June 2005 Issue
Pulling the Strings
Jerry Handorf is a giant among men. Or, more to the point, it's his puppets that are the giants.
As artistic director of Cincinnati's Madcap Puppet Theatre, Handorf - who began his career working with Jim Henson of "Muppets" fame on the show "Sesame Street" - is the creative visionary behind a troupe that incorporates 12-foot-high characters into its storytelling.
With six touring companies and a dozen puppeteers, Madcap presents 1,400 performances annually for nearly 500,000 audience members. "Summer is our busiest time, traveling around the state," observes Handorf, who plans 50 or 60 performances in Columbus alone, and a scheduled stop at the Toledo Zoo.
Oddly, the demographic of Madcap patrons leans distinctly toward a graying age group. "Half our audience tends to be grandparents who are taking their grandkids. Since we do classic folk tales and fairy tales, that's often more appealing to grandparents than the parents."
Handorf's wild characters range in style from hand puppets to rod puppets to full-body puppets that fit on the human frame. The troupe also teaches kids the science behind the show: How gravity, tension and balance all play key roles in how puppets are used by the puppeteer. Often, during workshops before and after shows, the "guts" of puppets are revealed to explain how moths are made to move and limbs are brought to life.
Recent shows have included "Aladdin and Friends," and "The Cinderella Files" (featuring Cinderella-style tales from many cultures). Handorf's "The Elves and the Shoemakers" was performed in Czechoslovakian Black Theatre, a unique style of puppet performance involving black lights to render the puppeteers, dressed in black velvet with hoods and gloves, invisible to the audience.
The director - who founded Madcap almost 25 years ago - says he leans to tongue-in-cheek material, "funny and irreverent and kind of goofy." Handorf writes the original scripts, or creates fresh adaptations of classic children's stories, in addition to constructing the puppets.
Next season, for instance, he plans to build a 14-foot giant for "Big, Bigger, Biggest" (a show that's geared toward teaching math and perspective). "It will be stories of giants around the world," notes Handorf, who adds that he finds himself constructing 35 to 50 puppets each year for each new round of shows.
The Madcap shows are usually interactive and ask children to participate in the roles on stage. "The magic of puppet theater is showing the audience how you do it, and still making them believe it is real," says Handorf. "To surprise the audience and make the puppet come alive, you have to fit the giant puppet over your entire body."
"This is not just acting. It is storytelling.... What's fun [about puppetry] is that you can animate anything: A giant cup of hot chocolate with marching marshmallows, or anything."
Madcap Puppet Theatre is located at 3316 Glenmore Ave., Cincinnati. For more information, contact 513/921-5965 or www.madcappuppets.com.