BWW Interview: Puppeteer Alex Evans Forever Stringing Along With The Bob Baker Marionettes
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, as well as, it's first move from its historical address, BOB BAKER'S NUTCRACKER will play at The Pasadena Playhouse's Carrie Hamilton Theatre from November 24 through December 30, 2018.
Who better to learn about the Bob Baker Marionette Theater than from its current director, the late Bob Baker's right-hand man Alex Evans? I got the chance to pull some interesting facts of the Theater from Alex.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Alex!
This has been a long time coming! For the past five+ years, the Theater has been performing at the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration at the Playhouse put on by Michael Moreno from neighboring Zone Rosa Coffee. He is a tremendous fan of Bob Baker and has been pushing both the playhouse and myself to expand the partnership for years.
The Playhouse is such a natural fit for Bob Baker, it's literally historic, offering charm and history in every brick. I think the Playhouse and Bob Baker share a timeless, cross generation experience for the audience.
Our current space in Downtown Los Angeles is about to become an apartment building, and we've been in progress in growing our company well beyond the current brick and mortar to share the Bob Baker experience far and wide. Literally one day after our last performance in this current space on November 23, we will open NUTCRACKER at the Playhouse. The idea being to not miss a beat, continuing Bob Baker programming to audiences who have grown up with our Christmas show and to new audiences.
Will Bob Baker aficionados see a totally new version of NUTCRACKER? Or, just slightly adapted to the Carrie Hamilton stage? Surely, the puppets will be the same they have seen.
I think there will be plenty of surprises! Clara, the Nutcracker and Sugar Plum fairy will be just as you know and love them. But in Bob's shows, there is so much more than just the puppets. It's an experience. At our current theater, the theater has organically evolved for all 2,000 puppets and dozens of shows. The NUTCRACKER at the Playhouse will take a space and customize the experience to be uniquely NUTCRACKER - with set pieces and scenery crafted to maximize enchantment.
The Theater opened in 1963. When did you become a part of it?
I've been with the theater for about a decade now. Starting as a volunteer to help Bob digitize music, and quickly fell in love with every aspect of the Theater.
What various positions have you taken on since you came on board the Theater?
You name it, from making the puppets, restringing, staging the shows, marketing, vacuuming (a lot of vacuuming). The Theater is still a collective of so many artists and performers who are unified in their love of what Bob Baker Marionette Theater is. There isn't job that I've done, or still do, that isn't filled with joy!
Was puppeteering what you wanted as your occupation growing up?
Puppeteering didn't even cross my mind growing up. I was interested in animation and special effects. I saw my first puppet show in college and was blown away, and have been tangled up ever since.
How old were you when you first discovered puppets?
19-years-old at Bob Baker.
Did you have a role model or a mentor?
Until I met Bob, I had never met someone so passionate and hard-working. He was mythic, surrounded by a lifetime's worth of work, and a community that rightly treasured him. I feel honored that he let me in to see his process, from the craft to the business, and how the two work together.
Can you describe the impact Bob Baker first made on you?
When I met Bob at 19, I was some arty kid who loved westerns and David Lynch films. But seeing Bob and his dedication to his craft, and a dedication to just simply entertain and inspire in the most imaginative ways, I knew I just wanted to be part of that, and proceeded to soak up as much as I could!
What's the one piece of advice or knowledge that he gave you, you adhere to, to this day?
Be happy. Be healthy. And always keep a smile on your face.
Do you have a favorite puppet?
That's soooo hard as there are so many. In the NUTCRACKER, the candy skaters (little candle men with ice skates who enchant the Sugar Plums ballroom), they move so well and have a fun gag I won't spoil. It is definitely not the Nutcracker - he is too heavy.
As one of the main puppeteers, do you have first choice in which puppets you handle?
Ha, I wish! Really at this point the "main puppeteers" are more relief pitchers who partake in the show to orchestrate all the parts and can jump in on any part if strings get tangled and such. We have so many puppets in any given show, it's not really characterized by main parts. It is all about constant growth. The whole crew is constantly pushing each other. We operate as a company dictate largely by oral history - the older puppeteers teach the new puppeteers the parts who then will teach the next generation. There is constantly things to learn and then share.
Out of the over 2,000 puppets the Theater has, how many are stage-ready? You must have a program or schedule to keep them spiffy and camera-ready?
It is like the Eiffel Tower, as soon as you paint the top, it is time to paint the bottom again. We are constantly repairing strings and springs, painting noses and giving new costumes. There is a robust team of people who all work together to make everything as spiffy as possible. Largely each puppeteer has their parts and is responsible that their puppets are stage-ready. But beyond that, everyone has their specialty - Audrey is a terrific painter and any paint jobs go through her, Cain can string up a wild buffalo if he had to, and so on and so forth. We also have a robust team of the most wonderful volunteers from Hollywood costumers and prop makers to just puppet enthusiast.
When did the Theater become a non-profit organization? What was the decision behind that?
The Theater became a full-fledge non-profit about a month ago, which has been about 50 years in the making. I finally realized recently with Bob's passing four years ago, where we no longer had a central figure to define ourselves around, but want to share and explore not only his vision, but what he has inspired in the world around him. Our mission is to educate, celebrate and rejuvenate puppetry and the allied arts. As a non-profit, we are owned by the community to serve the community. I believe what we do is important. Every opportunity to put on a show, or mount a workshop, or just showcase a piece of the collection is an opportunity to inspire someone to take the imagination and run. Being a non-profit allows us to fund free-programming, to open the door to ideas and community and people, and be inspired ourselves.
You will be closing the Theater at 1345 W. First St. November 23, 2018, the same day it opened 55 years ago. How did this lucky, appropriate coincidence come about?
The magic of Christmas! Bob opened the Theater to make the most of an audience for holiday celebration. We see this period as an opening of an new era and what better time to open than to an audience ready for that winter wonder.
What will become of this space that's been designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #958?
The Bob Baker Marionette Theater, its puppets and its resource is the monument. Regardless of where we are, that will continue and live as long and as strong as the community lets us. The actual building we have been in for 55 years will now transition into an apartment building. There will be an historic display which we look forward to working with the city to fully represent all the magically memories that happened inside. But for myself and the company, the importance is the ability to inspire imagination through puppets and routines that have existed for generations wherever imagination dwells.
Can you say where the Bob Baker Marionette Theater's new home will be yet?
Not yet, the puppets know but they won't tell us. Really though, we are in final stages of negations for a marvelous space, larger than the current space, in a wonderful neighborhood, to be a long-term home to offer sustainability and opportunity for Bob Baker. More info is upcoming, now is the time to support, through donation, through sharing the word that we are IN L.A. TO STAY, wherever imagination dwells! Truly we have dreams of marvelous things even beyond this new home, and we will grow and dream as big as the community allows us.
What future plans do you have for the Theater?
So many! An education space for children to learn puppetry and theater, a research library, programming that highlights vaudeville and music. New shows, reviving Bob Baker original shows that haven't been seen in decades. We have rooms filled with ideas and concepts for the building, and it's experience that Bob had the ability to realize. We are thrilled at the opportunity that we will be able to realize some of those in this new Theater.
Thank you again, Alex! I look forward to experiencing your magical NUTCRACKing puppetry.
Thank you, Gil!
For ticket availability and show schedule through December 30, 2018; log onto www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
For further information on Bob Baker Marionette Theater's other shows; go to www.bobbakermarionettetheater.com