PLAYING WITH MATCHES : LAURA HEIT EXPLODES OUR SENSE OF SCALE
by Susan Simpson
It is a tired old analogy to compare the relationship between puppeteer and puppet to that of God and man, but when God shows up slightly tipsy, wearing red lipstick and a blue sequined tube top it is possible for the idea to seem fresh again. When God
appears, in person, to bother the curtains in the bedroom with a burst of breath through her pursed crimson lips, then the concept of divine intervention takes on new meaning. When God's giant mug squeezes into the room and poses the question "What is your fondest desire?" one immediately gains a visceral understanding of the value of prayer.
The God I am referring to here is Laura Heit, and the universe she presides over exists in a single cigar box. It is a parallel universe, parallel to the contents of her brain. It comes to life according to her whims on occasions she calls The Matchbox Shows. The Matchbox Shows are a series of short vignettes performed in tiny sets constructed, as the title would suggest, from matchboxes. The matches function as tree trunks, puppet rods and, of course, as points of ignition. The show is usually performed late at night for boisterous crowds while Heit sips a glass of red wine. As she performs, every thing itty-bitty is also humongous. A video simulcast of the tiny dramas is projected above her. The vignettes portray a frightening dream of perfection, a ghost story, a forest fire, and a late night hook-up that ends in outer space, among other things.
In the Matchbox universe there is no stricture on portraying the Godhead. Graven images are, in fact, celebrated and so the show ends with "30 Pictures of Myself Naked," a series of naïve line drawings of the artist engaged in mundane everyday activities (driving, welding, teaching, etc.) all sans clothing.
Heinrich Von Kliest and then Edward Gordon Craig both held fantasies of unselfconscious action, notions that the empty vessel of the puppet could channel God directly and thus express a state of grace. This is not what is happening in The Matchbox Shows; this God seems unconcerned with any state of grace. She is capricious and silly and revels in her oversized nature. She performs miracles occasionally, but is just as likely to set things on fire. She is almost human; in fact her behavior often resembles the humanity of a child playing with toys. She speaks for the characters in a high thin voice that can only be associated with games of pretend. Paper people and props slide and bounce across the stage. Figures are conjured one moment and then literally cast aside the next.
There are many connotations that go along with bringing tiny figures to life: the diminutive as innocent, the miniature as domestic. Heit subverts these notions with mischievous glee. Young girls, for years, have been cutting Barbie dolls' hair, but in Heit's vignette "Blair's Desire," she cuts off not the hair, but the fingertips of the little puppet of her friend. This classic act of torture, performed with a pair of orange-handled scissors, brings winces and gasps from the audience. But this, she makes clear in her narration, was the fulfillment of Blair's fondest desire. He believed that he was imperfect because all his fingers were different lengths. So snip. Snip. Snip. "And then he was perfect," Heit declares in a sweet-as-pie voice, and with that she tosses aside the maimed hand.
Then there is the Summer Side Sausage Fairy, who turns little girls' dolls into sausages. As this is a physically and narratively condensed version of a play that Heit wrote and performed as a very young girl, it reads like a miniature object lesson on how the adult world, filtered through the eyes of innocence, can be a very perverse domain indeed.
Finally, The Matchbox Shows close with the last "Picture of Myself Naked." It is called "F___ing Chicago," a tiny picture of a giant Heit doing just that to the Sears tower &.. and the dollhouse was never the same again!
Susan Simpson: Can you tell me about how The Matchbox Shows began?
Laura Heit: I made the very first matchbox theater for a friend of mine. We had both been working at a theater doing very large-scale spectacle shows. Things like fourteen-foot devil heads and main stage shows with forty-foot whales. After many years he decided he wanted to go back to making smaller puppet shows and so I made him a tiny theater in a matchbox. The second one I made was a miniature replica of a show I directed called Succubus. In the tradition of Toy Theater, you could reenact the show whenever you wanted in the palm of your hand.
I know that you have done this show many times during the past several years. Over time, have you discovered what kind of images or stories are most suited to this very small scale?
Well they have to be short stories that need little explanation. Nonsense works well, visual jokes and dreams. I try and make a new show for every performance I do, and I never rehearse them so I usually find out on stage what ideas work the best. There have been a few that lived very short lives. There are often a few that are based on current events and have a short life span. For example I had a show where Bush and Gore were professing their love to Miss Florida (2000) and another one where a bunch of my friends were in jail for making puppets before the Republican convention that same year (a true story) and I don t do those anymore.
Have you ever performed The Matchbox Shows without the video simulcast?
The very first time I did the The Matchbox Shows there wasn t a video simulcast and everyone sat on the floor around me.I found myself explaining what they were seeing a lot.
What do you think is the effect for the audience of seeing the show very small and very large at the same time?
I think the video projection of the tiny puppet show adds legitimacy to it. It commands a certain amount of attention. In the beginning, it was a simple solution to allow an audience to see the shows, but now I think it s a very important part. It allows me to enter the stage and interact with myself. It feels more like an act, like a magic show. There is also something very intriguing about seeing something so small so big; it s a bit like being let in on a secret.
Do you remember as a kid being really immersed in or enthralled with very small environments?
I have always loved little things. My favorite stuffed animal, as a child, was a little three-inch long flat elephant I called anteater and took with me everywhere. I had an empty sugar packet I filled with tiny origami cranes I would make when we went out to restaurants. Then in junior high I started a dollhouse club. There were about six of us who would meet regularly to decorate a friend s great aunt s antique
Will you tell me about "The Night of the Summer Side Sausage Fairy?"
In 4th and 5th grade, my best friend and I were prolific play writers. We wrote and performed a play for our class on a weekly basis. The most popular play, though, was "The Night of the Summer Side Sausage Fairy." It was a very simple story about a fairy that would sneak into little girls homes at night and turn their dolls into sausages. It made sense to us then because we had a great fairy costume and a pillow that looked just like a summer sausage. I was telling a friend about this play later when I was in college and had to stop myself because I was so embarrassed when I realized for the first time how overtly sexual it was. Now I think it s really funny.
What inspired you to make "30 Pictures of Myself Naked?"
I have always been in the habit of drawing little pictures of myself and they are almost always naked, so this was not a far stretch. As the show is usually performed in a late night cabaret, I thought a little nudity would be appropriate. There are pictures of me doing various things like watering the garden, working at the computer, doing yoga, having dinner with my parents, and on and on. They always get a lot of laughs and I am always adding more. It started out being twenty-four pictures of myself naked and now I think it s up past thirty.
After a show, a friend came up to me and said her son really liked it, but was too embarrassed to talk to me. I had known him since he was five and he was now twelve or thirteen. She said she thought it was one of his first experiences seeing a naked woman. It s a funny thing, they are just drawings, but somehow they read as very intimate, like at a little peep hole where you can see into my very private life.
Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
There is a little show called "Look for Me" that is funny and sad, which I think is the perfect combination for a show. It has a little forest that I light on fire and then I unroll a tiny cranky that depicts all the people running out of the forest fire. It ultimately ends in tragedy, but there is lots of screaming and hoping. I really like performing this one because I get to light things on fire.
Laura is a filmmaker, finger puppet maker, and teacher at Cal Arts in California. She s performed her Matchbox Shows at venues around the world. www.lauraheit.com
Susan Simpson is a filmmaker and puppet theatre artist living in Los Angeles. She is co-director of Automata and teaches at CalArts.