2022 Festival Archive: Rootstock Puppet Co.
Rootstock Puppet Co.:
January 29-30, 2022
Instituto Cervantes Chicago
Presented by Instituto Cervantes Chicago & Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival
Scholarship and Resources
Making Us See the Forest Through the Trees
An Essay by Jaqueline Wade
Mark Blashford from Rootstock Puppet Co. often uses toxic materials, such as foams and plastics, for other people’s puppet projects. However, for his own projects, he uses natural materials. Thus, his staging of TIMBER! is a beautiful allegory about the power of reimagining and overcoming destruction. Blashford built and designed its puppets and set from upcycled wood and other materials salvaged from construction sites, including both 18-inch and 12-inch puppets fabricated from basswood, oak, maple, poplar, pine and redwood. For example, the Bigfoot (Sasquatch-like puppet) appearing at the show’s beginning was made from redwood reclaimed from a water tower in Chicago. When I interviewed Blashford, he indicated that he believes we need wood. He believes just clearing wood is bad for the environment although selective logging is necessary.
At the show’s start, we see an owl that lives in one of the trees in a beautiful, peaceful forest. We can imagine all the other creatures living in this forest from the set and music played by a guitar. Like a natural forest with ecological layers, the set has three layers made of reclaimed wood, each with its own function. The first layer on the bottom is where the marionette stage is located. The second level is where the hybrid string-and-rod puppets perform, while the third level at the top is mainly where the trees are. The types of puppets used varied throughout the production. The Bigfoot puppet was designed for tabletop style. He had rods, but there were also strings on his hands and feet which made him both marionette and tabletop puppet. Most of the puppets were hybrids like him.
Blashford told me he believes puppetry is like a dance, so he wanted to make the show more like that type of performance and less like traditional structured storytelling. RootStock Co. maintains that music is the language of the puppet, thus there were no words spoken during TIMBER! The only sound was the guitar music played by Turner Blashford (the puppeteer’s younger brother), which helped to set the mood and flow of the performance and introduce characters.
RootStock Co. wants the show to tour internationally because wordless performances play better on foreign tours. The show was, therefore, well suited to the family audience that attended the performance at the Instituto Cervantes Chicago that promotes Spanish language proficiency and caters to an audience that doesn’t always speak English.
The Forest Ranger puppet is charged with protecting the forest. When the Logger puppet comes in, the Forest Ranger chases him away. However, when the tall Paul Bunyan puppet arrives representing industrialization and the machinery of modernization, the Forest Ranger cannot get rid of him. Paul chops off the Forest Ranger’s strings, putting him out of commission. Paul then takes the entire forest down at record speed with axes and machines, clearing the land for farms, new construction and lumber mills. The trees on the set are hinged flats, while other tree pieces slide off the stage. It is devastating to see the beautiful forest disappear into emptiness. Thus the set is transformed from forest to a land with no vegetation. Once deforestation has taken place, there is no habitat for the animals. The setting takes on a desolate dimension and character.
Act II starts in the Forest Ranger’s house, which is inside level two of the set and is made of a wood-like natural panel structure, keeping with the ecosystem and tree set design. It feels like the Forest Ranger lives inside of a tree, which works well with his conservationist values. He no longer has the strength to protect the forest that has been destroyed, so instead he paints trees on canvas from his imagination and memory. As he paints these trees on canvas, the trees begin to appear back on the top level of the set where the forest used to be. As the forest reappears, the Forest Ranger continues to paint and imagine the past. The set pieces of trees unhinge and pop back up, and other parts slide back on. Thus, the power of visualization and reimagining things not only brings them back, but in the process also re-empowers the Forest Ranger.
The first time Paul Bunyan appeared, he overpowered the Forest Ranger, but when he comes back to chop down these new trees in the forest, he encounters both the Bigfoot creature and the Forest Ranger. The Paul Bunyan puppet loses the fight this time, and Bigfoot (whom we are meant to see as Father Earth) evicts him from the forest. Unlike the first time Bigfoot appears in the piece, the second time he protects the forest. Balance is restored through visualization and being in tune with Father Earth Sasquatch. When man and nature work together, the forest does not become a wasteland.
World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts Entry
About the Performance
January 29-30, 2022
Instituto Cervantes Chicago
31 W. Ohio St. in River North
Featuring hand-carved marionettes and original music, TIMBER! is about a forest: its wild inhabitants, its enemies, and the artist who defends it. Chicago-based puppeteer, Mark Blashford (Rootstock Puppet Co.), brings his special brand of delightful to this poetic work starring Paul Bunyan, Bigfoot, and the forest itself. Chicago-based music group, TV Dinners, provides live acoustic accompaniment to this brand new show made possible in part with a Jim Henson Foundation Production Grant.
With support from the Artstour Fund