Dalzell, and what drives his own puppetry. Trained as an illustrator, he graduated from Ringling School of Art Design in 1997, and had originally planned on becoming an animator for Disney. In his junior year, he saw a puppet production that recreated the first “Star Wars” movie. It was a pivotal moment. Suddenly he could see where all of his interests — painting, sculpture, performance art, animation, and music — collided. In his senior year, he began to using his free time to developing his own puppet show.
After moving to New York in 1998, he went to see Basil Twist’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” “Symphonie Fantastique,” an avant-garde underwater puppet show, was a show that redefined the very notion of what constitutes a puppet show. Set in a 500-gallon tank of water, pieces of cloth and plastic swooped around the tank in a ballet of light, color and movement. Set to Hector Belioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” the show had no characters, no stories, no dialogue — just a hypnotic swirl of textures and hues in a giant tank of water.
For Dalzell, who describes his ideal puppet show as “a painting that moves,” “Symphonie Fantastique” was a close embodiment of his dream. Going backstage after the show he asked for a job, and got one — as a sludge cleaner. Responsible for cleaning up the muck in the tank after the show, he quickly rose to being a full-time puppeteer and stayed with the show for the remainder of its year and a half run.
In addition to his work with the marionettes in Central Park, and working with Basil Twist on “Symphonie Fantastique,” Dalzell was commissioned to build a puppet-cum-float for the 2002 Halloween parade in Greenwich Village. These jobs give him a chance to do what he likes — building and puppeteering — but they take a backseat to Dalzell’s goal of having his own show.
Imagining a show primarily based around lighting and music, Dalzell is currently working on set design and puppet prototypes, and hopes to have a finished show ready by 2004.
There’s a bit of the showman inside Dalzell — he envisions creating a show that “entertains the hell out of people,” he said. Puppets, Dalzell points out, is a sort of meta-theater — a form of entertainment that gives the puppeteer the “power of making people applaud something that isn’t real.”