Enduring Exhaustion

The week following opening, I was expecting to have a free schedule to catch up on sleep, writing and craft projects. I shouldn’t have been surprised when it didn’t turn out that way.

Sarah Howe’s son Alan was in a bad car accident just before opening. Thankfully, he only broke appendages and no internal organs or spinal damage, but it still left Sarah in quite a lurch. She asked me step in to help out with Summer Camp she runs out of her home, and I was glad to be offered such a direct line to assist.

Thankfully, she had already scheduled the week after hell week to be low-maintenance, accepting only children who knew how her camp worked and had their own projects lined up. She had experienced teen assistants who could run the studio. My only job was to be on the premises and over eighteen. The closest thing I did to actually providing adult leadership was to tell them to just leave copperheads alone if spotted.

I also tried to help catch her up on housework and chores, (including picking fresh figs from her tree—gee, what suffering, to eat fresh figs and spend time in her beautiful garden). I’m glad I lived there for a while so I knew most of the basics of how the house worked, though there will still plenty of projects I couldn’t begin to tackle.


By the third day I was finally able to sit down with my projects for the cheap art table, (where cast and crew and their friends can sell small art, whether show-related or not). The project was a little more time-intensive than I expected, but over the next two days I got a solid batch out. I think they’re really cute, and the cast agreed. They’re not selling too fast at the moment, but I’m not keen on sinking another twenty hours in anyway, so a slow burn is fine by me!



I was so tired. Everything I did was in a haze. I felt like my limbs were weighted as I ran about Sarah’s house, trying to remember how to run a household. I have yet to feel truly revitalized from the drain of hell week and opening weekend. Every effort is worth it though. Whether for my own enrichment, or in service of others.

Finishing the Opening

Opening celebrations took place at a bar down the street. I had walked to the theater, (a HUGE perk of Jenny’s place—it’s only two and a half miles from the theater) and rode with Chris to the bar, where we were the first to arrive.

Next to arrive, was my buddy Tyler! He was with me in Japan when I got my start in puppetry, so I was thrilled he could come visit me and experience this very different puppetry. He had arrived mid-show, so he had yet to see it, but it was great to have a beer with him and catch up. Equally great, was the openness of the paperhand table, as both Tyler and Sally and Hannah’s dads joined us over the course of the night.

I was flying high on post-opening-night adrenaline, and imbibed a little too heavily. Other than being left in a dehydrated haze for the following two days, thankfully it wasn’t too out of hand. In fact, it’s my understanding that it was very well received, as the other interns took up a chant demanding a repeat appearance of “drunk kelly” at every following event. I have not obliged so far. Standing in the back end of a mule puppet, hauling a fully functional cart while hungover is ill advised at best.

The rest of the weekend blurred by. I showed Tyler Saxapahaw and the studio, and we did a fly-through visit to Jake’s studio as well. Then we ran the show again and went to the weekly cast gathering at Vimala’s, a local Indian restaurant that is run by a pillar of the community, Vimala herself, who’s stock phrase is “Vimala cooks, everybody eats.”

Sunday, I was running out of gas. As glad as I was Tyler could come see how for puppeting took me, all I wanted was some quiet time. I’m sure my hosting skills slipped as the visit wore on and my nerves wore out.

We went for a hike on the Eno River trail, the same trail Matto took me to with DASH, and then spent some time splashing in the river. Laying in a pit in the stone, letting the water rush over my exhausted body, closing my eyes and experiencing the closest thing to solitude I could with a visitor and other hikers nearby, was a much needed brief reprieve.

Tyler’s weakness is craft beer, so we stopped by a couple spots for lunches and after Sunday night’s rehearsal. I didn’t drink much, after the Friday night event, but got to enjoy some delicious flavors.

And then opening weekend was done. There were a few gaffs, but nothing catastrophic. It felt so strange that Maya, Sally and Hannah would not be performing with us again. I gave Maya a good long squeeze, stepping aside from pack up for a moment.

We all got together briefly on Tuesday night. Maya was dying her hair purple, and had thought about adding blue but changed her mind. She had already purchased it though. So I bought it off her and took a nostalgic trip down memory lane as I dyed my hair blue for the first time in eight years. The smell of Splat hair dye was a more powerful trigger than I expected, and I got lost remembering how many times I had stained my Mom’s bathroom and my friends’ hands with different coloring experiments.


Went with under-layer color this time.  I’ve still got the knack 

It was a weirdly quiet last gathering. Over in a flash. Maya is still nearby and able to visit shows but Sally and Hannah are not likely to be seen again this Summer. Well, that sounds ominous. You know what I mean.

It still feels unreal, even as at the moment of writing this we’ve had our second weekend, I can’t believe how much longer this show runs for. I’m so used to everything culminating in one big weekend, maybe two, and then it’s over. It feels like I just sprinted the first three miles of a marathon. There’s a long way to go.


Full Moon over the bar after Sunday night


Opening night.

I have never had an experience like opening this show. No matter what I had been told, what images I had seen, I had not truly appreciated what an immense thing I am a part of until that crowd arrived Friday night.

It is easy to see the audience from the outdoor “backstage” of the theater, and as I watched the stands fill, (and I do mean FILL), the reality began to sink in with a giddy buzz.



There is a moment, towards the beginning of the show, where I run down center stage with a bird on a stick (it’s more magical than it sounds I promise). In this moment, every night, I get to take in the audience, just beyond the soft focus of puppeteering. I don’t sharpen enough to pick out faces, but it is like peeking just beyond the veil of the performance. I feel a little surge of connection.

There was over six hundred people at each performance. I’m not sure I’ve ever performed for that many in a whole run. And the reactions! The crowd was so involved in the show. Not only cheering, but booing and roaring at every appropriate turn in the show. I felt so loved.

Even when I wasn’t on stage, watching the puppets I had put literal blood sweat and tears into take the stage was breath taking. When the Lyrebird took the stage, and rustled those troublesome feathers, and the crowd cheered, I was nearly in tears all over again.

In the circle after the show, we had endless people to express appreciation for. It went on and on, and I still didn’t feel like we had put enough gratitude out. It was too big for words.

I am so overwhelmingly proud, humbled and full of love. And I get to keep doing it! What a thrill!


Powerful Progress

The improvement between each night of rehearsals was so tremendous is was just short of miraculous.

I got the hang of quick changes, and placement of self and puppets. I watched my cast mates do the same, stunned as they arrived on cue closer and closer to their mark with leaps of improvement.

By far the biggest challenge was being the hind end of a mule. This is a puppet that Hannah and Sally spent a huge portion of their summer making, and Jake and I will be performing in for the duration of the run. He is the head, and I am the butt, which means I’m also responsible for pulling our cart.

That cart was heavy but manageable in the studio. Putting it on sand is a whole other beast. The first night, I thought it would be impossible to achieve by myself. I thought I had signed up for a much heavier load than my body could handle.

Jake, likewise, was struggling with the low visibility, and adding expression to an unwieldy head, all while trying to listen me shout what I need for the cart, and getting feedback from the other puppeteers. I had been doing us both a huge dis-service when we practiced sans puppet by keeping track of wagon placement. I hadn’t realized that would be totally impossible once I was wearing the thing.

We cut eye holes for Jake first thing on the second night, and I worked hard to get a handle on the cart while following Jake with blind trust. I mean seriously blind. By the end of the second turn I just trust him when he says we’re facing the audience because I have no idea. The urge to lift the sides of the puppet is something I have to actively fight off.

But eventually, I was hauling that cart, we hit our marks, and I’ve only strained a few muscles!

Each night after Monday, they recorded the rehearsals and then we sat and watched together to receive notes on the performance. While it was exhausting to stay up late and slog through a bunch of material just to receive the few notes directly addressed to me, it was pretty incredible to watch the work we had put together. We cracked a couple beers (“You’re such a Texan.” Tommy insulted me, after I shared my Shiner with him) and dove into the generous snacks that cast mates and loving supporters had lavished upon us. It was an event. The kind of tribulation that builds character.

When we hit goal time on final dress, three nights after that disastrous first attempt, having barely skimmed off any actual material, the cheer was immense. It felt unreal. It felt like we were maybe, possibly, gonna have a real show for opening night.

It is only now, looking back on it, that I realize there is a blessing in being so overwhelmed with a single task. With the writing group, and Jenny’s family, and all these other things that have grown in my life in NC, it was a welcome return to the entire point of this endeavor. For that week, my life was entirely devoted to Paperhand and making the show happen. As soon as I started trying to fold other commitments back in, I felt more overwhelmed than I had all week.

The only thing else I made time for was short, exhaustion-rattled conversations with Dave as I was literally collapsing into bed.

This is why I love this craft. This is what I remember when I think about how much I love putting up a show. The wholeness of it. The fact that there isn’t room for any other noise. In all this chaos, there is clarity.


Tarish putting on some finishing touches

Fresh Air

Things got progressively better as each day went on. And on. Damn those were some long days.

During the day, the last week of the studio work internship happened at the picnic tables outside the Forest Theater. We were apparently impressively ahead of past years of the construction, and the last painting and mending jobs were tackled at an easy pace. A much needed counterpoint to hot mess in the evenings.


We cut out the last shadows, painted barrels and other small props. With the crazy long nights and easily accomplished work list, a late start became an unspoken given. One morning Jan brought one of his comic books to show Nyssa, who had been asking about it, and we spent the first thirty minutes of the day just flipping through it. After being amused by the commentary we spun through the wordless comic, Jan brought a whole stack the next day for us to enjoy. That was the day Emily also brought donuts. That was also the day we started the latest.

IMG_20170802_131604474.jpg IMG_20170804_172955936.jpg

We were blessed with gorgeous weather for our outdoor labors. Not too hot, lovely breezes just enough to refresh without spreading our work across the grass. As exhausted as I was, I never wished I were anywhere else.



The theater is just beyond Franklin street, so walking there for meal breaks was an easy jaunt. If you knew what you were doing. Which I did not. My first attempt, Meghan shouted at me from down the street because I had turn the wrong way. She drove me up on her way out (she didn’t need to stay for rehearsal because she’s front of house) and gave me directions back. I mostly got back on time.

It was funny to be getting lost again, only five minutes from familiar territory. Yes, it’s windy campus streets (The Forest Theater is part of UNC campus) but still, I had become accustomed enough to knowing my away around that I was over confident. It was kind of refreshing to be reminded that this is still new territory.

Finally, Thursday, it was the last day for the studio work. Our first departure, Emily, would take place at the end of the work day, followed by Sally, Hannah and Maya after the weekend run.

After Maya, Meghan and I had gotten collective approval from the other interns for a joint final lunch at Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, we dragged Jan and Donovan along as well. They were perplexed by the venue choice, but went with it. Honestly, I’m not sure why we chose the spot either. It just seemed funny. (Also apparently 45 years is long enough to be “ye olde”)

After lunch, Chris was there, adding last-minute electrics to one of the puppets. I was yet again grateful for the light work load, as I was able to just tag onto his project and learn from him, even as he did things he was very emphatic about not actually recommending. Plus, if I’m working with Chris, it makes me look important, and no ones asks me to do anything else.

Emily departed among the bluster of final dress preparations. The first of many little endings. Even before the show could start. How bizarre.

Rough ride

Monday of hell week, things got a little less blissful and lot more real.

The evening’s rehearsal was our first attempt at a full run and it was….disheartening. It ran over 30 minutes longer than goal time, my pigeon mask was misplaced so I couldn’t practice it, several other people likewise either were missing items or couldn’t get them in time.

The circle up at the end of the night was strained. I’ll say this for it, there was no blame slung, and the focus was on solving problems and doing better the next night. I am very impressed with the positivity and perseverance of this group. But the general feel could definitely be summed up as “oh fuck”.

I had also made the ill-advised decision to bike there, over-excited by being close to my workplace. I underestimated the difference in the muscles need to bike vs. run/puppeteer, and the steepness of the hills around the theater. Riding back I was cursing myself. Also I didn’t have a light for it. Just a bad idea all around.

I drove the rest of the days of hellweek, but I hope to go back to biking when we’re on the performance only schedule. I felt a little guilty for driving the three miles, but then I remembered I could also save Sol’s parents from needing to drive him home in the middle of the night, so I leaned into that excuse pretty hard.

Moving Day!

Sunday of hell week, all available cast and crew met in Saxapahaw to load all our hard work thus far into two box trucks (20 and 26 feet), one panel-van, and a collection of personal vehicles with worthy packing space.


Sure this’ll fit

I was actually really excited for it. While my artistic and engineering skills are mid-tier at best among this amazing crew, I can manage a truck pack with the best of them. I was up in the box instantly, organizing and strapping puppets into place. When the truck got crowded, I was back on the ground running the flow out the door.


Pack it in!

Spirits were high as we tidied up the astonishingly empty studio. All that Summer’s work suddenly whisked away. We had knocked it out of the park, and everything was on its way.

We detoured to the local market in Chapel Hill for lunch and then met the convoy at the theater. The workflow was more of a trickle when we arrived, so as the people who already knew the lay of the land set a game plan, I took a minute to check out our new home.

The Forest Theater is a lovely venue, nestled in the crook between several hills, stone tiers and walls carving out performance space.


Feeling at home

I stepped onto that stage, and, even with the rows of seating totally empty, was filled with excitement. I had been so buried in the work I had nearly forgot this is a performance. The thought of the seats filled with people, of having all this hard work seen by people I’ve never even met, was so uplifting.

Invigorated, I dove back to work. The theater is outdoors, with only one small building to house us. When all the puppets are inside, it is PACKED. We had to rent a storage pod in addition to that space. Once all the puppets were unloaded, the interns ran around the space a little, everyone riding high on the fact that we had finally arrived.

Eventually I plopped down in my favorite spot at Chris’ elbow, watching him assemble custom-lengths for extension cords. After watching long enough and asking enough questions, he had me help him take the next measurement and attach one of the plug ends.

The interns were taking off to go swimming, but I was too enthralled with learning from Chris to pull away, so I encouraged them to go ahead without me, and assumed I would just be running late to catch up with them.

To my great pleasure, Nyssa and Maya hung back, and took me with them to the Quarry swimming hole. I am not subtle about my insecurities of feeling left out and need to be actively included, so this gesture meant a lot to me.

Still riding high from a tremendously successfully pack day, we traipsed into the quarry giggling and full of play. Technically, swimming is not recommended in the quarry, as it is deep with steep sides and mostly un-monitored but it was full of locals on floats and rafts and it’s only discouraged not illegal. So. We swam.


I didn’t have a float, but besides being a strong swimmer there were plenty of logs floating about—probably dragged in by other un-prepared visitors. Logs are more fun anyway, letting us play balance games and other challenges.

We didn’t stay too long, knowing there was a long, strenuous week ahead of us. And although I went home with full intentions to just relax and get my plans in order, I happened to get back just as Jenny and the boys were leaving for ice cream and they invited me along. I have felt like I had very little time to spend with the family, and also they were taking the jeep which meant I’d get to sit in the open back which is something I have a fondness for akin to a dog slobbering out the passenger side window, so how could I say no?


Noah observing some deer

As I leaned against the low walls of the jeep, feeling the gentle curves of the back roads and the warm air of the summer dusk, I felt deep contentment. The moon was rising in a clear sky, I was still buzzing from the logistical success and communal fun of the day, and in less than a week, we would be opening an amazing show. All I could feel, coming in and going out, was love.


Moon over Chapel Hill

Where does the time go

The last week of work in Saxapahaw was surreal. It’s nowhere near the end of the experience, and we weren’t even finished with the build before we left the studio, so I didn’t feel like I spent any time making peace with the space.

Honestly, I spent most of the week overwhelmed and just trying to maintain focus. I ate lunches down at the picnic table, where Jan usually has lunch, instead of joining the much larger group of studio workers who have lunch up the hill at the general store. Even with plenty of projects that were just me and the work, I felt like I really needed the time for solitude.

The time together was great as well, don’t get me wrong. Donovan played “despacito” pretty much every day….nearly every time he went to put music on…until it became an instant source of cheers and laughter.

Rehearsals got tighter, as we pushed to get through more and more of the show in a single evening. We didn’t get through a full run until our first night at the theater, but that’s a different story.

The final long rehearsal, the one we had the Saturday before the concert, the potluck was thin and sad, evidence of everyone’s general state of burnout. Attitudes are mostly positive, but the energy is definitely wearing.

We reached the point where the choreography is clear enough that we need to start wearing masks and costumes, and get used to performing in those restrictions. It definitely gives me a deeper love for the portion of the show I get to do just in blacks.

There is so much left in the “figure it out in the theater” zone that all I con focus on is forging forward. Out of the studio and into the world!


Right after some more finishing touches….

Cast in Shadows

The last week in the studio brought a welcome change of pace as we moved on to designing and cutting shadow puppets.

Don’t get me wrong, there is still SO much to do to finish up paint detail and rigging, but at least there was a new concept to refresh our mental energy. It was wonderful to sit with Jan and go through old shadow puppets we could use, and have him show us the techniques for creating images in only black and white.


Jan’s design that I cut out

Nyssa and I are also on the shadow puppet team for the show itself. At first I kicked myself for it a little bit, since shadow puppeteers were the only ones called for rehearsals Thursday and Friday night, but at this point I’m not sure when I’ll be back, so I’m happy to over-stretch and get as many different experiences as I can.

As with most things, too, it helps me understand the technique of shadow cutting better now that I’ve had to work with the medium.

After all the rehearsals that left me sore and drenched in sweat, it is a welcome change of pace to practice stillness and fine control. Not sure I’m looking forward to pulling it off after a full show, adrenaline pumping, but I think I can tackle the challenge. Gently. With control.


(Some designs I made and cut myself)

This is Church

Despite the schedule of rehearsals and studio work becoming ever more intense, I find myself eagerly taking up any chance to participate in events with Paperhanders outside our designated time together.

After the last volunteer day, I zipped straight out to Raleigh, to join our assistant stage manager as she cheered her friends in their Roller Derby game. She is a skater as well, but with iffy insurance, can’t afford to actively play right now.

That’s good for me though, since I got to sit right next to her and get the run down on the game and these teams in particular. I was a couple games in college, but I had forgotten most of the rules. I found that the whole thing made a lot more sense to me now that I have some experience with team-sport through dagorhir.

I really love it. I don’t think I’d ever play, but there are so few sports that I happily spectate for anyway. One more thing to go on the list of things I really should find time for.


After the following Saturday, Jonathan Byrd and Johnny were playing at the farmer’s market in Saxapahaw, and a significant portion of the Paperhanders went to see him after our rehearsal.

It was so lovely to sit with them all, as well as several significant others (like Emma!) and other strangers who felt instantly familiar in that communal way. I sat sandwiched between Chris Carter and Sarah Smith (a puppeteer who I am quite fond of, even among a group where I love basically everyone).

I like sitting near Chris because he’s very attentive and amused by his environment, and if you just linger near him long enough, he will always include you in his observations. Between songs, he observed cloud patterns in the sky, and told me about how he accidentally trained himself to be overly anxious about balloons popping by acting scared to amuse children.

As I sat there, thinking about how much I love this community, and how grateful I am to be here, Jonathan Byrd introduced his next song, which included a call-and-answer sing along portion. Smiling, he said “this is church, y’all”, not only to be a little cheeky about the singing, but because this is his community, his spiritual clan. It really is the core essence of church.

Knowing that Dave was, just earlier that day, in an actual church where we don’t really fit the community at all, I snickered at the irony. Then I just really wished he could be there with me.

But Dave had also just shared with me his own experience spending some time communing with our people in Houston, helping out and bonding. How much he wished I could be there to share it with him. The branches of our network grow ever larger. We have so many places we could land.

After the concert, our choreographer Tommy was having an open house at his new studio space, literally next door to the Paperhand studio. I wandered over with Maya, and we nibbled and sipped at the offerings as we learned more about his and his wife’s artistic vision and projects. It’s pretty cool, they’re dedicated to having an open space to help artists make their craft, and have some amazing projects of their own. Check them out: culturemill.org

Eventually I peeled off from Maya, and I met a really nice couple who, after learning a little about me, tried to sell me their friend’s mobile tiny house.

I can’t say I wasn’t tempted.


On the back patio of Tommy’s studio.