Sara Hope Hill, All Strings Attached
Sara Hope Hill stepped out onto the worn floorboards of Lyric Hall’s front room. Behind her, a miniature stage fashioned from old chair legs and a sturdy work table held eerily intriguing puppets with elongated fingers and bare ceramic faces.
“I’d like to welcome you,” she said to the audience, “to shake the mundane and the ordinary, to reach inside the pit of your gut and ask yourself what makes you extraordinary.”
Last Saturday, New Haven puppeteer and self-described outsider artist Sara Hope Hill debuted her latest puppet show, Cooper’s Escape for the Great Circus, at Lyric Hall in Westville for two intimate and appreciative audiences.
Listening to Hill’s prologue, I was reminded of a skillful teacher starting class, preparing minds for the lesson to come. She welcomed the audience into her ethereal world, setting the scene for a mythical journey to find life’s purpose.
“I think it’s an important question for people to ask themselves,” said Hill. “What are my talents? Where will I put my energy and time?”
Hill’s recent rejection from The Cooper Union’s School of Art provided the impetus for Cooper’s Escape for the Great Circus.
“I got the letter and I was like, ‘Fine, I’m making another puppet set,’” she said, throwing up her hands.
“I just want to work,” she continued more earnestly. “When a couple of eggs break, you lay some new ones and you really put your heart into it.”
She built the set and the puppets in just a couple of weeks, using every scrap of free time she had. To bring the ensemble of puppets to life, she penned a storyline, her first such endeavor. The show opens on a tearful Cooper in the midst of an existential crisis.
“I haven’t found my purpose,” he wails. “It hurts!” Talker, the lanky ring-leader with a top hat, leads him into the world of the circus to meet a cast of characters who have shaped their purpose with confidence and determination.
Hill works from notes, rather than a script, so each performance is slightly unique. The language she puts in her puppets’ mouths is sparse, simple, straight-forward. It leaves room for your brain to dance around the themes of the story.
At the end of the show, Hill tipped her hat and smiled. The small but enthusiastic audience came right up to the stage at Hill’s invitation, wanting to study the puppets up close and hear more from the artist.
In quiet moment at a cafe table after the first performance, I asked Hill to tell me her purpose. “I’ve gotta make art. Period,” she said without hesitation. “I’m at my most calm and grounded when I’m making something.”
Though she often works with ceramics, Hill said she considers herself an eclectic artist. “When I get sucked into a specific thing, I feel trapped,” she said. Even outside of a classroom setting, she is driven to create fine art.
Hill said she plans to book more performances this summer, starting with a return to the front room at Lyric Hall on June 15. She is likely to use the same set of puppets and the same rich themes she developed for Cooper’s Escape, but nothing is determined yet. She likes to give herself the freedom to let her work evolve.
Cooper’s Escape is not a children’s show, and the world of puppets is one well worth re-visiting as an adult, especially if Hill is your guide. She asserts the importance of make-believe for all ages:
“The stories we tell ourselves have power,” she said. “Puppets are an extension of the self. They are capable of expressing things in your heart that you aren’t able to express on a day-to-day basis.”
While the evening sunlight faded into night behind Lyric Hall’s front windows, two musical acts took the stage—Bunny Boy from Massachusetts, who played quiet, soul-searching acoustic music, and New Haven’s Dr. Caterwaul’s Cadre of Clairvoyant Claptraps, whose songs were a rhythmic fusion of jazz and world music.
Hill’s second show began after dark, when the glow of Christmas lights and appliance-bulbs turned the tiny stage into a beacon. Whereas during the first performance it was easy to pay attention to Hill as puppeteer, watching her face and deft fingers as she worked, the stage lights in the darkened room focused the audience’s eyes on the puppets. The story was more spellbinding that way. Transported, I lost track of time.
Afterwards, the audience once again circled around Hill, aware that they had experienced something magical, not quite wanting to let go. “I really like the vibe you created,” said one person. “Can I hold Cooper?” asked another. Hill was in her element, responding to questions by starting philosophical discussions, sharing her excitement over the 60-pound, life-sized sculptures she has been working on in addition to her puppetry.
People couldn’t pry themselves away, gathered around Sara and her puppets, listening to her talk about her art. It is hard to believe that this performance was only her second outing as a puppeteer. Finally, in twos and threes, audience members managed to wave good-bye and head out into the night, still glowing from the stage lights and pondering the evening’s brief escape from the mundane.