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You might not think it, but Bay Area natives have quite a few favorite puppets. Sure, we all grew up watching Jim Henson’s famous creations, but we also have a proud history of locally produced marionettes. From Sir Sedley and Brother Buzz in the 1950s to “Charley and Humphrey” and “Buster and Me” from the ’70s onward.
Dave Haaz-Baroque fits comfortably into that proud tradition, even though his fearsome felts aren’t meant for young audiences. Haaz-Baroque is the founder of Shadow Circus Creature Theatre, a showcase for the rogues’ gallery of characters he creates by hand. (The most prominent being Hatchet, a long-haired velociraptor acting as the ill-tempered Kermit to Haaz-Baroque’s Henson.) Outside of their own shows, the Shadow Circus cast have appeared on “Creepy KOFY Movie Time,” at the Edwardian Ball, and onstage alongside Kat Robichaud’s Misfit Cabaret and the sketch-comedy troupe Killing My Lobster.
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down live shows, Shadow Circus increased its online output with their “Void Ville” series. Their latest entry, “My Birthday in the Void,” marks the birth of their founder and hopes to cure our COVID-19 cabin fever.
I recently had the chance to ask Haaz-Baroque about the show and the state of Shadow Circus.
For those who don’t know, what led you to create Shadow Circus in the first place?
Haaz-Baroque: I’ve been doing puppetry on and off since I was a little kid. In my late teens, I moved away from puppetry and was in a goth band. I started incorporating puppetry more and more into our live shows because it was something I was already familiar with. Then gradually I accepted that I had no talent as a musician and decided to go ahead and do puppet shows because it was something I had such a kinship to. Officially, I started Shadow Circus Creature Theatre in ’99, but we didn’t start doing regular shows until a year later.
Has there ever been a character you’ve wanted to create but never have?
Haaz-Baroque: Yes! I’d like to expand on the cryptozoology family of Sassy and Ness (Hipster Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster). I’ve had this idea of wanting to make a sort of mysterious, Sam Elliott-esque version of Mothman and a belligerent “Jersey Shore”-style version of the Jersey Devil. I’ll probably get around to them at some point, especially since Mothman seems to be particularly meme-able right now. I’ve just always had other projects in the pipeline.
Has there been a major shift in your online output since the pandemic made live shows unlikely?
Haaz-Baroque: I would say that the thing that’s changed is that rather than doing a bunch of really short pieces, I’m taking the time to put together more complete shows. Writing a full show has always been something that’s satisfying to me, and so I’m hoping that as I’m putting these shows out there that people will be interested enough to watch them.
Are you more glass half-full or half-empty about possibly performing live again?
Haaz-Baroque: It depends on the day. I don’t really get stressed out reading the news so much as I get stressed out reading people’s comments under the news articles. There are some dark days where I see how many people are in absolute denial about our situation, and I think “Well, this is it. This is how we end.”
And then other times I feel a little bit more hopeful. I think a lot of people are trying to figure out their own emotional cycles right now, and most people are probably having the pendulum swing between optimism and pessimism.
Why do your show on this particular birthday?
Haaz-Baroque: I actually frequently do shows on my birthday, often by accident. I really like performing on my birthday, because many of the people I’m closest to are also fellow performers, so it’s usually an easy way for us all to be together doing something that we love. Last year for my birthday, I was performing with Misfit Cabaret in our first L.A. show, and it was a world of difference between last year and this year.
I don’t have any particular qualms about being older, but there are definitely things to be reflective about when having a birthday in this environment. When you’re a kid and you try to imagine what things are going to look like in 30 years, you imagine this exciting bright future ahead of you. For a long time, I believed that we were getting there gradually in tiny steps.
When I was 10 years old, did I ever imagine that I would be spending my 44th birthday in the middle of a pandemic, with a rising white-nationalist movement and protesters being thrown into unmarked vans? Is this really the future we pictured when we were kids? It’s a lot to mull over when looking back on your life.
So that was the theme that I brought into the show; this sort of regret over missed progress — but, you know, with puppets and music and a drunk Sasquatch. Even though the show is coming from kind of a heavy place, I’m making a strong effort for it to be fun, and I hope I pull that off.
In the past, you’ve collaborated with companies like Killing My Lobster, as well as local performer Charlie Gray. Do your collaborators seek you out or do you reach out to them?
Haaz-Baroque: Six of one, half dozen of the other. My puppets tend to have a very specific look to them, so a lot of times I get approached by producers because they know the style of things I do and want something in that vein. But other times I do approach producers myself. I low-key begged to build a puppet for the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” drag show because I was such a big fan of D’arcy Drollinger’s drag parodies.
Killing My Lobster essentially just borrowed my stuff because they needed puppets. They’re an incredibly talented and respected organization, so I was obviously thrilled to have their performers use my puppets.
Kat Robichaud and I had already done stuff with each other before Misfit Cabaret started. Kat was doing a “Doctor Who”-themed music video (“Somebody Call the Doctor”) and needed extras. I showed up for the shoot with some “Doctor Who” puppets I had made, and then we worked with each other on stuff ever since. Misfit Cabaret is probably my favorite show to work on besides my own.
Charlie (Gray)’s a bit of a different situation because he’s actively in Shadow Circus now. Even though I’m having to do a lot of solo stuff right now for obvious reasons, I still absolutely consider Charlie my No. 2 in Shadow Circus Creature Theatre. He just instantly understood the specific voice and concept of the show, and he’s really good at all of the practical business stuff that I’m terrible at.
What led you to choosing this list of guests (Faye Fatale, Rabbit Quinn, Nick Knave) for “Void Ville”?
Haaz-Baroque: Pure nepotism! A lot of the folks that I bring in I’ve worked with in other shows. Our show is a little bit different than other variety showcases in that the guests have to be comfortable interacting with the puppets themselves.
This time around I’ve also brought in Jules Indelicato of the Misfit Cabaret family. They handled the sound at the Alcazar Theater when Misfit did runs there, and I had no idea until the lockdown that they were also incredibly talented musicians, so I was eager to get them in.
Faye Fatale is someone I’ve been working with for years. Nowadays we’re also a couple, so obviously we have good chemistry. Nick (Knave) is a talented local puppeteer who used to run puppet slams here in the Bay Area. He asked to do a piece in the show, and he’d written a scene where he had written the dialogue for his characters and mine.
Even though I want to have a comfortable dynamic with the guests that I have on the show, I also want to make sure that I’m not just booking the same two or three friends every time. Producers need to be responsible for not making their lineups too insular or too homogenized, and now that I’m starting to do a show regularly, it’s something that I need to keep in mind.
Hipster Sasquatch is easily recognizable by his omnipresent can of PBR. What poison-of-choice would the other characters fancy?
Haaz-Baroque: Hatchet has been shown to drink whiskey sometimes in shows, although honestly, I think he would drink straight-up antifreeze if it came down to it. Professor Aloysius probably drinks something fancy like bourbon in front of a roaring fire. Wesley’s the sort of person that would probably take a sip of an alcohol-free pina colada mix and then would spend the rest of the night staggering around shouting “OH MY GAAAWD, GUYS! I’M WAAAASTED!”
Bruce the Chill Shark definitely doesn’t drink. He would drink tea made from plants he grew in his own garden.
If the coronavirus disappeared tomorrow, would you put on something similar to what you’ve done before or would you like to try something new?
Haaz-Baroque: Before the pandemic, it was so difficult to get accessible venues, that I was mostly working on other people’s shows. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course (I am desperate to get back to helping Misfit Cabaret again), but it had been a few years since I was able to write and perform my own show. One of my goals going into 2020 was to do more of my own scripted work again, this just wasn’t how I pictured it. We used to have places like Kimo’s and the Climate Theater that experimental performers could go to without having to pay rent — the venues would just take a cut of the door. Places like that went away, and now you’re expected to pony up at least $1,000 a night and hope that you recoup your cost.
Even if the virus disappeared tomorrow, if places to perform are out of reach, a lot of performers are still going to be in a difficult situation. I’m afraid it’s going to get worse, because venues themselves are in a tight spot, and I can understand why they can’t take a risk.
What’s kept you most entertained during lockdown?
Haaz-Baroque: Now, I reveal how much of my writing is actually filthy, filthy lies. Even though I spend a lot of time in “Void Ville” talking about being isolated, I have a day job as an essential worker for a social justice-y nonprofit, so I have been going out and working through the pandemic. I’m still isolated from the people I love, of course. In fact, I have to be particularly careful to distance from my friends because I’m often pretty exposed in my day job. But I haven’t really been locked down the way a lot of other folks have been.
So right now, I don’t have to struggle to find things to entertain me, because I’m not really given more free time than I had before. That being said, a lot of the producers who were making amazing shows before are continuing to make amazing content online. Kat Robichaud does solo shows where she plays piano and also gets together with Jordan Nathan to do Misfit Cabaret: Quarantine. On Sunday nights on Twitch there’s a show called Pole$exual that features a lot of local drag and pole performers. A lot of drag performers that I know seem to have really nailed how to create quality videos in the middle of this circumstance. I admire how they manage to work within the confines of this new situation. I have no idea how they pull it off.
Any final comments from Hatchet before we finish?
Haaz-Baroque: “If you mammals got through the Ice Age, you can get through this. And if you don’t, I’ll just take your shit.”
“Shadow Circus: My Birthday in the Void,” featuring Faye Fatale, Rabbit Quinn, Jules Indelicato, Nick Knave, Bri Crabtree and more, will stream at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 12 on Facebook Live at https://www.facebook.com/shadowcircuspuppets and on Twitch at https://www.twitch.tv/creaturetheatre.
* Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist and arts critic. He’s online at TheThinkingMansIdiot.wordpress.com.