Yes, puppets are cute and adorable, and we all know them from our childhood. But — thankfully — they also can be creepy and scary. Just ask the creators of “Horrific Puppet Affair,” an original puppet cabaret that will be performed just in time for Halloween by the artists of Boise’s HomeGrown Theatre.
For the fourth year, the company will invade a local pub to produce puppet theater for adults, with a lineup of original and spooky micro-plays by Idaho playwrights performed by human and puppet actors.
“We’re surprised this has taken off like this,” says actress and managing director Jaime Nebeker. “That first year, we thought we’d be booed off stage. Now, we’re 50 puppets later, and it’s something I think the community looks forward to every year.”
The puppets have become a hallmark of the company and have helped the company grow into a cohesive performance troupe and shift its direction.
The first Puppet Affair happened at the now defunct club The Red Room in 2012.
“They asked us to open for some death metal band,” Nebeker says. “We thought we would be ignored, but the audience was rooting for us. They were shouting and engaging in a very cool way. That’s when we decided we wanted to perform in bars and bring theater to new communities.”
They’ve produced plays, musicals and their annual puppet cabarets at watering holes around Boise, such as the now-closed Bouquet, where it sold out most of its run of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” last spring.
“We want to expand and put something different out there, maybe something no one else has the balls to do,” Nebeker says.
HomeGrown fills a niche in Boise’s theatrical ecosystem by serving the 21-and-older crowd and by helping local actors — mostly BSU grads — bridge the career gap between college, grad school and the professional world.
Boise State theater grads Jenessa White and Chad Ethan Shohet co-founded HomeGrown Theatre in 2011. White left the company in 2013 and now artistic director Shohet and Nebeker run the operation.
The company produces monthly readings of original, locally written plays and does four to five productions each year. Earlier this year, Shohet and Nebeker gained nonprofit status for the group and are using a Patreon.com campaign to build community and keep ticket prices low. Patreon.com lets people patronize the arts through crowdfunding subscriptions.
White and Shohet co-produced a successful production of Patrick Marber’s “Closer” in 2011 at the Linen Building as Black Linen Productions.
“We were having a conversation afterward and we started listing all our friends who went though BSU and who were all waiting for something, and waiting tables,” Shohet says.
“We wanted to create something at home that lets us continue working on our craft so when we get into an audition at Boise Contemporary Theater or Idaho Shakespeare Festival, we feel good about what we can do.”
But it also is a way to introduce a new audience to what he loves, he says. Last year, Shohet visited the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. He took a look at the audience and discovered he was one of the youngest people there.
“I realized that people in my generation don’t have an interest in going to theater,” he says. “So we want to go where they are. We want to do theater like it’s rock ’n’ roll, and not this stuffy thing you might be afraid of.”
Because bar owners don’t tend to be theater geeks, finding a venue takes finesse.
“We show up with a stage and lights, and they’re really surprised,” Nebeker says. “Each time we go somewhere new, we have to build a new relationship. Having a place of our own would be a relief, but it would have to be somewhere we could create the environment we want.”
The bars, the puppets and the actors all tie together nicely, and it’s led to a highly integrative creative process.
“We call ourselves ‘play-makers,’ ” Shohet says. “It’s a more collaborative way of working that allows everyone to be producers and learn about the craft and build towards a common goal.”
So, writers direct, directors act and so on. And they’re all getting better at the puppet work.
“We used to be actors who just had this prop at the end of our hands,” Nebeker says. “We’re still having fun, but we’re not just goofing around. We’re really pushing the puppets forward. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we’re serious artists.”