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  • Hannah Hightman

The Boxcutter Collective

The Boxcutter Collective consists of core members Joe Therrien, Sam Wilson, Jason Hicks, Tom Cunningham, Ali Dineen and Darkin Brown. The group of six create paper mache and cardboard puppets (hence the name Boxcutter Collective) and have performed shows at the Jalopy Theater, Rubulad. La MaMa, and more. Creating transportive dreamscapes with paint and cardboard, Boxcutter Collective recognizes the importance of silliness, teaching us that laughing at the world is not dismissive, it’s an attempt to create more much-needed joy.

I saw their show “The Possession of Judy” at The Clemente and was floored by their commitment to the bit. The show follows Judy, a grandma who joins a coven to put an end to billionaires and tech bros. The sets and puppets were beautifully constructed, the writing was witty and the subject matter was important to our current moment. But what stuck with me the most was that the actor who played a cat (a witch’s familiar) ate actual cat wet food onstage. I still sometimes lie awake thinking about this.

I reached out to Sam who invited me to speak with four members of the collective (herself, Joe, Tom, and Darkin) at their studio space in Gowanus that they share with another puppet-related collective, Great Small Works.

Can you each introduce yourselves?

DARKIN: I’m Darkin, I’m a puppeteer. I love helping with writing the scripts and coming up with jokes and performing. I spent some time over at Bread and Puppet a couple summers ago and for some reason I always got stuck with these really big puppets, like bison and rhinos.

TOM: I’m Tom. I’m also a puppeteer and I work at a movie theater. I also went to Bread and Puppet which is where I met these guys. I wanted to be a puppeteer when I was a kid and then I kind of forgot about it for a long time, but then I remembered once I was a grown up.

SAM: I’m Sam Wilson and I’m a puppeteer. Through a series of things I became super politicized, and because of that I found Bread and Puppet because of their activism. I ended up being a puppeteer and I stuck with it.

JOE: My name is Joe and I was a puppeteer before I went to Bread and Puppet. I went to the University of Connecticut which has one of the only degree granting puppetry programs. I actually went there as an undergrad actor, and I found out they had a puppet program and took a bunch of puppet classes. Then I moved to New York for five years and then went back to UConn to get an MFA in puppetry. I found Bread and Puppet during Occupy Wall Street. I started making giant puppets during Occupy Wall Street partially inspired by Bread and Puppet but I had never worked with them. During Occupy making these puppets, it was just inevitable that I would meet people like Sam. There’s an alumni network from Bread and Puppet in the city. I got more involved and went up there for the summer and met Tom.

What are some of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on?

DARKIN: For me it’s The Commute. Last year, we were working on a project with Great Small Works called Holiday Surprise and we had to go to all these different locations all over Brooklyn and Manhattan. Every time the trains would screw me over. We had a cabaret coming up a week or two after the Holiday Surprise event. So I was just like, well I’m going to make a new show and it’s gonna be about my commute. I came up with a little rap song, like two verses that weekend. I had a lot of time and inspiration commuting. Same and Joe helped me put the show together in puppet form. It’s taken on several different forms. It kinda evolves. Every show is constantly in a state of evolution. It’s pretty much me doing my little rap and we included some electronic sounds with it. The crowd loves it.

TOM: I had a lot of fun working on the movie that we made called Dimension Zero. It was made during lockdown when the studio here was not being used much. We had done two other small video projects. We’re all kind of sci fi nerds. So we wanted to make a sci fi movie. We got to make all these cardboard spaceships and little space sets. There’s a space ape. There’s a pyramid monster. There’s all sorts of fun alien creatures. It was just us doing that all day. A dream come true.

SAM: Because we are a collective and we are all here for each other, during the pandemic, we had a little more free time and some support from the government and it allowed us to step it up. And it was a dream come true, like getting to be an artist as your job.

JOE: We’re working on another movie right now called How To Deal With Tantrums. Last May we rented out our friend’s house in Vermont for a month. He had a big house barn studio next to the house. We cleaned out the studio and put up our sets. We would sleep and eat at the house and film for like 14 hours a day. There was no cell phone reception or internet in the studio. It was just delving into this weird world we were creating.

What are some of your favorite memories associated with puppetry?

JOE: I remember in high school I was hosting this cabaret show and we did some promo on the school TV station and I made a garbage can talk. I stood slightly offscreen and made the lid open and close. It was really fun, and once I saw the broadcast I realized the illusion was very effective.

TOM: This studio is connected to this store called Big Reuse. And our previous studio was across the street and was also their previous location, so we were connected there. They are a secondhand store. We would sometimes go there for inspiration and to look for things to make puppets out of. One time there was a portrait of George Bush Sr. they were selling. We got it and we made a puppet out of it. We just cut the mouth out so it could move. And he was the villain of our shows for a while.

DARKIN: I remember being at Bread and Puppet one summer and I was puppeteering this giant buffalo and I had to come down the hill. I couldn’t see directly in front of me. I could only see my feet. I was going down this hill slowly and I was supposed to have a guide in front of me. Somehow my guide disappeared and another puppeteer appeared in front of me. So they were my new guide, but they didn’t know that they were my new guide. Then they disappeared and I had no idea where I was. I thought as long as I kept going forward I would be alright. I didn’t realize that this hill had a steep dip that went straight down. Somehow I get past the steep cliff and we’re walking and then all of a sudden I see a towel and a baby right underneath my feet. I’m thinking ‘Oh god.’ But I avoided stampeding a little baby while wearing a giant buffalo outfit. For the next show I took a scythe from the barn and carved my own path down the hill just so I wouldn’t potentially squish any more babies.

SAM: My favorite memory I have is actually driving back from a tour. At some point it was just me and Jason driving and just being really exciting because we really love touring. We stopped at a diner and he said that he wanted the next tour to be on bicycle or by horse, thinking I would go along with that.

What do you see as the value of puppetry?

DARKIN: You can say things in puppetry that aren’t going to be taken that seriously even though it has a serious message. I think that’s the value. You can deliver messages way easier in a puppet show than you can in anything else. You can get away with a lot.

TOM: And it’s possible to make a puppet show very quickly. You can react to things that are happening in the world, and it can be very quick theater.

SAM: And very cheap theater. I mean, even if we don’t have a budget, we can still make art. I went to art school and that can be a little different. You have to be within certain bounds in order to play that game. But puppetry, or at least the school of puppetry that we come from, is like ‘Anyone can do it.’ You can do it, you just have to actually do it. You make the show free or do it on the street. It’s totally available and accessible in a way that so many other art forms are not.

JOE: I would also add that I think a lot about how stories are what humans are made up of, and it’s how we make sense of the world. We like to think we’re rational creatures but I think very little of what we decide to do is cold, rational, logical thinking and it’s mostly us working through the story that’s in front of us based on the stories that we’ve experienced, both in real life and in art. Of all the art forms I’ve dabbled in, puppetry really lets you control the whole world. You can craft every thing that goes into it. Sometimes with human scale theater or film, you’re bound by budget and what humans fit in, and you’re just attached to the reality that already exists in a certain way. But with puppetry you can really create a new reality. I think that’s part of its power, is that it helps humans appreciate stories that are further outside our normal reality. As a storytelling medium it’s so accessible and cheap. So it’s really boundless in its potential to really change people, change the world, change ourselves.

Photos by Jacob Tran

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