In this installment of Innsmouth Inktank, we interview a troupe of artisans using a rarely-seen artform used to explore the themes of H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos: puppetry!
The CastIron Carousel is currently producing an H.P. Lovecraft-themed marionette play entitled ‘The Doom That Came to Fiddle Creak‘ in Portland, Oregon for the fall of 2013. A small, Portland-local marionette troupe, the CastIron Carousel does shows for grown-up audiences. Their themes to date have included Victorian-era science fiction, 1920s horror, prison, gangsters, fairy tales, and monster stories. Inspired by the work of Tom Waits, William Dwiggins, H.P. Lovecraft, H.G. Wells, Jack tales, and Jules Verne, they work with marionettes, shadow puppets, rod puppets and other…things. They’re currently turning to Kickstarter to fund their latest project, which looks well on track to success.
Their premise for The Doom That Came to Fiddle Creak begins:
Deep in the shadowy reaches of the Appalachian Mountains lurk secrets so terrible it was not meant that men should know them. Foul abominations lie in wait, locked away in the in-between spaces Euclid dared not contemplate, aching to return to a world which once belonged to them, and one day will be in their grasp again….
We had a chance to interview Geahk Burchill, Artistic Director for the troupe. We naturally asked how all of this madness came about:
IFP: Can you tell our readers a little about yourself? How did you get your start?
GB: I started as a comic book artist in high school. I never imagined I’d become a puppeteer. I used to draw zines and self-publish them on a photocopier. The local comic store sold a few of them. I gathered my friends, who drew, to start a comic company with me. I even set up a basement studio with three desks in my building so we could all work at the same time, just like professionals.
I had many other interests, though. I made models and sculpted in clay and made contraptions. Often, art teachers would tell me I needed to focus on one thing, not get too distracted by other mediums, but I never could. I just liked exploring and storytelling. Puppets ended up being the art form that could contain all the other interests.
IFP: Was your family supportive of your interest in getting involved in the arts? Have they gotten freaked out by the directions you’ve taken since?
GB: My family was nomadic for much of my life. We were extremely poor and generally lived in converted buses or in home-made campers on the back of rusting trucks. We lived in a boat yard for a few years and, later, in a Mercedes auto recycler’s yard. My parents were both painters and drew. We had a pretty unconventional life. I stepped out on my own early. Getting an apartment at 16 and later moving to Hollywood, Ca. and ending up a homeless teen. I think my parents have always been proud of me, but they are not the type to interfere. I roamed freely as a kid, riding up to twenty miles from home on my bike. I had little or no supervision much of the time and it’s surprising I didn’t get into more trouble. My parents are very supportive, these days.
IFP: Who are some of the first artists and community members who helped you along the way?
GB: I used to go to comic book conventions and try and peddle my work. I met a lot of really great artists there. Many were very generous with their feedback and pointers. I particularly remember Art Adams, Alex Ross, Brian Snoddy, and Tom Orzechowski being very helpful and inspiring to me. Much later, as I discovered puppets, there was Dave Huckins, the poster artist and director of the first troupe I was in. He and Adam Bolivar turned me on to Lovecraft for the first time. More recently, I have met Ronnie Burkett and Phillip Huber, two giants in the world of marionetting. I also spent two semesters in College and had a great teacher, Heidi Schwegler, who was really inspirational.
IFP: How did this play burble into being?
GB: Adam showed this play to me, originally, in 2007. it was a very small, three-scene play at the time, which has grown with every consecutive draft. It was two of the areas he was particularly interested in: Lovecraft and Appalachian Folk tales. We had just completed a Steampunk play focused on time travel that year and the style for the CastIron Carousel had become pretty firmly set in that genre. It was a bit of a departure to do something without gadgets in it. Also, in the past, we had always referenced Lovecraft obliquely; this would be the first play to fully commit to being a Mythos story.
The original draft was fairly rough. I had some misgivings about it. Then I went through a difficult divorce. The play, and the troupe, got tabled for a couple of years. During that time, Adam rewrote it. When he showed it to me again, it was great. Fundamentally altered from the first version. We had a great session where we hammered out a lot of ideas and drew out some of the play’s potential subplots. By the time the third version of the play was coming together, I was getting really excited about it. The Doom That Came to Fiddle Creak was shaping up to be our best play ever.
IFP: This has been in the making for many aeons, it seems. What are some of the things you’re most excited about?
GB: There are a lot of complex character stories in this one. This play is three times longer than our usual productions. There is a lot of room for character growth and exploration in a 90-minute production. Our previous plays had always focused on one character and his journey and challenges. This play explores many more interpersonal dynamics and contains more emotional risk. Another thing I am excited about is the special effects. I enjoy engineering new devices. There is a lot of opportunity for that. It will be the most challenging thing we have ever attempted and I’m excited to try.
IFP: What are the challenges you’re most looking forward to confronting as you bring this tale to life?
GB: Connecting emotionally with the audience is always a challenge. These are inanimate objects which are trying their hardest to convince you they are human. It’s always interesting to see how successful we can be with that. I’m looking forward to creating moments where the audience feels true suspense, dread or heartache. Adam always balances that with comedy, too. I love to get the audience wound up and then relieve the tension with a bit of gallows humor.
Of course, our other challenge is making such an elaborate play on whatever funds we are able to raise through Kickstarter and the other events we have planned. We’re all volunteering. I know I will personally spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours making this play, but we always dream of creating something that is just out of reach. We will have to spend every penny wisely in order to make this play happen the way it needs to.
IFP: Why do you think people love Lovecraft so much? What’s your favorite Cthulhu Mythos story?
GB: Lovecraft created a great universe to imagine in. All the worst things, of course! Every story is so eerie and unsettling. They poke at our ego as a species. It’s disturbing to face irrelevance; the idea that we are insignificant compared to these otherworldly creatures. Nothing we have ever accomplished can be of the slightest help to us in the face of these elder gods. I find that idea more terrifying than clowns.
IFP: Adult marionette shows seem very new to American audiences. What’s something you’d really like audience members to slither away with after watching this play?
GB: Yes, that is largely true. There are exceptions, but very few marionettists get well-known to a wider American audience, much less marionette theater geared toward adults. Puppets are generally thought of as children’s theater in the U.S. The exceptions are things like Avenue Q or Puppetry of the Penis. We seek a middle road. Our shows are definitely not for small children, but they’re not bawdy, either. We seek to unsettle, disturb and disquiet, but we also want to pull at the heart and make people laugh. We did Of Mice and Men a few years ago. I think that play is a really good example of the kind of grownup story we want to tell and we hope we can bring to American audiences.
IFP: Whom do you look up to as your artistic role models?
GB: Certainly Ronnie Burkett. I saw Penny Plain last year and was blown away. It was enough to make me question whether I was really a competent puppeteer or not. It also gave me a real standard to try and live up to. This play wouldn’t be as elaborate as it is if I weren’t trying to reach that brass ring. I’m also a huge fan of Barry Windsor Smith from his comics. He’s a marvelous storyteller and an amazing artist. I still study his work. Clay Martin is someone I look at for timing and quick-wittedness. His shows have amazing pacing. John Frame, too. He’s an artist who creates amazing miniature worlds and really provokes stories in the viewer’s mind. His use of material and texture is amazing. My friend Ratna Pappert, who is an phenomenal illustrator. There are a lot more. Whiting Tennis, Jim Baikie, Doug Moench. Look those folks up, kids. They won’t waste your time.
IFP: What would be your advice to emerging artists and writers?
GB: Don’t beat yourself up for being unproductive. If you’re reading a book or banging around YouTube or playing with materials, you’re creating a library. Artists are cross-referencing machines. We fill our heads up with nonsense and disconnected jun, and then we string those unrelated ideas together into something entirely new. When you’re procrastinating, some part of you is actually working. You’re adding to your library and making new connections. Forgive yourself for that.
Also, don’t be afraid to be a little selfish. I meet a lot of artists who worry about “taking up too much space.” Creative types often feel they have to justify their existence. You do, to some degree. Don’t spend your whole life filling the library; you have to produce something. But be sure to take up the room in the world that you need to produce what you do. If your art is your baby, make the kinds of life decisions you would make for a flesh-and-blood child. Sacrifice for it, move for it, give up a crummy job for it. Do what you need to, to protect it. I wish you luck. It won’t be easy.
You can see more of their work at: http://www.castironcarousel.org or visit their Kickstarter at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thedoom/the-doom-that-came-to-fiddle-creak-marionette-play, which reached its goal on April 11.