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The Daily Tar Heel

The passion — and hands — behind the Paperhand Puppet Intervention

But power is not what comes to mind for junior Elle Xu when she thinks of puppets. Her first thought is of “Sesame Street.”

Senior Aaron Williams has a similar association.

“(When I think of puppets,) I think of sock puppets and possibly a creepy guy with a puppet on his hand,” Williams said.

Sock puppets and “Sesame Street” is not how Paperhand approaches puppetry. For Zimmerman, puppetry is a powerful artistic tool.

After studying fine arts and drama in high school and going to art school for a year, Zimmerman started traveling. It was during these travels that he experienced the impact of puppetry in a life-changing way.

“I came across Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont,” Zimmerman said. “I guess I saw really then, in their performance — to a degree that was earth-shaking and epiphany-generating.”

Zimmerman sees puppetry as a merging ground for the fine and performing arts. And it is this merger, he said, that makes the puppets come to life.

“Puppetry in a wider sense is about the many art forms coming together under one umbrella,” he said. “From drawing and designing and concept-creation, to painting and sculpting and sewing and decorating, to the theater and the movement and the music.”

With a studio in Saxapahaw, Paperhand Puppet Intervention incorporates a range of puppets that vary in size and type. But first-time audience members may not be expecting how large their puppets and masks can be.

“We can get multiple people to carry one puppet,” Zimmerman said. “Anywhere from one person wearing a backpack that’s quite large, or it can be as common as a three-person. Some of our designs are six people.”

But before the puppeteers go onstage, months of story building, design and creation are required to make Paperhand’s puppets and masks come to life. Zimmerman and Jan Burger, Paperhand’s other co-founder and director, begin brainstorming PPI’s next story in January for the summer and fall production.

“Jan and I start in January just thinking about, dreaming up what sort of stories and themes we want to cover,” Zimmerman said. “This year we’re talking about monsters and beasts and are trying to tell their story from a different perspective.”

Each May, the construction process of the puppets and masks begins, a construction process which involves an entire community of people.

“We start in May with about five interns who work with us in the studio just about every day,” Zimmerman said. “We also have these big Saturday workdays where people in the community come out.”

About 190 members will help with these workdays. Local artists are involved in the specific details of the puppets and masks.

“Lots of things that need attention and that if they’re done well will look amazing,” Zimmerman said.

This community effort reflects the themes that drive Paperhand’s work. They see their art as an intervention of love.

“When Jan and I first got together, we wanted to make sure that we weren’t just making art for art’s sake — that we were speaking our hearts and minds about social justice and about equality and about oppression,” Zimmerman said.

“I imagine it as a giant papier-mache hand coming out of a cardboard cloud and giving either a gentle slap or a little tap on the head saying, ‘wake up’ — that’s what our art is about.”

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