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To some people, pigeons are little more than flying rats. To others, they’re stalwart companions who trade company in exchange for bread crumbs.
But to Robin Frohardt, they’re just another resident of any city. The Brooklyn-based puppeteer first debuted The Pigeoning in 2013, and since then, she’s taken the show to audiences across the country. The story is simple: A old man believes the countless pigeons that flock around his New York office are conspiring against him.
The Pigeoning is a creepy comedic puppet show performed loosely in the style of Japanese Bunraku theater. And tonight at 8 p.m., the tale of avian insanity lands at Artisphere.
Arts Desk talked with Frohardt about how she created the morbidly funny show, why pigeons were her bird of choice, and how she constructed the lifelike puppet birds.
Arts Desk: Tell me how you came up with the idea for the show. Did something inspire you to create this?
Robin Frohardt: I had this old man puppet character [named Frank] that really didn’t do much. He was sort of a character that appeared now and then. I was inspired to write a possible backstory for him.
So the backstory is that he was driven kind of crazy by pigeons?
It’s a little bit unclear. But a little bit, yeah. Frank is obsessed with cleanliness and order and safety, and the pigeons sort of embody all the filth and chaos of the city and they’re causing problems for him in a way that he starts to take personally. He begins to think that there might be a conspiracy against him and so he starts to investigate this conspiracy.
Is Frank based on anyone you know?
I guess he’s kind of a part of all of us. He’s not specifically based on anyone, but maybe he represents a little bit of our obsession with order and safety that we don’t really have any control over, but like to fret and concern ourselves with nonstop.
Why pigeons? Why not any other bird?
Pigeons are so ubiquitous in New York and most cities. I mean, they’re everywhere. They’re part of the landscape. They also just have this natural humor to them. Everybody interacts with them, everyone thinks about them or sees them at some point. Everyone has an experience with them. Some people really love them, most people hate them.
Pigeons are definitely funny. But in this production, they seem a little creepy, too. Do pigeons creep you out at all?
They don’t creep me out, but I know that they creep some people out.
I know the story was developed alongside its musical score, but which came first? Did one inspire the other?
The story and the score were built together. I worked really closely with Freddi Price for many years. We’re able to understand each other really well. Sometimes, we would have a scene and I would say, ‘We need this kind of music for it.’ I wouldn’t even have to explain much and he would read my mind and come up with something brilliant. And then other times, he had a piece of music that existed already that we choreographed to and developed around. It was a good balance of give and take.
Is your work always so morbidly funny? It seems like you have a sort of dark sense of humor.
Definitely. Yes. That’s my favorite kind of entertainment. The world itself is just so darkly funny. There’s so much grimness. There are so many terrible things happening all the time, but there’s also so many wonderful things happening all the time. I come from a place that humor is sort of a coping mechanism. Maybe to a fault. But that’s just sort of how I process things. How I’m okay with things is being able to laugh at them.
Is the puppetry style used inspired by Japanese bunraku? It seems awfully similar.
It was inspired by bunraku, yeah. Bunraku is a super traditional theater that is done in certain ways. We definitely do our own thing and took a lot of liberties. It’s based off that style, but we’re not sticking to any sort of strict form.
The fact that bunraku incorporates people in full black body suits only adds to the creepiness of the show. Was that a conscious choice you made?
Sometimes it’s great to have the puppeteer visible. One of the cool things that happens when you’re watching The Pigeoning is your awareness of the puppeteers fades in and out. There will be times when you’ll be watching the performers work and thinking about them as performers, and then for long segments of time they will completely disappear and you’ll only be paying attention to Frank. So, I kind of like that back and forth.
I’m particularly drawn to this style of puppetry because I feel like it’s the style that offers the most amount of control. Once you put a rod or a string in between a human and a puppet, you’re not able to articulate as well. And with this, you can create all these small and subtle nuanced movements. And this show is so movement based and communicates so much without many words at all that it couldn’t just be something dangling on the end of a string. It needed to be something that could be really articulated in a subtle way.
There are moments in the show when a puppeteer’s own hands serve as a stand-in for Frank’s hands, and I think that’s a really cool detail. Where did you come up with that idea?
I think I saw it in a show and stole it. When I first started making The Pigeoning, I kept trying to make all these props and put magnets in the puppet’s hands so that he could control all these things. But there was just no way to get it right. Frank has so many props in this show. He’s dealing with dated technologies. He’s recording the pigeons and taking polaroids. The easiest solution is to just use our hands. It also offers more ways for him to express himself.
From what I’ve seen, everything looks very lifelike, especially the pigeons. How did you make them? And what are they made of?
All different ways. Some stuff is wood, some stuff is other material. That’s the part I enjoy the most, honestly. I’ve made a few incarnations. I had some practice.
Did you have to study real pigeons in order to make the puppets?
Definitely. I looked at a lot of pictures and pigeons. I still look at them a lot.The head bob is its signature move. That’s like the one memorable move that everybody knows, it juts its head forward as it walks. I wanted to get that. Earlier I built some puppets that had some fancy mechanisms in them. There was one that had a mechanized pecking motion. But ultimately I think the best ones are the ones that are directly controlled by the puppeteers. They can add all the subtlety they want to it.
What’s your reasoning for setting this production in the early ‘80s? Would it not work in modern New York?
Part of the reason for setting it in the ‘80s was that it was originally a backstory, so it was supposed to be in the past. But ultimately, there was just something so comedic looking back at that technology. It was an aesthetic that I was really interested in. I thought there was a lot of potential and excitement in putting it in that time period. A lot of potential for humor and nostalgia.
This is a near-wordless production. Is it hard to convey an entire plot without using dialog?
It surprisingly isn’t. It takes a lot of work for us to find the best ways for him to communicate what’s going on, but it’s more like Charlie Chaplin kind of stuff. You know what’s going on without the words. The only words in the show come from his office safety training manual. That helps fill in the gaps for the more complex ideas that we weren’t able to portray with just movement. But the movement can say a lot.
Do you look at pigeons differently now? Should we as people look at pigeons differently?
I definitely look at pigeons differently now. And yeah, maybe people should, too. I don’t really think of pigeons as birds. To me, they’re more residents of the city than they are of the animal community.
The Pigeoning opens at 8:00 p.m. on March 27 and 28 at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd, Arlington. Tickets are $20.
Photo courtesy of Artisphere.