Jason Potgieter’s passion for puppeteering will come in handy for Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher.
The play uses a blend of traditional actors and puppetry to tell the story of Jeremy, who takes a wrong turn while running from bullies and ends up at a magic show featuring all sorts of contraptions. During his travels, he enters a shop and the owner sells him a dragon egg for 25 cents. This is when the real magic starts to happen.
“Jeremy has to raise this dragon and figure out how to feed and hide him and take care of him,” Potgieter said. “It’s all about how the world in a way has been inhospitable to magic and to things of mystery and fantasy. It’s also a metaphor for how we get stuck in a pedestrian life and don’t see the magic.”
The show, adapted by local playwright Tucker Rafferty from the award-winning children’s book by Bruce Coville, will take the stage from March 10-19 at the Gilmore Theatre Complex of Western Michigan University.
In addition to the dragon, the show includes a dog, cat and monkey, all manipulated by students with WMU’s Theatre Department. While most are solo puppets, the fully-grown dragon requires seven student puppeteers.
Potgieter, who is from Capetown, South Africa, said the majority of the students are experiencing puppeteering for the first time. As such, the production requires the expertise that he brings, according to Joan Herrington, chair of the school’s theatre department and director of the show.
Potgieter has taught puppetry workshops and worked with the Handspring Theatre Company, developing the stage production of War Horse, which went on to win a Tony Award in 2011. But he was once a student himself, becoming interested in puppetry while working toward a degree in acting from the University of Capetown.
“Someone was doing a puppetry show as a master's project and they conned me into working with puppets, which is something I’d never done before,” he said. “Partway into the first rehearsal, I knew I’d found my thing.”
Although he’s been teaching puppetry since 2008, Potgieter said he feels like he’s just recently nailed it down. He is no longer with Handspring and is now his own boss, which presents him with new challenges and opportunities.
“The biggest challenge for the students in this show at Western is to take the leap from stage acting to puppeteering, because in regular acting, it’s all about embodying the character,” he said. “In this show, you embody the character and then transfer the energy into the puppets who become the stars. You have to surrender a lot of your instincts for stage acting and hand that over to the puppet so you become almost invisible.”
Herrington said the actors’ inexperience with puppetry has presented a unique challenge for her as director, as the show has a mix of puppets and traditional actors.
“What they’re interacting with onstage is not an actor — it’s a puppet being manipulated by another actor,” Herrington said. “We’re bringing to our traditional actor a new skillset in performing with puppets.”
Challenges aside, the show should prove to be a magical experience, especially with the use of projections. More than 4,000 area students are expected to see the show, Herrington said, though the show will be enchanting for grownups as well.
“We wanted something special and highly theatrical,” she said. “We thought puppets would be a great thing for them.”
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher
1903 W. Michigan Ave., Kalamazoo
March 10-19, various times, $20
millerauditorium.com, (269) 387-230