How do you make the perfect pipe bomb?

Cash from strangers, and a little help from your friends. That’s how Phillips Saylor has gone about it, anyway.

When Saylor, frontman of the local alt-country band Stripmall Ballads, decided to mix his music with puppet theater, he tapped acquaintances at the Puppet Underground and friends and volunteers from around the D.C. arts scene to help give dimension to characters he’d been singing about for years. For funding, Saylor turned to a nifty social networking/patronage site called Kickstarter. (“Disprove my point that Americans don’t think artists are valuable members of society,” Saylor said in a video-recorded plea for donations. “I hope that I can walk around proudly and say this country, this coast, this city, gives a damn about the arts and gives a damn about independent artists and values new, freaky shit.” The post drew $840 from 18 donors, almost twice the original goal.)

The product—a folk opera called The Perfect Pipe Bomb—will be unveiled tonight at the Strathmore Mansion, in Bethesda. It chronicles the journey of a pair of fringe-living lovers, named Jane and John, who bond over dope and careless love and soon find themselves on a quest for St. Louis, an unlikely El Dorado that promises more of both.

It’s a tale that smacks of the sort of shadow Americana—members of a disaffected underclass dodging through the machinery of capitalism in search of their own American dream—that appeals to Saylor. Years ago, when he was working for a Christmas tree lot as a sandwich board-wearing Santa Claus, Saylor says he spent a lot of time talking and sneaking smoke breaks with the panhandlers on Maryland 355. “I just got to know them, and they were all deep down interesting people—in a way more interesting than normal civilians,” he says. The homeless narrator in The Perfect Pipe Bomb (played by Joe P. of local band The Nice Tries) hails from that stretch of Rockville Pike.

“You always gotta just kind of write what you know; write about your own experiences and who you’ve known and the lives that you’ve lived,” said Saylor, who turns 32 next week. “And I’ve spent a lot of time transient, spent time living on the street. I’ve spent time touring for like five years, living out of an ambulance. I’ve spent a lot of time with the transient class.”

We were sitting on the front porch at a house in Petworth where Saylor has been building his own invisible republic out of cardboard and cloth. They had been in the basement when I arrived: Saylor; Eli Cohn, who plays bass in Stripmall Ballads; and Ximena Guerrero, a puppeteer with the D.C.-based Puppet Underground. Saylor showed me some of the shadow puppets they’d been working on, including a tiny cutout of Jane attached by a line of fabric to a large hot air balloon—part of a dream sequence in which Jane finds herself tethered to a wayward dirigible.

“We’ve got a 3-D balloon with a basket and a little guy, and we’re going to float that throughout the audience,” Saylor told me. “Then it’s going to go behind the shadow screen, and the rest of the drama will take place in shadow.”

This is the first time Saylor has tried staging something of this scale, or directed puppets. But he says he’s not worried. “I’ve had quite a bit of confidence throughout this whole ordeal, really for no reason,” he says. The protagonist of Saylor’s opera shares her creator’s ambitiousness; Jane thinks that with a precise enough design, she can build the perfect pipe bomb: one that will make a big bang without blowing up in anyone’s face. It is, alas, a pipe dream.

Will Saylor’s concoction prove more wieldy? He thinks so. But the only way you’ll know is if you make the trip and find out for yourself.