The Dead Can Dance: Bobbindoctrin’s Danse Macabre

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Bobbindoctrin’s Danse Macabre
Photo by David Brown

Joe Orr recalled a slightly macabre childhood memory of a plate he made that depicted him vandalizing his house. He then knew that he possessed an off-kilter sensibility. He’s finally putting it to good use as the mastermind behind Houston’s underground legend, Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre, (BPT). Don’t stress over the name; it’s a made-up word and is just supposed to sound like it has deep meaning. Seems fitting, as puppets are made up people.

Orr, a soft spoken and gentle fellow, appears to be one serious theater guy. One would hardly guess he got his start with his one-of-kind puppet shows at Zocalo’s 1995 Self-Indulgent Crapfest. Orr created Punchface, a play about the general uselessness of his education. He had few plays under his belt, but it was his puppets that caught the audiences’ attention. “People asked me when my next puppet show was, nobody asked about my straight plays,” remembers Orr. Bobbindoctrin was born shortly after the première of Punchface.

BPT landed on the radar by opening for rock groups such as Little Jack Melody and Miss Murgatroid in clubs, not the usual venue for even off beat theater. The plan was to go where people were already. Since then, BPT has been seen at DiverseWorks, Atomic Cafe, Taft Street Coffee, Mary Jane’s, and Rudyard’s. Currently, there are no plans for a permanent theater. “We are completely portable and self-sufficient,” says Orr.

Mixing shadow, rod, hand, string and tabletop puppetry, as well as masks, they experiment with the varied traditions of puppetry. Audience and critics have been responsive to Orr’s approach. “Puppets require a little extra work to make it real,” says Orr. “The audience finishes the scene and I find that people like being engaged in that process.” Puppetry creates a world independent of reality. “The vocabulary is borrowed from other art forms like sculpture and theatre,” says Orr. BPT’s puppets are constructed from dow rods, paper mache, and neoprene. Sometimes, the actors double as puppetmakers. “They come in bringing one thing to the show, and end up with other opportunities to get their hands dirty.”

Actors morph into puppeteers without problems. “Knowing music makes you a better puppeteer,” says Orr. “Everything gets funneled into the puppet. We need to remove it from our own space and body and put that into the puppet. I have developed a shorthand process in training actor, and I know how to get what I need.” In Orr’s world puppets and actors never interact. “That’s creepy,” says Orr. “I don’t ever talk to puppets; that’s unnecessary.”

Orr does most of the writing with the exception of Tolstoy’s Ivan the Fool. “There’s not a lot of material out there to choose from, but scripts do exist,” says Orr. “Our main goal is to keep the audience’s sophistication in mind and play to that.” He’s attended several puppet festivals and his show, Free Advice, landed him in Edward Albee’s Playwright’s Workshop. BPT was awarded DiverseWorks residencies in 1999, 2001, and 2002.

Collaborations with Infernal Bridegroom Productions and Arts Lyrica ended with favorable reviews. At the moment, Orr is at work on the third installment of Danse Macabre, his joint effort with fellow “A” list indie group, Two-Star Symphony. Camille Saint-Saens’ symphonic poem, Danse Macabre, provided the inspiration. “This is a collaboration process that comes out of the music,” says Orr. “I figured by the third show we would know what we were doing.” The first piece dealt with the isolation of death, the second, death on a mass scale, while the last installment concludes with the climactic Saint-Saens piece, Danse Macabre. The piece will be played in its entirety, with a new arrangement by Two-Star’s Margaret Lejuene and an expanded Two-Star Symphony.

The story goes that a man has been buried alive on the fateful night when the dead rise to dance out their tragic tales. Their last memories are revealed in a grave-to-grave romp. Don’t expect the muppets; Orr’s puppets even scare adults. For the actual dance section, BPT turned to Rebekah French of Frenticore, who is well versed in multi media performance. “I’ve loved Bobbindoctrin ever since I saw them performing at parties about a decade ago. I’ve really enjoyed watching them take on larger and more sophisticated projects and collaborations over the years,” says French. “I thought the first two parts of the Danse Macabre series used film and live music very well, so I’m really excited to help to add another layer–live dance, to the final installment.”

In addition to Two Star, Orr has amassed an impressive list of artists for this production. Aaron Jackson, technical director and scenic designer, has created a marvelous graveyard filling the entire Talento Bilingue stage. New tabletop and rod puppets have been crated by Orr and Jackson. (BPT rarely reuses puppets; Orr imagines an exhibit of retired puppets.) Frequent BPT player Atton Paul gets high-tech with stunning pixelvision videography, using racy new techniques of stop- motion animation. Francesca Marquis joins BPT for the first time and has deigned shadow puppetry. Actors Melissa Winter and Walt Zipprian head up the cast.

When a BPT show starts, something happens with the audience. According to Orr, the reptilian part of your brain activates by making the puppets seem real. “We move a degree beyond the usual suspension of disbelief to a yearning to disbelieve,” says Orr. “It’s like the audience is getting this itch scratched that they didn’t know they had.”

BPT celebrates their 10th anniversary this summer. Initially he gave his company a 10-year commitment. Recently, he renewed for another five year. Orr landed a CACHH fellowship for 2006. He’s planning on a one-man puppet table-top show on street corners called Satisfaction Survey. It should be suitably strange.

Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre and Two Star Symphony present DANSE MACABRE PART III: THE DANCE OF THE DEAD, The Last of Three Puppet-Orchestral Collaborations, on Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 8pm, March 17, 18, 24 and 25 at Talento Bilingue, 333 S. Jensen Drive, Call at 713-526-7434 or visit

Reprinted from artshouston


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