Paul Zaloom, of the Center for Puppetry Arts’ production of White Like Me: A Honky-Dory Puppet Show, is conquering a dream to tackle all the forms of puppetry.
If his name sounds familiar, or maybe even his picture, perhaps you know it from childhood. From 1993 to 1998, Zaloom starred in Beakman’s World, an educational television show that appeared on The Learning Channel and on CBS. With his first goal of having a TV show completed, he has been determined to accomplish a new goal.
“I thought I should try to master every form of puppetry. So I am kind of rampaging my way through the different forms,” he says. “I have done hand puppets, found objects, some rod puppets, some marionettes, toy theater, shadow puppets, and doll kind of puppetry, and so I thought ventriloquism after that.”
Despite this new goal, Zaloom has worked with puppets for much of his professional career, including on his TV show. Being a puppeteer, though, wasn’t something that he set out to do.
“I was in college. The Bread and Puppet Theatre – they were in residence in the college I went to. I took a workshop, and the next thing I knew I was in the company and going on tour,” he mentions. From that point on puppetry became something that he has used in his performance, and it is a form of theater that he enjoys for its simplicity.
“For someone interested in being an actor the whole thing of puppetry, especially solo puppetry shows, is you get to write the show and produce it, and play all the parts,” Zaloom states. “You can do anything you want. You can go into space. If you want to set something on fire, with puppets you can do all that stuff on a budget of nine dollars. I love that about puppetry.”
While he is known for toy theater and found objects, his new show makes use of dummy puppets, which has allowed him to conquer one of the most challenging forms of puppetry – ventriloquism. “It is a blast, hard as hell, but I am having a lot of fun,” he says.
Part of what makes this type of theater fun for him is the humor and inherent creepiness that dummies provide. “I love exploiting the creepy of them, and the idea of control being shifted back and forth. It is an old theme with them being who controls whom,” Zaloom states.
The challenge also creates much of his enthusiasm for performing his ventriloquism act. While learning to speak with his lips moving, there are other factors that he has found to be easier said than done. Knowing where to look can make or break the performance, and he has worked to perfect it.
“Equally challenging is to ensure your own affect as a ventriloquist is the affect someone would have when listening to another person talk as opposed to that of your affect being that is someone talking for someone else,” he explains. “It is where a lot of ventriloquist fail. It is very difficult for them to figure out where to put their heads and their eyes during the act.”
He goes on to mention that in most forms of puppetry, the puppeteer looks at the puppet during the performance. For ventriloquism, the performer does look at the dummy but not the whole time. Zaloom says, “You actually have to play a character while you are manipulating the puppet and often while not looking at it.”
This experience creates humor for not only the audience, but also for him. Since he consciously separates himself from the dummy’s words and actions, some things also take him by surprise. “He writes his own lines. Things come out of his mouth that make me laugh,” he says.
In addition to puppetry, Zaloom is famous for his satire, and it is that type of humor which is the foundation for his new show: White Like Me: A Honky-Dory Puppet Show. The title may sound scandalous, but the humor allows him to get his audience to think about ideas about race the show presents. Based on the prediction that Caucasians will be a minority in 2042, the show explores the idea of how the change affects people psychologically.
Told in two parts, the show includes a ventriloquism act in the first part of the show. “The conceit is that he [The Dummy] has been in a box for the past 50 years, and he is just coming for the first time to see what has transpired over the past 50 years,” he describes.
During the act, the dummy persuades him to explain how things have changed. This explanation forms the second part of the show, which uses toy theater to present “The Adventures of White Man.” It is “basically a history of white people, but told in a twisted way.”
The idea for the show came to him quickly. During a theater and performance conference, he was listening to others speak about their upcoming projects, many of which revolved around identity and race. These discussions inspired him, and the show quickly received a commission.
“It’s sort of absurd, but I thought it was very interesting this idea of being marginalized as a white person – just ridiculous. We have been the majority, and we’ve been running the scene here in the States since day one,” he explains. “So I decided to pitch the project – just get up and pitch a show called ‘White Like Me,’ and I kind of figured it all out in 24 hours.”
When audiences arrive to see the show, they will experience an unconventional show packed full of jokes, gags and laughs. Like many modern satirists, his main goal is to entertain with the hope that people will enjoy the show while opening the door to the new thought.
“I think what’s interesting is for Caucasians to contemplate not being the majority. I just want people to think about it. As far as people of color are concerned, I think it is funny for them to see the shoe on the other foot so to speak,” he says. “These things are not articulated in the general culture or event the alternative culture, and I thought well I want to articulate it. Humor makes it possible. I want people to laugh their asses off and have a swell time.”
Part of the teen and adult series, White Like Me: A Honky-Dory Puppet Show runs April 20 through 22 at the Center for Puppetry Arts. To get tickets or more information, please call 404-873-3391 or visit http://www.puppet.org/perform/whitelikeme.shtml.