Some directors would die for the kind of control Steven Shipman exerts over his cast. He can easily manipulate his actors and actresses, and his stars never, ever throw a tantrum, unless he makes them.
Of course, Shipman's actors are puppets hand puppets, stick puppets and marionettes and he can get them to do things stage directors stuck using those real-live actors could never do. Like splitting in half.
"When I write a script, I go through the story and look for things that would be fun for puppets to do,'' said Shipman, whose Sunflower Puppets perform the English folk tale "The Three Sillies'' on Friday at the Lawrence Arts Center. "You can do physical things with puppets that you couldn't do with live actors. You can say that live theater with actors transcends emotional reality, but where puppets are concerned theater transcends physical reality. It's important to find things in the plot that work with puppets.''
SHIPMAN STARTED Sunflower Puppets back in 1984 he selects his own stories, writes the scripts and designs the puppets and performs music written by Darin Stelting, a Topeka composer. In the past two years, Shipman performed his productions of "Baba Yaga-The Witch!'' and "Rumplestiltskin'' in Lawrence.
Unlike Europe and Asia, where puppet theaters enjoy long traditions and perform adult as well as children's plays, the United States has no great tradition of puppetry. Shipman said he consumed vast amounts of printed matter on those European and Japanese puppeteers.
"Nobody encouraged me, because it's not considered a vital American art form,'' he said in a recent interview. "It's only been in the last three years that I decided I wanted to keep doing it as a career.''
After he graduated from Topeka West High School in 1980, he started out at a design major at Kansas University, where he used some of his artistic skills. He now studies theater and film, and he ran the giant plant puppet for the 1990 KU production of "Little Shop of Horrors.'' In addition to his puppet work, Shipman has directed videos and curator of a Puppeteers of America exhibit in 1990 at Kansas City.
TO CREATE HIS puppets, he casts a clay model of the figure's head and then wraps it in papier-mache and other substances. Once the papier-mache hardens, he cuts it in half, glues it back together and paints it. He then attaches the appropriate clothing, rods or wires.
Sometimes the puppets have special features, such as his "Rumplestiltskin'' puppet. Actually, he had two Rumplestiltskins: a normal hand puppet and a stunt double that split in half at the end.
In "The Three Sillies,'' Shipman will be working his hand puppets by himself. For "Rumplestiltskin,'' he had a crew alongside him working rod puppets as well as hand puppets. Although working solo is cheaper, he said that when he works with crews the puppets take on more life because a crew member can pay individual attention to his assignment.
"IN MY first show I did work with four other people,'' he said. "It's more difficult to work by myself. It's kind of challenging, because it's much harder to concentrate on more than one character. . . . You need to develop accents and you need to set up braces to mount the puppets on (when they're onstage but not moving), but the puppets you're not operating just sit there dead. It's better to have them moving.''
While he's manipulating his puppets, he usually hides behind a screen in a traditional puppet stage. Because he can't see the action himself, he needs help when he polishes a performance.
"I only work in front of a mirror at the very beginning,'' he said. "When I'm into it, I usually have someone watch it in front to correct anything wrong in the stage composition.''
PUPPETS, OF course, have magical properties that anyone with a tinge of imagination can see. When he demonstrates his work in conversation, Shipman puts one of his hand puppets on and the figure comes to life just by the natural movements of Shipman's hands. It's almost as if the human brain is programmed to give human qualities to objects that look human. Shipman says he knows how important that look is when he designs puppets.
"No matter how abstract I make them (the puppets), the most important element is the eyes,'' he said. "You do need to make big eyes even on the most abstract puppet.''
"The Three Sillies" tells the story of Jack, a lad who refuses to marry Lucy Ann because her family is, well, silly. He goes off to search for three people as silly as the family and, of course, he learns an important life lesson.
"IT'S PRETTY philosophical stuff,'' he said. "It shows kids how everyone can be silly, and that you can forget it and accept people for who they are. . . . My shows always have a theme to appeal to teachers, but my shows are for parents and kids. Kids enjoy them and I want them to be entertaining for parents as well.''
In the future, Shipman said he'd like to apply to the Kansas Arts Commission to join its state touring program and perhaps expand into the area of foam-Latex designs Jim Henson used for the Muppets and such films as "The Dark Crystal.'' He's also like to do puppet shows for adults as well as children. But for the moment he enjoys being his own writer, director, creator and performer.
"Now that I'm doing shows on my own I like the freedom to do what I want,'' he said. "I want to be like the old traditional traveling puppeteer.''
"The Three Sillies'' will be performed at 1:30 p.m., 3 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Lawrence Arts Center, Ninth and Vermont. Reservations may be made at the center.