DAVID VALENTINE: THE MAN BEHIND THE PUPPETS BEHIND THE VAMPIRE COWBOYS
by Meron Langsner, PhD
How best to portray flying saucers, giant five-headed dragons, giant stereotype monsters, and even Jesus? In a 99 seat theatre? Puppets. And David Valentine, resident puppet master of the Obie-Award winning Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, has it covered.
Puppets have grown to constitute a major component of the Vampire Cowboys' productions. As the group primarily presents work based on comic books, science fiction, fantasy, and other pop-culture influenced genres, their story lines often bring their characters to locales and into situations that are best portrayed by puppets.
As the co-artistic directors, writer/fight director Qui Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker have grown more successful and been commissioned to bring their own brand of self-described Geek Theatre to other companies, they've brought their puppet master with them. One such recent collaboration was She Kills Monsters at The Flea, a story about a young women, Agnes, trying to reconnect with her dead sister Tilly through a Dungeons & Dragons module she left behind before dying in a tragic accident. As Agnes explores the world of the module, she encounters numerous monsters, which in the Flea production were often portrayed by Valentine's puppets.
Many of the monsters were crowd-sourced. Qui Nguyen put out calls to his fans on social media to find out what D&D monsters they would like to see on stage. Some of the ones that made it (and made it into puppet form), included a Gelatinous Cube, a Beholder, and the gigantic five-headed dragon Tiamat.
Tiamat, of course, was the villain in the climactic final battle. It should be pointed out that the Vampire Cowboys are particularly well known for their elaborate martial arts inspired fight choreography. The puppets are not exempt from the violence. Valentine, along with artistic directors Nguyen and Parker, have created what they see as a new genre, "Fight Ready Puppetry." Tiamat was perhaps the masterpiece of the form. The dragon was designed as a stage weapon. That is to say, though the performing object itself represents a dragon, it functions and behaves onstage in the performers' hands as a weapon. The dragon went through several stages of development. An early concept had the dragon abstracted into several parts, this was abandoned, another version involved a tail, which was unsafe. Yet another version involved several lights in the heads.
The final version, which Valentine referred to as 3.0, came about four and a half weeks before tech. They eliminated the lights, and "made it solid, something we could whack the shit out of." There was a learning curve to figure out the physical design pattern. The central head was the primary piece, with four smaller heads constructed out of similar patterns.
The puppets for She Kills Monsters came to life in the rehearsal room, with constant interfacing with the rest of the production team as prototypes were bought in. As the puppets are involved in elaborate fights with human actors, how they move is as important as how they look.
An environment of mutual respect and collaboration sets the stage for elaborate performing objects that form a cornerstone of the Vampire Cowboys aesthetic. Valentine describes himself as "a fan, an advocate, and an employee" of the company. His work with them began shortly after he completed his undergraduate degree at Ohio University, where he first met Nguyen and Parker while they were working on their respective MFAs. He sent them an email that said simply, "Vampires need puppets." This led to his work on a puppet Jesus for their early play, A Beginner's Guide to Deicide, and as the company grew, his puppets grew with them. Their most recent production, The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, an Off-Broadway co-production with Ma-Yi, involved flying saucers, motorcycle chases with ninjas, and a giant anthropomorphic Henson-influenced talking stereotype named Gookie Monster. Valentine related that the decision of when and where to include puppets in a show usually originates with the playwright, Qui Nguyen, and other times Parker will invite him to rehearsal to see if a particular moment might be better served by puppets than live performers.
As to why puppets work so well in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, he says that the majority of people will suspend their disbelief further with puppets, allowing for extra-fanciful events that could not be achieved with live actors (especially on a low budget). Over the years this largely self-taught puppeteer has grown with the Vampire Cowboys while also maintaining parallel careers in other areas of theatre. As Parker and Nguyen keep expanding the Geek Aesthetic, we can look forward to more of Mr Valentine's puppets. And as the scripts become more and more popular (productions of She Kills Monsters are scheduled in Boston and Chicago), we'll see how they inspire puppeteers everywhere.