Tristan Cupp is the co-founder and Artistic Director of the Zoot Theater Company, which creates and produces original puppet productions. Since its founding in 2006, Zoot has collaborated with groups such as Central State University, The Human Race Theater Company, The Dayton Art Institute, The University of Dayton and many other schools and organizations.
Tristan (and Zoot) work out of a building near downtown Dayton. As you enter this building you find yourself in a storage room containing costumes for the puppeteer / performers.
Going past the grey curtain, you enter a large space. Between shows Tristan finds many uses for this space, including working on his motorcycle. Before a show, this large area is the rehearsal space.
The building’s other large space is in the rear, an area primarily used for building sets.
When I visited a few months ago, I found Tristan creating some puppets for the upcoming production of “Goblins” which was adapted and staged by Zoot co-founder Aaron Vega.
“I often use another sculptor to produce many of the puppets for a show, but in the early stages, when I am trying to visualize the overall production, I need to make some puppets myself.”
I mentioned to Tristan that I love taking photos in his studio because it is filled with puppets and puppet parts from past productions.
“A puppet is not like an actor,” Tristan said. “An actor can change his wardrobe, change his makeup, and play a new part. These puppets are made for one part in one play and then they are done. But we keep some of them around when their role is over – partly because we may be able to adapt them in some way for a new production and partly because we’ve worked with them so much that we have come to care for them.”
Tristan sat down to talk in a room that is often used for lunch breaks during rehearsals. As he manipulated some of the puppets I asked him how he became a puppeteer.
“I started out as a diesel mechanic like my father. But when I took some classes at Sinclair Community College I started working on sets and props and I fell in love with the theater.
“I built sets for the Human Race Theatre Company and many other local theater groups. Then I started building puppets for many of these same groups. I have loved puppets since I was a little boy. My older brother and I used to do puppet shows for our parents and anybody else we could get to watch.”
I asked Tristan where Zoot would be performing.
“In 2013 and 2014 we used the theater at the Dayton Art Institute as our home theater. That would not have been possible a decade ago. For a long time, puppets have been seen as something for children – not something for the legitimate theater.
“Now, instead of performing in one location, we are spreading our wings. We went to Columbus and collaborated with the Columbus Moving Company Theater group. We’ve been to many local libraries and we’ll be going to many more. We’ve recently performed at Stivers School for the Arts, the Oxford Community Arts Center, the Troy-Hayner Cultural Center, the Old Yellow Cab Building in Dayton, the Victoria Theater as part of TEDx and at the Mosaic Institute in Miamisburg. Puppetry is undergoing a renaissance and we want to be part of that in as many venues as possible.”