The Mudlark Puppeteers are accustomed to working in the tiny confines of their Mudlark Public Theater, a converted corner store not much roomier than a long single-car garage. When company founder Pandora Gastelum had a chance to organize a puppet festival at the cavernous Marigny Opera House last year, she opted for a "giant puppet" festival, but permit problems forced the event to be moved to another venue. This week, the Mudlark Puppeteers are presenting an original adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Snow Queen using some giant puppets at the Opera House, and the 2013 Giant Puppet Festival will be held there in April.
The Snow Queen is the most recent collaborative work to emerge from the Marigny Opera House Foundation's efforts to generate new performing arts pieces. The project is led by the Mudlark Puppeteers, which got a grant from the Foundation for Entertainment, Development and Education (funded by Gambit's Big Easy Awards) to hold a six-week workshop for participants ranging from a NOCCA student to professional visual and theater artists. Dave Hurlbert, who owns the Marigny Opera House and runs its nonprofit arts foundation, gave the project use of the space for development, rehearsals and performances. Hurlbert and Gastelum first started talking about projects when they initiated the giant puppet festival.
"We were talking about our fantasies for the [Marigny Opera House]," Hurlbert says. "I thought we should do something for December. Ballets always do The Nutcracker, so what could we do? Pandora said The Snow Queen, and I said, 'Of course.'"
In The Snow Queen, a troll builds a deceptive mirror in which people see horrible reflections of themselves. He tries to raise it to heaven to trick the angels into despair, but it falls, shatters and pieces spread everywhere. The little pieces cause similar harm to those who unwittingly see its reflections. One bit of mirror comes between two children who have been longtime friends. Kai is deceived by a piece of the mirror and ends up a prisoner in the Snow Queen's palace. When Gerda realizes he is gone, she sets off on a magical journey to find her friend.
"It focuses on a little girl who overcomes by virtue of her creativity, persistence and her innocence," Gastelum says. "She has this innocent belief that everything is possible."
Gastelum adapted the narrative and condensed what is one of Andersen's longest stories. Many of the Mudlark's works have been aimed more at adult audiences, but this show is family friendly. There's a band of robbers in the piece, and she's used the group for comic relief instead of their more scary presence in the original story.
A team of four Mudlark Puppeteers manipulate the main characters, and the workshop participants control many of the rest of the cast. The workshop focused on skills in puppet making, story telling and costuming. Participants made their own puppets, and their characters altered the story.
"There's a menagerie of ice beasts," Gastelum says. "One of the students created a giant ice porcupine with icy shards, and we have an ice ghoul, which is not in the original, because one student wanted to make a giant skull with a functional jaw."
The production also includes an original score by Ben Aleshire and Taylor Smith.
The Snow Queen is the second production created and presented exclusively at the Marigny Opera House (The Soldier's Tale was staged in early January).
When Hurlbert and Scott King bought the deconsecrated church in August 2011, they weren't planning to open it as a performance venue. The New Orleans Fringe Festival had presented shows in the space in recent years, and its organizers asked to use the space and secured a special permit from the city to host performances for the festival. Then Hurlbert decided to host jazz and classical music concerts, dance and opera events. A neighbor complained to the city, and the Opera House was prohibited from hosting public events because of a lack of proper permits. Plans for a dance festival and the giant puppet festival had to be changed. Performances were sponsored by the Marigny Opera House Foundation but at different venues.
Hurlbert can use the space for private events, such as weddings and TV and movie shoots, but the mission of the nonprofit is to host arts events. Hurlbert eventually convinced the city to again recognize the building as a church, which can host public events with music. He also has made a point of seeking the approval of the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association for all public events. He says the city has no record of complaints in more than a year.
In recent months, artists in residencies have created new works at the Opera House. The 9th Ward Opera developed the The Liebeslieder Project, which featured Hurlbert playing piano, and presented it at AllWays Lounge and Theatre and at a private event at the Opera House. For public events, Hurlbert must secure special permits from the city. He already has one for the 2013 Giant Puppet Festival, which will be held in April and May, and other projects are in the works. He hopes to host a workshop production of Xavier University professor Dan Shore's new opera Freedom Ride.
"I never assume I am going to get a permit," Hurlbert says. "I just go to City Hall and hope for the best."