WESTBROOK – Tara McDonough says her puppets are always upstaging her.
McDonough, along with Keith Anctil and Jen Whitley, make up the puppet masters behind the Improvised Puppet Project, a Westbrook-based performing group that uses puppets in their improvised productions and classes.
“I talk about them more than I ever thought I would,” McDonough said, gesturing to a box where they’re kept when not in use. “We use puppets as improv shtick, as a window into the world of improv. Sometimes things get a little out of control.”
The group holds classes and performances across Maine and New Hampshire, using long-form improv – shows with interconnecting scenes and characters, with an overarching storyline, but no script. The Improvised Puppet Project has monthly shows at Acorn Theater in Westbrook the last Sunday of every month starting March 31, and will teach puppet improv at the regional one-act play festival at Catherine McAuley on March 9 and an improv jam at Bonny Eagle High School that evening.
McDonough said the group plays a song at the beginning of the performance using their mandolins and ukuleles and the audience yells out a theme based on the song.
“OK, so we just got done playing ‘Whip it’ by Devo,” McDonough said. “When a good time turns around, you must whip it. What else turns?”
Audience members yell out there suggestions and the story begins.
“When doing long-form improv, you don’t want to go off on long unexpected places. You ride the line between boring predictability and surprising the audience. But you don’t want them to go, ‘Whaa? What just happened?’”
Toeing that line can be difficult, especially when the three members are often playing at least one human character and a few puppet characters.
McDonough describes times when she’ll be on stage as a human actor talking to a puppet, also played by her, or even more hair-raising, when another member must physically be the puppet, while someone else is voicing the puppet.
“I’ll get in trouble sometimes. That’s fun, getting yourself into trouble. That danger is there,” McDonough said.
But those scary moments are a tradeoff for all the really good ones, as well.
“There’s an instant, moments that can’t ever be created again, or can but are never as good. Moments when you don’t know what’s going to happen and those moments when you hit it, and it’s magic,” Whitley said, describing the highlights of improvisation gone right.
Anctil described those moments akin to “a first kiss.”
While no puppet has a voice that is strictly its own, some members project personalities onto certain puppets time and again. Justin, a dinosaur, got his name for having a Justin Beiber-type haircut, although he, when voiced by Whitley, is an excitable fellow. McDonough says she plays the skunk and beaver puppets as stereotypical New Jersey Italians.
The key to the shows is making the puppets believable as characters. McDonough said having the puppet make eye contact, keeping the puppet moving slightly and practicing pushing words out through the puppets mouth instead of just opening and closing it are all helpful tips to making the hand-made puppets more realistic.
Puppet improv also allows the group to branch out as actors, playing characters that would not be physically believable if they played them as humans.
“You’re limited physically in most scripted theater, but you can be anything that’s called for in the moment when using puppets,” McDonough said.
According to McDonough, using puppets allows for big casts without having to worry about arranging times to meet that work with everyone’s schedule, because most of the performers live in a box.
Once a week, the members get together in McDonough’s apartment to catch up on each other’s lives and to practice their improvisational skills through exercises and theater games like one-word story, where each person adds one word to a growing story chain.
Along with the performances, the practice is helpful when the group travels to schools and community centers to teach improv classes to students.
“I wish in high school I had done improv. We didn’t have it back then. Now high schools have classes. It gives you the confidence to fail,” McDonough said. “Improve with improv.”
Anctil, a drama teacher at Breakwater and Cheverus High School, said many students are taught that there is a right answer to every question, and the improv exercises help students let loose and expand their minds creatively. Whatever is said, no matter how wacky, is now part of the made-up world in which the story is taking place.
“It’s about the ‘yes, and. … And it’s all right.” said McDonough on progressing the story lines through agreeing with what one character has suggested and adding a new twist.
McDonough, Whitley and Anctil agree that their project is not just about laughing for laughter’s sake, but for building confidence and alleviating shyness, something McDonough can attest to first hand.
“I was, am, a shy person and it taught me not to be a shy person. I can turn that off and control it and be a relatively normal person,” McDonough said.
McDonough began doing improvisation in San Francisco. When she returned to her home state five years ago, she found an improvisation group to work with, the Escapists. When that group disbanded, three of its members formed the Improvised Puppet Project.