"The Mystery in Old Bathbath" premieres locally Friday night at The Prytania.
When I last wrote about Quintron and Miss Pussycat in OffBeat, photographer Elsa Hahne shot a photo of Miss Pussycat in bed reading a story to her puppets. That image has stayed with me as it captured for me her parental relationship to her creations. She's acutely aware of them as puppets made to help her tell stories, but that doesn't prevent her from treating them as if they have lives of their own, lives she'd like to be a part of. She wants things to work out for them. She knows that good stories require conflict, but she'd prefer something less stressful for them. "I think it would be so great to write a story where things just get better and better," she says.
Friday night, Miss Pussycat - Panacea Theriac - will locally debut her new puppet film, The Mystery in Old Bathbath. The Prytania will screen the 45-minute movie with Trixie, Marsha, and J.J. Suede - characters she created for the Vice TV web series, Trixie and the Tree Trunks. Trixie is one of her oldest characters, dating back to 2000 or so. "She makes an appearance in the Mother-in-Law Lounge in Electric Swamp," Theriac says. "She was an extra in that movie. I thought, This is such a good puppet, I really should do something with it. Marsha was made to be Trixie's friend."
Trixie may be 13 this year, but she's held up remarkably well. She's made of papier mache - beloved by ants and rats alike - but Miss Pussycat has only had to make three of them, and all are still in use to perform different functions. The puppets are not only well-constructed, but they're beautifully designed, so much so that they were put on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art as part of 2010's "Parallel Universe" show. Included in the show were puppets that commemorated her life - Ernie and Antoinette K-Doe, and The Ninth Ward Marching Band among others.
The Mystery in Old Bathbath is her most ambitious work to date. The Trixie and the Tree Trunks series is approximately 45 minutes long, but it was broken into a series of webisodes. This film represents a year of work, thinking through not only the story and the puppets but every facet of every shot. "We shot a movie like it was a three-camera shoot, but we don't need three cameras because you can freeze. But there're close-ups, wides, from my eyes, from your eyes perspectives," Quintron says. "We wanted it to feel like a real, dramatic film."
"You have to make everything," Theriac says. "If you want to film a puppet's head with a wall back there, you have to make the wall and everything on it. You have to find a puppeteer and get the lights right. You can't just turn the camera on and pan around the bar. If you're outside, you have to make every single tree."
When she talks about the challenges, there's no note of complaint in her voice. Part of her gift is that she has figured out how to merge business and pleasure. Her friends turn up as voices in her puppet shows, and her art allows her to indulge her imagination at a pretty extreme level. When she thought about how cool clouds made of cotton balls look when lit from below by black light, she wondered, "Why have I never had the clouds have a face and a smile?" That led to a character.
In worlds as visually and logically as whimsical as the ones she creates, the story counts more than ever to involve the viewer. "She and I are the yin and yang on that," Quintron says. "She wants to explode smoke bombs and comes up with crazy visual ideas, and I was pushing for plot propulsion and story." Still, he recognizes that no matter how fanciful the characters, her stories are character-driven. On more than one occasion, he'd think about the mechanics of moving the story forward, but once he saw the character she was working on, its design would dictate different decisions. "That meant figuring out how to fit the giant blueberry cloud into the story and make you care," he says.
"The puppet's character determines look, then look determines character," Theriac says. "It becomes apparent what a puppet would be good for." Some artistic choices are driven by more prosaic concerns. "With any puppet show, things are made for what they have to do. This character's going to have pipe cleaners for hands because he's going to have to hold a little cell phone."
Part of the fun for her is visiting the world of her characters, but part of it is figuring out how to realize that world on camera. The Mystery in Old Bathbath has underwater scenes, so she and Quintron had to figure out how to do them without damaging the puppets. Miss Pussycat put Trixie and the Happy Tree at some risk when she gave them mud facials, but underwater was a whole other level of hazard. They found the answer in Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation puppet action series, Stingray. They put the camera on one side of a fish tank that was stocked with fish of varying sizes to creation the illusion of depth. The puppets acted on the other side of the tank, Quintron explains, "then fish were projected behind them."
One truth she discovered is the relationship between sight and sound, particularly when your challenge is to make a puppet world come to life. "When you add sound, you can see what the puppet's doing," she says. "It's like if you don't have a sound for it, you can't see it." The foley work necessary to bring action to life is clearly another place where eccentric creativity kicks in, and that becomes another source of pride. "My greatest sound contribution on this film was to create the sound of a party happening on the other side of a hotel wall," Quintron says.
Miss Pussycat's puppet world is visually, sonically and conceptually stylized, but her work comes from the simplest of places. "We decided Marsha, Trixie and J.J. Suede were really good characters, so let's try to keep them going as long as possible," she says. And even though her story has a Happy Tree, a blueberry cloud, and a warlock, her core aesthetic is deeply traditional. "I want to disappear," she says. "During the puppet show, you want to make it look like the puppets come to life."
The Mystery in Old BathBath plays at the Prytania at 10 p.m. Friday night. Quintron will perform as theatergoers make their way to their seats. Tickets are on sale now.