An old story, in a new way

Christmas story told with puppets will be first event held in the new sanctuary at Holy Trinity

Posted: Thursday, December 17, 2009

Puppet theater has had a very long, distinguished history in many cultures around the world - Japan, Indonesia, and India to name a few - but in modern American culture, the genre is often associated with children's entertainment (Elmo et al).

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"Shepherds, Wise Men and Angels," a joint project between Theatre in the Rough and Holy Trinity Episcopal church, is a puppet show more closely aligned with the genre's historical high-art context. This is not a children's show (though kids will probably love it), but a more sophisticated all-ages event that is both a simple retelling of a classic story and an innovative blend of church and theater.

"It is a great story, like any story from Shakespeare or any other story from the Bible, or any story that we grew up with," said Theatre in the Rough co-founder Aaron Elmore. "It's one of those lingering things that stays with you and it's why it gets told every year. It's that important to some people. It's just this year, people will have a chance to experience it in a slightly new way."

Elmore brings a thespian perspective to the Nativity, approaching the drama with the concepts of narrative, character and relationships in the forefront of his mind.

"One strength that I can bring to it from a theater background is approaching it as a story that has peaks and valleys, it's own beginning, middle and end," he said. "It's overall theological context is something I can keep in mind, but I can also lay that to one side when it comes to the moment. OK, here's a man, here's a woman, a baby is coming - what are they going to do? What's next?"

The play features two narrators, Theatre in the Rough co-founder Katie Jensen and Holy Trinity associate pastor, the Rev. Hunter Silides. The two women will share speaking duties, trading off passages from the Bible with annotations that offer more detail and background to the story.

The event will mark the first time the church has opened its doors the to public since the old building was destroyed in a fire in 2006. The idea that this show was going to welcome people into the new sanctuary for the first time kept the work moving at a fast clip, and motivated many parishioners to lend a hand in the behind-the-scenes preparation. Sewers and fabricators from ages 7 to 70 gathered in Elmore's studio in the Emporium Mall after work and on weekends to create the human and animal puppets. Though the idea of leading such a large, diverse group in the creative process was a big change from Elmore's usual solitary work habits, it was a process he found very rewarding.

Bringing the theater and the church together in this way is something new for Juneau, but Elmore said there are natural similarities between the two groups that makes the partnership feel natural.

"I guess in the biggest possible picture, a lot of people draw similarities between theater and church," he said. "A lot of unchurched actors and technicians that I know in the theater, who were maybe raised in the church but are unchurched now, think of the theater as their church. It's very common."

"If I had to pick out a real obvious, or to me the overarching similarity between the two, they are things that happen in a place, that happen in a town, in a community. ... These are ours."

Theatre in the Rough has done puppet theater before, with the "Merry Wives of Windsor" and "A Christmas Carol," for example, but these puppets are a bit different. They don't have exaggerated features, for one thing, but dignified faces that manage to communicate an imposing presence and carry a gravitas similar to that of some masks. For another, Elmore has improved upon the armature he previously designed (incorporating expertise gleaned from Charles Buggs) to make the head and arm motions less bouncy and more natural.

Created out of wood, paper and cloth, most of the humanoid puppets stand about 4 feet tall, and are beautiful art objects in and of themselves. Puppeteers will operate them by standing directly beside them, holding them by rods in full view of the audience.

Elmore said than seeing one's friends and neighbors perform the Nativity as actors can be distracting, and prevent one from being fully immersed in the story, but that puppets, by allowing a distance between actor and audience, can offer more direct, personal access.

"With the addition of puppets you have this remove. It allows the story to come alive in a way that people can't do," he said. "Puppets can do things that people can't."

The play is open to everyone - not just members of the Holy Trinity, not just church-goers, but everyone.

"Maybe they don't know anything about the Christmas story, maybe they hear it every year, maybe they hate it, maybe they love it, but here's a new way of unpacking it and I think it will be hugely enjoyed."

The show will run this weekend, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday evenings and at 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon, and also will be performed next Thursday as part of the family Christmas Eve service beginning at 5:30 p.m.. The show is free, but tickets are being distributed through Hearthside Books; to ensure a seat, picking up a ticket is a good idea. Tickets also will be available at the door as space allows.

Elmore said that the church has always been an open, welcoming place for the community to gather and that plans for the new church worked with this capacity in mind.

"They never wanted to build a church that would be used for five hours on Sunday and then shut down. It's an open building like the old one was."

• Contact arts & culture editor Amy Fletcher at

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