Afsaneh Aayani brings Houston’s avant-garde puppet scene to life

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Houston puppeteer Afsaneh Aayani

Photo: Dani Rouner

At the Engine Room in 2007, one of the world’s weirdest bands was knocked off the stage by a Houston puppet show.

The Legendary Pink Dots were in town, an experimental group known for their long jams and rambling monologues about flying saucers and glass princesses. Their opening act wasn’t some weird local band like Tyagaraja or The Manichean. It was Joel Orr and Bobbindoctrin, a puppet troupe. That night they were filming “The Crucifixion,” a black comedy about a man who assumes he is being executed by the Romans for randomly shouting “I like sodomy.” Turns out he was just supposed to varnish the cross that was delivered to his doorstep, not nail it to it.

It was a highlight of Houston’s avant-garde puppet scene. Since the late 90s, Orr had slowly built a community that felt more like a punk movement than a mainstream art, welcoming interested volunteers to his basement studio. Bobbindoctrin has performed at venues such as Rudyard’s, using their puppets to tell raunchy jokes and push boundaries. Like Virginie Gwar’s metal band in the 1980s, Bobbindoctrin created a mix of the grotesque and social commentary that built a legend.

“We did these crazy shows in nightclubs,” says Orr. “I developed shorter shows on portable stages. We did this for a few years until Diverseworks approached us for a residency. That’s when I did “Ivan le fou” by Tolstoy. I have to completely adapt it and fill in some gray areas to put it on stage. I was able to make jokes that are normally between the more overt words. We showed we had reach, doing both gross and raunchy and something you could take your kid to.

It was also the year Orr got to work with iconic New York puppet pioneer Basil Twist on Houston Grand Opera’s production of “Hansel and Gretel.” The production attracted one of Orr’s most famous associates, Camella Clements, who began working with Bobbindoctrin as a volunteer.

“It was super fun when a new show came along where Joel was like, ‘Come down to the basement studio and try to solve a ridiculous problem,'” Clements says. “I remember we had to make a robot that vomits eyeballs. When I started volunteering for him, I had no puppeteering experience per se. It was so freeing and fun to work with these tools. The camaraderie of this time will last a lifetime.

Clements would go on to make a name for himself over the next few years at Botown, a non-profit theater group. She designed one of the most ingenious puppet plays in Houston history with a grant from the Houston Art Alliance. It was a commentary on the role of the cooler in Texas culture. Clements made puppets from frozen water and milk, then played on sheet metal so that the melting puppets created an arrhythmic, melodic sound as the piece progressed.

“The milk…in the end, we had to burn almost everything because of the smell,” she says.

Unfortunately, it was probably the swan song of the movement. Orr and Clements started families, with the latter moving to New Orleans, and hearts went off the stage.

“We did festivals for 11 years,” says Orr. “Then I had a child. I wasn’t going to tell them ‘Welcome to earth! I have to go play with puppets now. I’m still in my studio every week, but not producing anything for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Clements has just welcomed her second child and has moved into teaching. His neighbor is prolific New Orleans puppeteer and entertainer Miss Pussycat, and Clements definitely plans to return to puppetry when his children are older.

“I always want to create the craziest (stuff) I can,” she says.

There will be a puppet scene waiting for the days when people like Orr and Clements return if Afsaneh Aayani has anything to say about it. The young puppeteer and director is currently revitalizing the movement. She started by bringing a bold new look to an old classic played at the University of Houston, Audrey II from “Little Shop of Horrors.” Now, she’s debuting her first all-puppet show, a retelling of the Persian fairy tale “The Moonlit Princess,” at the Rec Room on Aug. 27.

“It was my first puppet show when I was seven.” She says. “It was the first thing that made me love the theatre. I still remember everything, all the colors and all the costumes. I wanted to bring something from my culture. It’s time for me to make someone else fall in love.

Although currently a bit more family-friendly than Bobbindoctrin’s punk-rock era of the early 2000s, Aayani is already causing a stir. Its script is mature, funny, and doesn’t shy away from some of the darker aspects of the original story. She was also commissioned to help both Main Street and The Alley with puppet works.

“Puppets are much better than people,” she says. “When you talk about magic, I can easily make a puppet fly. I can make a ghoul as I want easily. I can communicate better with people thanks to this art. I can say what I want to say and weave a colorful and crazy world. A few years ago, people were asking me to design sets. Even if something could be done with puppets, they wouldn’t do it. They do now.

She has already found a new art adherent, popular Houston actress Chaney Moore, who plays puppets and voices lead character ShahrBanoo. Moore fell in love with Aayani’s work in “Innominate” at Catastrophic, fittingly a place where Orr still occasionally contributes.

“I saw ‘Innominate,’ and all I could think about was how I wanted to get my hands on one of those puppets,” Moore explains. “I so wanted to be a part of this.”

Orr, for his part, is happy to let Aayani create the next generation of Houston puppeteers who go beyond school plays and birthday parties.

“Ansaneh is the only game in town right now,” he says. “And I’m glad she does.”

Jef Rouner is a Houston-based writer.

More information

“Princess in the Moonlight”

When: August 27 – September 17
Where: The game room, 100 Jackson #130C
Details: Pay what you want from $11.50; 713-344-1291; recroomArts.org




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