Denise is a zombie. She has green skin and yarn hair and an airy attitude. Stormy is a flat-chested burlesque dancer, filled with glam and va-va-voom. Ian and Willis are best friends and reliably chipper. They are all puppets.
Tara McDonough has created about a dozen puppets, her “friendly pals that live in a bag.” She builds them by hand from bits of fleece, and they become a character for her and her improv team’s comedy shows for adults. They make up one half of the cast.Tara works in the marketing department at the Portland Symphony and learned the comedy of puppets with the Unscripted Theater Company during her 13 years in San Francisco. She lives in a robin’s-egg-blue home with her husband, Patrick, who works at a bank, and her cat, Taco, who hides under the bed. Her life is filled with characters: some people and some puppets, all who feel very real to Tara.
WHAT ARE YOUR ROLES IN REGARDS TO PERFORMING?
There improviser/puppeteer and then the creator. The puppets we use become so much of our cast, I don’t even think about before they existed. As an improviser, you are an actor, a script-writer, a playwright. So adding puppeteer to the mix is just a different way of creating a character.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT PUPPETRY?
Puppets can do things people can’t do. Physically, you know, they can tie their arms into knots and that sort of thing. But also, they can sort of get away with things. The shows we do are for grownups, the humor is adult. (Although, if there are kids in the audience we can tone it down.) But I grew up with puppets. I grew up with Sesame Street and the Muppet Show, so they just feel comfortable to me. I grew up thinking of puppets as my peers, so it doesn’t seem too crazy.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT MAKING PUPPETS?
I love the moment where I’m sewing along on a puppet, and I turn it inside out and suddenly it has a personality. It turns from scraps of fabric to something that has a clear voice and attitude. Sometime they are loud and sometimes they are shy. I can have an idea in my head when I’m building a puppet, but I don’t know what it’s going to look like until it comes out. The voice just comes. Sometimes it comes right away. Sometimes the puppet is really clear about who it is, and sometimes it takes a while to find it.
DO THEY FEEL REAL TO YOU?
They do. We teach workshops and I go out to schools and teach. And there’s a little vulnerable moment when I take the puppets out, and hoping that the students will respect them and see them as real, rather than the sum of their parts. Almost without exception, they are. The enthusiasm and glee! With high school students, it’s very dangerous to show enthusiasm, but the puppets bring that out. And we try to play they puppets like real people, real characters. It’s the idea that I’m playing a human character, and my boyfriend or father is being played by a puppet. We don’t make any mention of them being puppets. Other physicalities about them are real. I have a puppet character with a mustache and necktie who always plays the businessman or the stern father. People will comment about his necktie or comb-over, but no one will mention that he’s a puppet.
DO YOU EVER FEEL LIKE THEY ARE CHARACTERS IN YOUR LIFE?
Usually when I make a puppet, I like to keep them out for a while to enjoy it. I think that there’s a part of me that thinks the puppets get tired and they need to rest. I think they enjoy their work. When I put them away, I have a way I like to put certain puppets together in the bag. There are certain puppets I think of as best friends so I put them back together so they can hang out. I like to think of them as friendly pals, but they are friendly pals who can live in a bag.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE PUPPET CHARACTER?
It would be like choosing a favorite child. A cool thing, is as an improviser, I can play a huge variety of characters. As an actor doing scripted work, I’d have to generally be cast as someone who looks like me, or talks like me. But as an improviser, my choices are almost unlimited. Puppets can only play characters they look like, but because of that, you are saved a bunch of work in a way. It’s similar to commedia dell’arte, where there were eight or ten different types of characters, like the fat doctor or the skinny miser. When they came on stage, you knew so much about what was going to happen because the fat doctor would always do certain things. And that’s the case with puppets. The puppets are who they look like. They are like archetypes. I’ll have an idea for a character and I’ll pick a puppet that fits that idea.
WHAT IT IS LIKE TO WORK WITH PUPPETS AS AN ADULT? DO PEOPLE UNDERSTAND IT?
I think people generally assume our shows are for kids. But they aren’t meant to be. The idea that puppets are our peers isn’t a terribly weird one. People my generation just grew up with them, like Lambchop. The ideas of puppets being sort of real is not particularly strange…well, it’s a bit strange.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
There’s a certain degree to which it might be, being who I am. There are probably cooler things I could do than improvise puppetry, but it’s fun and brings me a lot of joy. My family is very important to me. The people I choose to surround myself with are very important to me because they inspire me. And, they provide support and encouragement, which is huge. Lots of things are important to me.
WHAT IS A LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNED OR ARE LEARNING?
I’m teaching myself about music. We are doing a musical. I’ve done musicals before, but now I’ve found myself in the position as the director of this show. A mentor once told me that the best way to learn something is to teach it, because you learn it in all these different ways. So, I’m trying to teach myself about music in such a way so that I can provide accompaniment to an improvised songs. One of the challenging things about improv is that you need to know everything. You can’t be a specialist in improv. You may be called on in a scene to take apart an engine. So you need to know enough about that to make it believable. You need to know things. So, in order to accompany music, I have to be able to make it up. So, I’m having to figure this stuff out without even knowing what questions to ask. I don’t even know what I don’t know.
WHAT DO YOU WANT?
I want to stay interested in my life without being overwhelmed. And it’s a fine line. I want to look forward to tomorrow without forgetting the joy that I’m having now.
To learn about Tara’s work with the Improvised Puppet Project, click here.
Their next show is Sunday April 28 at 6pm at Acorn Studios in Westbrook, where they have a show on the last Sunday of every month.
“A Post-Apocalyptic Improvised Zombie Puppet Musical” will be part of the Portland Fringe Festival at the end of June.