ITHACA, N.Y. — The scenes of “Romeo and Juliet” are usually set in fair Verona, but this time, their tragic tale was crafted in a micro-apartment in Danby.
Linda Wingerter, a local puppeteer and the artist behind Stringpullers Puppet Company, is working with the Ithaca Shakespeare Company to put on a reimagined version of “Romeo and Juliet,” one of two of the company’s annual summer productions. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Director Chris Nickerson said that the company decided to move the show — which usually takes place outdoors, last year at Robert H. Treman State Park — to a virtual setting.
However, “Romeo and Juliet,” a play that is known for its dramatic fight sequences and romantic scenes, faced an issue when all of the actors were in their separate homes, rehearsing over Zoom. How will Romeo and Juliet dance together at the ball if they are quarantined?
This is where Wingerter stepped in. Over the course of three months, she has been working with her husband to create approximately 20 shadow puppets and six scenes. The puppets and backgrounds are made from recycled and reused cardstock, and the puppets are fully moveable at the joints. However, Wingerter said it was a challenge to figure out how to make four characters fight together at once, especially when there are only four hands available to move the puppets.
“The hardest thing and the best thing is that I’m doing everything,” Wingerter said. “I’m the set designer, the costume designer, the lighting designer and the puppet builder and the puppeteer. And that’s why puppetry is so great, it’s such a holistic practice. But it’s also hard because I wish that there was a lighting designer who could come and fix things for me, but my favorite is having this whole world under control.”
Wingerter is also new to filming and editing, but said that she found that the process of filming — zooming in on a head or a hand to give the illusion of more movement — is like having another puppeteer. She filmed smaller bits of larger scenes, mostly in her home and studio, and then edited them together to make the scenes look seamless.
“I made the ball scene, which was so gentle and lovely and really slow, and then I had to move back into the fight scene, and it was really hard to move from one to the other,” she said. “The set design, I tried to make the romance a little more organic, and a little more colorful. The fight scenes have a little more angular sort of set design. They’re really different, and also the speed, trying to make puppets fight with speed is not easy. The ball scene was probably easier in that way, and the puppet’s movement could be much more controlled.”
Nickerson said that he was inspired by shows he has seen at the Kitchen Theatre Company and The Cherry that have utilized shadow puppets. He also observed some other virtual productions he has seen, noting that other shows have utilized Zoom background and colors to convey the story. However, he liked the idea of using a completely black background so the focus is on the actor.
“I just got this idea, sort of like a black and white comic book approach to this, black and white silent film idea,” he said. “I went along with that, used shadow puppets and black and white images for transitions to scenes. I started sending out props that were silhouettes for actors to use to tie up sequences.”
The shadow puppet scenes have voice-overs from the actors and are interspersed between the scenes featuring the actors, who are performing live from their homes.
Wingerter said that she is fairly new to the realm of shadow puppets, primarily having worked with three-dimensional puppetry. She worked with The Cherry to create shadow puppets for its production of “On the Other Side of the Sea” earlier in the year. However, she said that “Romeo and Juliet”’s puppetry was more narrative than the dreamy, in-person puppets she made for that show.
“I’m looking forward to seeing it myself. I haven’t met anybody in person, which is a weird way to work in theater,” she said. “It really does feel like a new art form is emerging out of all of this.”
Rehearsals were slated to start in-person in mid-May. One benefit of having virtual rehearsals and production was that there was a larger pool of actors taking part in the show. Usually, actors need to come to Ithaca, but this time, there are performers from across the country taking part in the play, about 12 altogether.
Nickerson said that because this production took on such a novel form, it was challenging to create a storyboard for the first time with images and music.
“For me, this is not theater because theater has to have an audience that can respond with each other and feel each other’s presence, and then feel the actor’s emotions in the room. It’s all part of a communal thing,” Nickerson said. “I started to think of this as a new creative process, so it’s part theater, part film. It’s something different. And thinking of it that way allowed me to just try different things and not try to make everything theater, just to let that go and make it something different.”
Performances will be livestreamed on July 16, 18, 24 and 26 at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased here, and individuals can either buy individual tickets or household tickets with the option to add a donation to support reduced prices for those facing financial difficulties. The company is also offering pay what you can options for those impacted financially by the pandemic.
Photos courtesy of Linda Wingerter.