Evoking Wonder and Building Community with Cardboard, Cloth and Clay: A Conversation with Paperhand’s Donovan Zimmerman

Morphos. Photo by Tate Lancaster.


By Ray Eliot

Large-scale puppetry as an artistic medium for community and social justice has a long history. In the United States, the Bread and Puppet Theater, founded in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1963 by Peter Schumann and later transplanted to the lush green farming countryside of Vermont, is often credited with being a major inspiration for the form. When Donovan Zimmerman was 19, he visited the farm for the iconic Our Domestic Resurrection circus and had a paradigm-shifting experience which changed the course of his life forever.

Eventually, he met Jan Burger and Paperhand Puppet Intervention was born. In August, Elka Schumann, Peter’s partner, often cited as the heart and soul of the Bread and Puppet Theater, died. As part of her legacy, companies around the country such as Paperhand, In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater in Minneapolis, Wise Fool Puppet Intervention in San Francisco and others continue to carry the torch in generating powerful community art rituals that bring people together to address major social and environmental issues. Puppet theaters create wonder out of simple materials, sweat equity, and a deep commitment to collaborative ethics. It is raw, messy, glorious, and real even as it transports us into realms of imagination and magic.

This weekend, Paperhand Puppet Intervention opens its annual series of performances at Chapel Hill’s open-air Forest Theater. To mark the occasion, I sat down (via Zoom) with Paperhand co-founder and co-director Donovan Zimmerman to talk about art, life and giant puppets.

Hi Donovan, thanks for taking time to speak with me. The Paperhand Puppet Intervention is celebrating some twenty-odd years of continuous creative action in the Triangle area and beyond. You and collaborator Jan Burger have written in your new book, Paperhand: Puppet Interventions with Cardboard, Cloth and Clay, that “Art brings people together. With puppets in our hands a mob becomes a troupe, the streets become a stage. Cardboard, cloth and house paint can transform a group of protesters who feel hopeless and unheard into a powerful living vision of a shared future.” Can you speak a little bit more about why you work with puppets specifically to achieve your goals?

I feel like puppetry resonates with our humanness in a sensitive deep way. It speaks to our visions of grandeur, and as well to our ultimately feeling small in a huge overwhelming world. It’s a mirror for our humanity that I find just endlessly fascinating. How we can read the emotional landscape of an inanimate object by how it’s being manipulated, and how it’s existing in space and how it relates to music. That range of our emotional world is handed back to us and we have to practice empathy in order to engage with it well. To engage with puppetry well requires this. When I think about exercising large amounts of people’s empathy muscle, I get really excited because I feel that’s something deeply lacking in our world.

These giant figures are gods of simplicity and reflections of the spirits of nature or animals or ideas or feelings or myth. Puppets evoke such a sense of wonder and a suspension of disbelief, where people just raise their arms and hold them up in the air with tears streaming down their face or they light up with laughter. It seems people are willing to open up to a puppet in a different way than other things.

The puppets that we’re building specifically tend to elicit some big feelings and help people communally process some of the traumas that play out in the world all the time. There’s a way to laugh and cry about them together as a community that I find really powerful and sort of surprising.

Why did you decide to build this project in central North Carolina?

It was very organic in the way that we made a bunch of friends here who were just amazing people. Artists, musicians, storytellers, environmental activists, etc. Both Jan and I connected with a community here that was really strong and very supportive. The kind of folks that would really show up when you needed help putting a shed up and they would all come and get it done in a day instead of you toiling over there by yourself for three weeks. I love that aspect of our humanness where we show up for each other in a way that feels really real and not just lip service.

How has Paperhand grown over time?

Our beginning was much more, “unorthodox,” because usually theater companies write a business plan and they become a nonprofit, and they get their team together, etc. whereas we were like, who’s willing to do this today? It was a little bit wilder than that other model. For a long time, we didn’t even know what a stage manager was. There wasn’t anything holding us back. The conventions weren’t holding us in at all. We were able to say “Here we are,” without second-guessing ourselves and saying, “Oh, well, we should have had this, this and this and this other thing.” We came at it from this deeply communal mutual uprising/arising, of “Hey, let’s do something.” I was acting as a spark. I have a lot of creative energy, and I was asking people “Who wants to do something?” At first, it was mostly just my dear friends who got lit up by this spark that I was carrying, and this creative energy that I had bouncing around inside of me. Eventually it grew, organically, into what it is today.

Mother Earth: Photo by Tate Lancaster.

What’s been the most difficult part of building a professional and community sort of arts project in central North Carolina?

Being an artist for a for a living, that’s a struggle. Unfortunately, if you don’t go the academic route, for example, and become a teacher of dance or art, then you have to gig it out and hustle up a living, and it’s a constant hustle. That can be exhausting, especially when you feel like the amount of love you get from your community isn’t reflected in the amount of actual dollars that you get. But, there were multiple gifts that came our way that made it possible. We received a lot of generosity with the space that we were offered, where we spent the first 10 years in the old mill in Saxapahaw, before it became the Haw River Ballroom. Then we moved to the community center with an affordable rent, and then people have coming out to the shows in bigger and bigger numbers every year.

Probably what’s been difficult is the struggle to be a better person and a better director, holding folks in kindness and inspiring your crew to be the best that they can be, just by being there and setting a standard or holding a space where our best selves can generate and regenerate, and we can inspire each other in a way that’s more inclusive, more loving, more kind, more generative, more supportive.

It seems like you have benefited from great generosity and also great privilege.

I had a bullish forward momentum that was definitely invisibly supported by my privilege. All along, I’ve been involved in different activist causes and with different communities, but, in the very beginning, I was coasting on the idea that I’m just working hard and doing my thing. But, you know, you have plenty of people who work hard to do their thing and they don’t always have the opportunities open up that someone like myself might have had. So, I take that very seriously through trying to continue to work while centering others and in organically forming the relationships needed to sustain this vision.

How do you measure the impact of Paperhand? In your mission, you say you “use puppetry performance and creativity to undermine and eradicate greed, hate and fear and to promote justice, equality and peace.”

I have to say that I don’t spend a lot of time with the intentional thought of measuring these kinds of things. I’m sure that corporations out there have it down to a science how to measure their impact, but we don’t spend that much time thinking about it. We’re just trying to make something really true. The measurement comes organically through people sending me emails or showing interest or having conversations with me where they are talking about the impact that our work has had in their lives.

An example was just the other day, when we arrived to the Forest Theater. I was there with some performers who hadn’t done it that many times and a couple of women, I guess in their 60s, walked across the stage and said, “Oh, my God, is Paperhand coming back? I said, “yeah,” and they said, “Paperhand is literally my favorite thing in the entire world.” Imagine saying what is the most important or favorite thing in the entire world, right? It’s kind of a big thing to say, and maybe we just exaggerate too much these days, but I measure our impact in encounters like that and in the fact that we get standing ovations every night. I can’t remember a time when we haven’t.

When people literally walk up to me with tears streaming down their face afterward and say that it makes them feel like they want to be a better person, that they want to get more involved in their lives and communities and be less passive and more active; that feels like an impact. Am I actually changing the paradigm? I don’t know, but that’s where my heart is. We put the messages out there, we plant the seeds, and we hope that they grow.

Paperhand has never said that we have the answers. We never said come to our shows and get the answers to life’s persistent questions. Rather, we say, here’s some questions that we think are worth living into, but also, here’s some balm for the ailing soul. There is an aspect of it that, to me, is about healing. And that happens through laughing and crying together and feeling as a community. And then letting beauty and magic kind of wash over you, almost like standing under a waterfall. You feel cleansed in a different way afterward as deeper than just your body. You feel a little bit cleaner deeper in. That’s one way I could describe it.

What’s fascinating about the kind of puppetry that you all do is this sense that it takes, for example, six or seven people to generate life in an inanimate object and that it can’t be done alone. That, to me, is a way of eradicating greed and selfishness through the creation of ensemble and by exemplifying and demonstrating that nobody can do it alone.

There’s a mantra that I have running through my head, which is “let us create.” We have the power to destroy; that’s evident on a day-to-day basis. But also, if there are certain people who play a role in our society to inspire us to lean into these other aspects of our humanity, it’s an important role. I view Paperhand as having that role and I take it very seriously. When there are 20 to 30 people all moving in ensemble and attending to these puppets in a way that shows care and empathy and stewardship of each other, and of the puppets themselves, I feel like we are demonstrating that antidote to destruction.

Kintsugi: Photo by Piper Finn.

What is the thing that gives Paperhand Puppet Intervention shows their identity? I can see you explore every type of puppetry, you’re doing shadow puppetry, doing marionettes, you’re doing giant puppets, you’re doing body puppets, there’s a circus element there as well. Is there something that you do every year, or that draws a public back every year that feels like, “Oh, this is a Paperhand experience”? I’m wondering if you have any idea what that is.

We do always include a stilt walking piece and a shadow piece. We always have some giant puppet that takes more than three people, and we typically always delve into some sort of mythological realm to show how we want to re-tell and re-imagine the old stories and create the new mythology that will help us navigate this chaotic overwhelming world that we live in.

From the beginning, what I would say unites Paperhand shows across the board is noticing the wonder and the integral web of life of the natural world, in relationship not only to generosity, but gratitude, and not treating it as secondary, tertiary or way down on the list of things you’re thinking about. We turn our spirituality and reverence toward connection with the natural world, which means with each other and with our own hearts. In so doing, it feels that many, many of the social knots that we’re tied into with misogyny, with racism, and other things could start to unwind, as we all basically live more in balance with this idea of giving back and creating a reciprocal relationship with the natural world. It’s perhaps a little bit simplistic, but it’s really where my heart is at.

Can you tell us a bit about this year’s show, “Unfolding Seeds: Invocations of Transformation”?

Action on behalf of life transforms, and the show is filled with invocations of transformation. I love this Octavia Butler quote that says, “There’s no limit to what a living world will demand of you.” To me, that means that life is not a passive thing. You can’t merely say, “Oh, I love the earth, you know, whatever.” It’s an action. It’s a verb, this idea that we have to live into it. That quote was a big inspiration for us this year, and another is that we read Braiding Sweetgrass and deeply resonated with a lot of the things that it described. Ideas such as “all flourishing is mutual,” “liberation is collective,” “what happens to the least of us affects the rest of us,” and “we can’t really get there without reaching out and pulling others in” inspired us.

When we sat down to think about the show, I started making lists at the top of the page on my sketchbook that said “What do I want to make art about now?” Though the pandemic has changed everyone’s life in some way, I would say that there’s really nothing specifically about COVID in the show. We call it Unfolding Seeds, because what lies in the seed are infinite possibilities of what we can grow together from this point forward. To me, the pandemic stripped everything away so that, in some ways, we have had a moment of truth. One of those moments where we re-form ourselves in another direction. Going back to normal seems not to be an option, in my opinion, because normal was really bad for so many people.

The show focuses on healing and it focuses on looking at our brokenness and our scars as sort of badges of honor in that they reflect our capacity to heal and our capacity to continue, and to be resilient. We did a big piece about the Japanese art of Kintsugi, which is broken pottery mended together with gold. There’s a whole part about brokenness being mended and invoking a spirit of repair. We’re invoking gratitude. We’re invoking love by having a pair of magpies offering each other shiny objects, and we’re invoking joy with a little cat with a tutu, who is invoking dragons of happiness with its magical rainbow wand. We wanted to try to put something out there that invoked what we need to actually survive and thrive. To remind us that we can start incorporating gratitude, love, reciprocity and repair into our beings.

In closing, do you have any tale that feels magical to you about the last 20 years that you might want to share?

There are so many, but I guess I can mention two experiences that stand out for me. In Garden of the Wild (2005), I was coming out into the audience with a giant beast puppet. It was a huge beast that could have been really scary for anybody. But because of the way we set up the show, it was as if the beast had been killed by a “hero,” and then it was resurrected by a goddess. As it came back to life, all of these kids swelled down toward me, as we walked into the audience. Instead of running away and screaming in fear, they all came straight toward me, and these little girls from India were walking toward me with their hands together. I just remember crying and holding the puppet as I came toward them. I leaned it down, and I had the head on a control, so it could sniff them and whatnot. There were a lot of tears and there was this raw moment where a bunch of kids in the front row…their hands all shot up at one time. It really helped solidify my understanding of what my role as an activist and artist is, creating these moments of connection, where that puppet represented the wild/nature, and they wanted to connect with it without any questions. There was no judgement, there was only that moment. And being present like that is a powerful thing that stuck with me.

Sometimes the things that we build are illuminated. And I remember we built a giant owl that was an illuminated puppet from A Drop in the Bucket (2015). Because the owl had its own light when I would dip it down and it would hover over the audience, everyone’s face was lit up very clearly, not a single person was looking at me, but they were full of these looks of wonder, reckless abandon, and suspension of disbelief. It’s just mesmerizing. I was dipping the puppet down to people, and to see them feeling amazed and experiencing a magical reality is such a gift to me as an artist to feel that I’m creating it. Fundamentally, I hope they feel that it’s a gift for them as well.

Paperhand Puppet Intervention will be presenting “Unfolding Seeds: Invocations of Transformation” Fridays thru Sundays from Aug. 27 to Sept. 26 at the Forest Theater in Chapel Hill, and from Oct. 1 thru Oct. 3 at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. To find out more about the Paperhand Puppet Intervention, order their new book and order tickets (seating is limited this year to ensure physical distancing) please visit their website.

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