When Britt Juchem and Ariel Gregory arrive at Le Petit Outre on a recent weekday morning, they look as though they've just stepped out of a time machine from a romantic Wes Anderson-styled era. Juchem has long dark hair and wears a billowy black and white top that would be perfect for a Shakespearian gala. Gregory sports a mustard blazer, powder-blue vest and silky tie to go along with an impressive old-style beard and mustache. They are sparkly eyed and smile brightly, like two people who've already had their morning coffee and don't have to go spend their day in an office—which is true on both counts. Instead, they have bought two artisan bread loaves for their weekend camping expedition where they will spend their time, rain or shine, sitting by a river writing stories for puppet shows.
From a long cloth sack they pull out several puppets they've created over the years—each one crafted with vintage fabrics and fantastic accessories. One is a wizard with a dark and twisted face and a body covered in black beads meant to look like ticks; he holds a tiny old-fashioned telephone to his ear. Another puppet is a man wearing a dark yellow sweater that was an old favorite of Gregory's, which he shrunk down to puppet-size. There are flat puppets made of wood with flaps for mouths and more realistic 3D rod puppets whose limbs move easily. As the puppeteers lay out the colorful characters across the table, several coffee-shop patrons peek at them with delighted smiles. The puppeteers laugh, noticing the attention and Juchem recalls doing a performance for adults at a bar in Rosalind, Wash.
"We were like rock stars," she says. "We might as well have been David Bowie."
The Missoula-based couple has toured nationwide as a puppeteer outfit called Bat Honey, putting on puppet shows for kids and adults alike. They've rarely performed in Missoula, however. In April, they showcased their kids' puppet opera, Squidbelly, for the International Wildlife Film Festival. This week, they will put on Iron Will Tate, an adult puppet comedy about a family on a cross-country road trip who come across all sorts of strange characters—drunken zoo animals and giant robots—during the final leg of their journey. (It's "adult" for mature language and because the story is more engaging for adults.) In one scene, characters end up at a restaurant where it's storming inside. "It's kind of like a 'Fawlty Towers' bit," Gregory says. "There's shipwrecks and alligators and crocodiles showing up inside the restaurant."
Juchem and Gregory met at Evergreen State College in Washington 12 years ago. Juchem was majoring in theater and Gregory in film, but they were both interested in stop-motion animation and that became their focus. After college they moved to LA, where Gregory did technical and prop design for Groundlings and made textiles for Cirque du Soleil. Juchem created models for the commercial industry—forested landscapes and full remakes of Manhattan with a 12-foot Chrysler building. On their own time, they worked together on miniature sets to create animated films, but as the sets got bigger, so did the characters they built. "And now they are puppets," Juchem says.
Juchem and Gregory also found that they worked best in a place where they had more access to the outdoors—hence their move to Missoula four years ago. They've had to swap higher paying jobs for a life of writing grants to pay their bills, and traveling to rural schoolhouses to perform for kids, which they love. Juchem recalls unloading boxes of puppets at a school in Helmville and seeing three boys sitting against a wall watching them intently.
"They wanted to know what it was like to be a puppeteer," Juchen says, "and I said, 'It's great, but you have to lift really heavy stuff.' And one of them said, 'You don't know this about us, but we all work on a ranch, so that's no problem. We're very strong.' Those moments are unforgettable."
Puppetry has evolved over the years across the world with wildly different results. In the United States, traveling puppet troupes like Bread and Puppet perform shows and pass out sourdough bread to the audience as a literal way to nourish the community. At the Moscow State Theater, Russian puppeteer Sergey Vladimirovich Obraztsov has created life-sized puppets that require seven or more performers to each puppet. Bunraku, a traditional Japanese style, allows the puppet operators to be in full view and modern versions play with the idea of the puppet master as a separate entity.
"It's such an exciting time to be a puppeteer because there is this generation doing it now that grew up with Jim Henson—the 'Sesame Street' generation—who are just coming into their artistic potency now, in their 20s and 30s," Gregory says. "And we are getting a totally new approach because they are also being influenced by other television and film programs and foreign puppetry styles."
Bat Honey, whose name comes from Gregory's apiary lineage and the duo's love for bats, has created 100-plus puppets by now. "We have had to move to bigger and bigger apartments," Gregory says. The couple sifts through thrift stores and fly-fishing shops for materials, even picking up upholstery from old cars and fabric from discarded chaise lounges. They love the homemade look. Once they visited the Smithsonian and got to see the first version of Henson's Kermita lizard, not a frog, apparently made from a winter jacket owned by Henson's mother—and were delighted that you could see the stitches.
"Just to be able to see where an artist has touched something, like when you see a thumb print in a pot, we really love the handmade," Gregory says. "It feels more human and that's important to us to display."
The puppeteers live a romantic lifestyle that speaks to their do-it-yourself aesthetic. They say they have picnics in caves. On tour they will sometimes stop at a small-town schoolhouse and knock on the door to see if they can perform a puppet show. Once, while camping at Bannack ghost town, they put on an impromptu performance for all the families in the campground.
"We set up by the creek with the kids on the grass and there were mayflies everywhere floating in the air," Gregory says. "Most of them had never seen a puppet show and that's a surprising thing. It was really cool."
They're trying, they say, to recapture a tactile art that has been lost to video games and Internet overload.
"The vaudeville theaters closed down 70 years ago and so there's not that infrastructure for traveling performers that there used to be," Gregory says. "So what we do, it's anachronistic, but there are merits that you just don't get elsewhere."
Bat Honey performs Iron Will Tate at the Roxy Thu., May 22, at 8 PM. $10.