Hearts and Flowers: Torry Bend’s Magic

Street Signs Center for Literature and Performance premieres Torry Bend’s most beautiful work yet at Manbites Dog Theater.

Grace's fateful journey. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace’s fateful journey. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Making art about love–in the widest sense of the word–and the precarious grandeur of life–in its broadest sense–takes a valiant dreamer. Durham has been blessed with the presence of one such in the person of Torry Bend, who makes object theater works that require both a multi-dimensional imagination and a high level of craft in multiple media. She first blew our collective mind with The Paper Hat Game; then collaborated with the musical group Bombadil on Love’s Infrastructure, while she was teaching in Theatre Studies at Duke. She’ll be leaving us shortly to teach at the University of Minnesota, but before leaving, she’s presenting us with–literally–the gift of Grace, in If My Feet Have Lost the Ground.

Grace about to jump the fence. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace about to jump the fence. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace lives alone in a neat little house, and flies a lot on business. In the unhurried opening sequence, we see Grace in a hurry, running with her roller bag out of her house, to the airport, through the airport and onto the plane, checking her watch, scrolling and tapping on her phone all the while. But this trip is unlike any other. Idly rifling through the seat-back pocket, she finds an envelope inscribed READ ME. On the flap is a Munich address. Inside she finds a beating heart.

And so, like Alice, we and Grace find ourselves suddenly in wonderland.

This magical tale unfolds over 90 wordless minutes, and each of those minutes fills the viewer with amazement. I refrain here from describing too much, because I hope that many who read this will promptly obtain tickets to experience all the surprises in person. Those who have seen Bend’s previous works will not, however, be surprised to know that, for all its sweetness, If My Feet Have Lost the Ground is threaded with danger, pain and sorrow, as well as being punctuated with sly humor and layered with clever references. Torry Bend can elicit as much emotion with her objects as one would expect from live actors. You may find yourself crying for a puppet, and quivering with joy at this manifestation of the idea of the eternal return on the great wheel of life.

Sending love. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Sending love. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Part of the magic is made from Bend’s story and her extraordinary gift for visual storytelling, but a nearly equal portion is supplied by her collaborators in light and sound and puppetry. Raquel Salvatella de Prada and Jon Haas have created wonderful video that meshes with the physical world of Bend’s set, and Liz Droessler designed the additional lighting. Jil Christensen composed and designed an outstanding sound score that is crucial to our understanding of the flow of the action. Anna Nickles and Sarah Krainin designed and built Grace, and Jamie Bell, Drina Dunlap, Amanda Murray and Becky Woodrum activated the puppet and the moving scenery, as well as creating shadow actions. On the 17th, their concentration was exemplary, and they carried out the complex choreography with great skill and aplomb, nearly effacing themselves in their service to the objects.

Grace in motion. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Grace in motion. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Bend sees her stage/screen worlds and their characters from multiple points of view and at radically varying scales (again recalling Alice) and to transfer her inner vision to our eyes, she combines the newest technologies, like live video capture, with one of the oldest theatrical techniques–shadow casting. Her backdrop/screen is like a large cheval glass–a stand mirror on pivots–but made of steel and Plexiglas. Thus the surface of Grace’s world angles and flips, with video imagery slipping onto and over it, and moveable Plexi shelves appear, raise and lower according to the needs of the action. It’s incredibly complex. One of my personal favorite aspects of Bend’s work is her penchant for making objects (such as planes or trains) and layering video of the same thing over the object being manipulated by people. So we have a “toy” plane overlaid by an image of a “real” plane, yet the real plane that exists in our physical world is the artful toy being played through space by sentient humans.

The Water is Wide. "There is a ship and she sails the sea. She's loaded deep, as deep can be. But not so deep as the love I'm in, I know not how I sink or swim." Photo: Nick Graetz.

The Water is Wide. “There is a ship and she sails the sea. She’s loaded deep, as deep can be.
But not so deep as the love I’m in, I know not how I sink or swim.” Photo: Nick Graetz.

This beautiful, heart-full artwork was nurtured in The Process Series: New Works in Development at UNC-Chapel Hill, and produced for StreetSigns by Elisabeth Lewis Corley as part of Manbites Dog Theater‘s Other Voices Series. It plays at Manbites Dog through Nov. 1. The theater’s lobby gallery is showing related works by Ann Corley Silverman that are also worth your close attention. For tickets go here.

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Preview: THE PAPER HAT GAME returns, to Manbites Dog Theater

THE PAPER HAT GAME plays deliciously with scale in several media. Photo: Eric Monson.

This Thursday, October 18, will see the opening of Torry Bend’s fascinating toy theater/puppetry piece, THE PAPER HAT GAME, at Manbites Dog Theater. Bend first produced the work last year in Duke’s Shaefer Lab Theater (she is Assistant Professor of the Practice in the Duke Department of Theater Studies), and I was wowed by the fabulous integration of multiple techniques and media, not to mention the touching story about a guy who makes newspaper hats and smiles on the Chicago El.

I spoke with Bend in the theater on the 15th (where, of course, it appeared that an opening in 3 days would not be possible). Dressed in patched jeans, a T-shirt featuring an image of a wheelbarrow, and a lace scarf, she sat calmly amid the paper hats, computers, controllers, projectors, cables, lighting gear, partially-made puppets, puppet-sized backdrops and assorted models made for the video component of the piece, which will be on display in Manbites’ lobby throughout the show’s run, to discuss the show’s changes.

Full-sized humans working puppets in front of artist-made city model in THE PAPER HAT GAME. Photo: Eric Monson.

“The voice-overs are softer, less theatrical,” she said, “with a more natural, documentary style.” Because she is hoping to tour the work, she has cut the number of puppeteers from 7 to 5 (still hard to see how they all fit behind that small proscenium/screen), so she had to cut a few scenes. She’s re-worked the 3-D street grid with buildings (“in my obsessive-compulsive way,” she groaned) to give it greater detail, more shadows, when it appears in the background. The piece will undoubtedly retain its great charm, but will be different enough that even those lucky enough to have seen it before will want to consider going again.

“The biggest problem with this form of work is that it limits the audience size,” Bend told me. The show will run for three weekends, but only 52 seats will be available for each performance. Get tickets at http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org.

A darker moment in THE PAPER HAT GAME, which has an unexpected twist. Photo: Eric Monson.

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