I’m interested in finding the universal in the particular,” says Patrick Wadden, co-founder of Saugerties-based Arm-of-the-Sea Theater. “For many years, a lot of our shows were very symbolic, abstract kind of things; that’s led to a phase now of being more specific.”
Under the artistic direction of Wadden and co-founder Marlena Marallo, the performance ensemble creates contemporary works of mask and puppet theater in a style that they call “magical realism,” fusing live music with the visual arts and performance to tell larger-than-life stories drawn from history, literature, environmental themes and current events.
Arm-of-the-Sea Theater will present its annual outdoor performance spectacle, the Esopus Creek Puppet Suite, on Saturday and Sunday, August 23 and 24 at 8 p.m. at Tina Chorvas Waterfront Park on East Bridge Street in Saugerties. Admission costs $10 for adults and $5 for children, or $25 for a family of four. Tickets are available at the park entrance each evening of the event. Audience members are encouraged to arrive early and to bring lawn seating.
The first Puppet Suite was performed in Saugerties in 2001, making return visits to the waterfront park every year since as part of Arm-of-the-Sea’s “Stories from Here” initiative: a community arts and heritage project designed to involve local residents creatively in the history of their community and to share this history with summer visitors. The small touring company travels a great deal, going to festivals and community venues and theaters throughout the region to perform and provide educational arts programs. “Most of the time we’re out-of-town,” says Wadden, “so we try to do something special every year here in town.”
This year’s “Suite” is the third in a trilogy that began in 2012. Inspired by events in local history, the story will be based on the early 20th century, with scenes about the local paper mills; area residents surviving the Great Depression; the arrival of Augusta Savage, a Harlem Renaissance artist who lived the last 20 years of her life in Saugerties; and the rise and fall of the Saugerties Steamboat Line, which used to make nightly runs from New York City, says Wadden, leaving there at 6 p.m. and arriving in Saugerties in the early morning hours. The production features music by Bill Ylitalo, Thomas Workman and Brian Farmer, with vocalists Sarah Underhill, Barbara Wild and Bob Blacker. Performers include LeeAnne Richards, Cathy Muller, Soyal Smalls, New Paltz mayor Jason West and Laura Kopczak.
The ensemble cast combines company veterans and community volunteers who bring dozens of large-scale characters to life and provide low-tech theatrical effects. “There’s a whole volunteer ‘youth brigade’ that is a really great addition to the Puppet Suite,” says Wadden. Some of them are local students with whom Arm-of-the-Sea has worked before, while others find out about opportunities to get involved through word-of-mouth or the organization’s website, where there’s a page called “Participate.” A number of the masks and puppet characters are created in public workshops and at in-school residencies, and community volunteers of all ages are sought for assistance with publicity, tech and site work for the Puppet Suite, as well as mask and puppet performers.
Many of Arm-of-the-Sea’s papier-mâché creations were ruined by Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge in 2012, which flooded the group’s studio space and two storage buildings. More than 25 boxes of props and equipment were affected. Wadden says that they’ve managed to restore a number of the shows, however; and while there’s more work to do, they’re in the process of building a new storage space above the reach of floodwaters. That’s expected to happen by fall, he says.
Less certain is when the nonprofit company will have its own performance space: a future project planned for a site along the Esopus Creek adjacent to its current studios at Cantine’s Island. The project is “not yet underway,” says Wadden, with acquisition of the land the first step. The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater was given the property in 1999 to build a winter homeport for its historic sailing vessel; but now that other accommodations have been made for the Clearwater in Kingston, Arm-of-the-Sea Theater hopes to adapt the site in Saugerties for performances, as well as for community arts and environmental education programs.
“It’s in process, but the whole project is moving at glacial speed,” says Wadden. “But it is moving nonetheless, and we’re guardedly optimistic that things will start happening with that next spring. We have a space now where we’ve been operating for about 20 years, but it’s not a place where we can have public events. We wouldn’t move all of our operations over, but with this site, we would be able to have public programming and events.”
At this time, the 1.5-acre property is overgrown and neglected, with the remnants of an 1827 paper mill on it. “The property is literally in ruins,” Wadden says, “so there’s a huge amount of initial work before getting it to a place where we can figure out what we should do with it.”
Esopus Creek Puppet Suite, Saturday-Monday, August 23-24, 8 p.m., $5-$10, Tina Chorvas Waterfront Park, East Bridge Street, Saugerties; (845) 246-7873, www.armofthesea.org.