International award-winning puppeteer Dan Hurlin talks about starting a successful theater at age 10, how financial constraints prompted him to create a solo show where he played a cast of 60 characters, his love of toy theaters and puppets, and his new approach to puppetry.
- The music in this episode is from “Disfarmer” and was composed by Dan Moses Schreier.
- Check out Tricia’s artwork here.
- Check out Dan’s website.
- View an excerpt from Disfarmer.
- See the trailer for the documentary Puppet.
- Learn about Nathanael West.
- Explore the work of John Cage.
- See Julia Jacquette’s work.
Tricia [00:00:03] Hey there. I’m Tricia Rose Burt, and I want to ask you a question. What creative work are you called to do but are too afraid to try? Are you in it? But dream of doing standup. A PR exec who longs to write a screenplay. Did the pandemic change your priorities? And you want to leave your fully funded PhD, M.D. program and go to New Mexico and paint? Or maybe you’re like, I was in my early career, trapped in a lucrative but soul crushing corporate job when what I really wanted to do was tell stories on stage. Well, in this podcast, we’ll hear from artists who took an unexpected leap and found the courage to answer their creative call so we can inspire you to answer yours. Because this is no time to be timid.
Tricia [00:00:51] Welcome to the show. And this episode will be exploring the seventh principle and the No Time to be timid manifesto constraints are opportunities. When I first started making art, I thought all my creative obstacles would vanish if I just had unlimited resources. But I soon discovered that having rules and limits actually helps me be more creative. For instance, when I couldn’t afford expensive art materials, I created a body of work using masking tape and office supplies. I ended up landing a solo show in Boston, receiving a solid review in the Boston Globe and selling the work to some important corporate collectors. My financial constraints pushed me to create far more interesting work than if I’d had endless tubes of oil paint. As Twyla Tharp says, limits are a secret blessing and bounty can be a curse. Our guest, Dan Hurlin, always uses constraints to make his work come alive. We met nearly 20 years ago when he was creating Hiroshima Maidens, a puppet performance inspired by the true story of 25 women who survived the nuclear blast in Hiroshima in 1945. And whatever image came into your head just now when I said the word puppet, erase it because Dan creates puppets like you’ve never seen before. Check out the documentary “Puppet,” which chronicles the entire development process of his work, Disfarmer a piece inspired by another true story this time of an eccentric Depression-era photographer. And go to my website for links to his work so you can see his creations. When you’re viewing his work, keep in mind, these large scale productions began with The Day the Ketchup Turned Blue, a toy theater piece with specific size constraints — very, very small. We talk about the piece’s development in depth during our conversation. Dan’s won about every award you can win, performed with and directed some of the theater’s finest, and taught at premiere institutions all over the country, including Sarah Lawrence, where he served as the director of the graduate program in theater. He’s not only one of the most generous artist I know, he’s also one of the funniest. He joined us from his studio, and as always, it was just a delight to talk with him.
Tricia [00:03:30] I just spent easily 24 hours researching all things Dan Hurlin. So my question is, what was your first act of creative courage?
Dan [00:03:39] I have no idea because I didn’t even I, I it didn’t seem courageous. It just seemed like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Or not only did I want to do it, but it seemed like the only thing I could do. If I really had to answer that question, I think it would probably be that when I was ten years old, I started a children’s theater that ran for nine years.
Tricia [00:04:04] Explain that.
Dan [00:04:04] It was one of those sorts of things where the little kids come in and they’re like, I’m going to put out a play. You know, they don’t really even know what they’re doing, but they’re going to put on a play. And so there was this party that my parents were having with some neighbors, and they were having a lobster bake. All the kids were there and the grownups were all, you know, drinking. And of course, we couldn’t drink. We were too young. And we said, let’s put on a play. And, you know, we got my mother’s fur coat and made costumes out of it and wore it backwards. And basically what we did was we created an episode of Star Trek.
Tricia [00:04:39] Oh.
Dan [00:04:40] We had a blast. And we set up the back room so that it was our little set and the grown ups, put chairs for the grown ups to watch. And they came in and they watched it. And my neighbor said, you know, in his drunken way, he had said, you kids are just great. Why don’t you build a theater in my barn? And so the next day, you know, while he’s completely hung over, we all showed up with hammers and saws, just ready to go. Bless his heart, he was, you know, good to his word. And he gave us his barn and we created a summer theater, and it ran for nine years. And we got you know, I don’t think we got money from it, but we got recognized by the State Council on the Arts.
Tricia [00:05:20] No way.
Dan [00:05:22] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it was like a real theater. And I remember the house sat, I think, 30 people, and the stage was was basically eight feet by eight feet. And the rule was you didn’t grow out of participation in the theater age wise, but you did height wise because the proscenium arch there was like, it hit me here, you know, at my nose, even when I was kind of a pre-teen. For some reason, I don’t I don’t quite know why maybe it’s just that my inner bossiness or maybe it was maybe it was a need to have some power in the world that because I was this little gay boy growing up in New Hampshire where all of my classmates were, the burning question was, which is better Ford or Chevy? And my burning question was, which is better? Monet or Renoir? I never felt I had any power. I always felt powerless because I always felt like if they found out that I was different in that way, they, meaning my classmates, be disastrous. And so all of this to say, maybe it was that thirst for power that led me towards being a director of the theater rather than, you know, one of the players. And my mother, kind of, bless her heart, realized that growing up as this little outsider in a pretty blue collar, hardscrabble, tiny town in New Hampshire, you know, I had a kind of a rough road ahead. And so she not being a hugely nurturing type, she didn’t console me or anything like that. What she did was like, okay, if this kid wants to make art and I’m going to figure out how to get him art. So she taught me how to build flats. She taught me all about stage right and stage left. She taught me all about all of these sort of theatrical conventions. And she also did this other thing. She kind of I think she willed it into existence. A couple of towns over, somebody started an art center, if you can believe it.
Tricia [00:07:28] No, I can’t believe it.
Dan [00:07:30] I know.
Dan [00:07:31] But they did. And her name was Lisa Oberyn. And she offered classes, and I took a class when I was 12 years old in silkscreening.
Dan [00:07:41] I don’t know how my mother found all of these things for me, but it was really, I think, her understanding that. I was I was different and that she was going to kind of support the things that I could do rather than protect me from the things that I couldn’t.
Dan [00:07:58] Yeah.
Dan [00:07:59] Yeah. So it didn’t feel like courage. It just felt like this is what I do. It felt logical.
Tricia [00:08:05] So I want to ask you a question, though. How do constraints start working for you and how does that actually turn into something more wonderful?
Dan [00:08:13] Constraints are — that’s the whole ball of wax. That’s the whole ball of wax. Like I know you, everybody has had this experience where somebody says, Draw a picture and everybody freezes.
Dan [00:08:27] It’s like, what? The choices are way too big. You can’t you can’t just say, draw a picture. At least say draw a picture of a mouse, you know, about something. Then they know where to begin, right? Yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s like a constraint. Yeah. And it’s always this tricky kind of proposition to give yourself those constraints, because you’re going to sit down at a piece of paper and you’re going to look at it, and it’s a blank, and and you can actually do anything that you want, but it’s such a good idea to give yourself constraints — okay, I’m going to just draw a picture that’s one inch by one inch, you know, make the paper tiny. Or my favorite John Cage quote, the John Cage said, “start anywhere.” And that it’s so completely true. Like, whenever I find myself in the studio at a kind of a place where it can be anything or I could start, I don’t know how to order my thoughts in order to make this idea happen. I just remember John Cage saying, “start anywhere” and it’s true. You just start anywhere. Put your pencil on the paper.
Tricia [00:09:36] Yep, yep.
Dan [00:09:38] But again, that’s kind of a constraint.
Tricia [00:09:41] Yes. You know, I made a strong body of work. Because I couldn’t afford any oil paints. I was over in Ireland. I couldn’t afford oil, but I can afford anything. And so I started working with used teabags, which at the time I now think of, I literally was using other people’s teabags. How unhealthy was this? But I actually mean…
Dan [00:10:01] Well, it was it was pre-COVID.
Tricia [00:10:02] I mean, it was very pretty common sense, for God’s sake. It was like, let me take these tea bags from other people and they’re in a deli. And I literally and I would unfold all of them in and turn them into artwork. And that was a very successful, you know, body of work for me. And it was completely sprung from the fact that I had no money and there was plenty of tea bags and they were free and the overhead was really low.
Tricia [00:10:29] And they are beautiful. I own one.
Tricia [00:10:31] Thank you. Oh, when I was watching The Puppet last night, the documentary The Puppet. Yeah. Which I encourage all of our listeners to watch. It was fascinating and beautiful, but you were in the interview and I went, Oh my God, there’s my artwork. I yelled to my husband, I’m live there. I was very excited, very excited. I loved your interview that you had on Puppet Time, which is online with Eric Wright. Yeah. And that you said that you got out of college and you wanted to be a director and then you realized that you had to hire actors.
Dan [00:11:13] I had to pay them..
Tricia [00:11:13] And and pay them. Which is our old friend, the economic constraint. And went, I’ll just do it myself.
Dan [00:11:22] Yeah.
Tricia [00:11:23] But what you did yourself was 60 characters. So talk a little bit about that experience about, okay, I’ll just do it myself. And it turns out being a cast of 60. So if you could just give a little bit of shape around that story, that would be fantastic.
Dan [00:11:42] That really required a complete lack of common sense.
Tricia [00:11:46] Which seemed to pay off.
Dan [00:11:47] It did. It did. It did. Yeah. It was a it was an adaptation of Nathaniel West’s third novel, A Cool Million. And I had read A Cool Million in and actually, again, it was a John Cage start anywhere. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I wanted to do something. And then I remembered that I had done a thesis project on Nathaniel West. I chose him specifically because there’s only four books, but I completely fell in love with this book, a Cool Million, which is nothing like Miss Lonelyhearts or Day of the Locust. It’s this weird, super, super dark comedy where the main character, over the course of the story, he loses an arm, he loses a leg, he gets his teeth pulled, he loses an eye. The subtitle is The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin. And I just loved it. And so when I was thinking about what am I going to do, I just remembered there was this book I loved. And I don’t think I even did a kind of test run. I don’t even think I, I reread it. I didn’t think, would this work? I didn’t try any of it out. I just and I started in that when I started in a kind of very traditional way, which is to write it out. So I wrote the script for myself. Yeah. And then I just did it. It was coming out of a time in the eighties when performance art was fresh and new and exciting, and all of these performance artists like Spalding Gray and Holly Hughes and Karen Finley and all of those people, they were all dealing in autobiography. And and I just was not so interested in that. I felt like maybe what I can do is I can sort of nudged the idea of solo performance art towards narrative and and nudge it away from autobiography. Ultimately, the real reason was financial. It really was. You know, I just realized that I had to pay actors and I and I couldn’t afford to live. So I was like, Yeah, I’ll do it. And then I got some success for it. And I thought, Oh, say, this is working. Then I made a whole series of solos in which I played a whole lot of people, and then it got old. Then I realized that what I was doing as I was sort of second guessing. I was sort of like, This is what the world thinks I do, so I have to do another one.
Tricia [00:14:13] We’ll get back to the second half of our conversation in a moment. But right now I want to tell you about our sponsor Interabang Books, a Dallas-based independent bookstore with a terrific online collection. At Interabang, they’re dedicated staff of book enthusiasts will guide you on your search for knowledge and the excitement of discovery. Shop their curated collection online at interabangbooks.com. That’s I N T E R A B A N G books dot com. Stay with us through the end of the episode receive a special online offer.
Tricia [00:14:48] Now I want to ask you another question on the constraint thing.
Tricia [00:15:08] So after you were doing I’m not going to say the word traditional theater when it’s attached to you. You stumbled along a museum in Santa Fe. And tell us what you found there and how that affected you.
Dan [00:15:23] There was an exhibit of antique toy theaters. And I had never seen such a thing. I didn’t even know toy theater is really, I kind of vaguely knew they existed, but only vaguely. And for those listeners who don’t know what a toy theater is, it’s just exactly what it sounds like. It’s a it’s a miniature theater that you set up on a tabletop. And, you know, it’s a now it’s a toy. And kids put on a little play with a proscenium arch that’s maybe, you know, ten inches by ten inches. And it was, as my friend Jenny Romaine says, it was the Nintendo of the 19th century. It was a very popular parlor game for kids. It was also the dawn of the age of printing, really. I mean, not the Gutenberg Bible, sort of dawn of the age, but mass printing like lithography and color printing — turn of the century, turn of the last century. And these publishers would hire artists to go to plays and to sketch, and they would draw the characters and they would draw the costumes and they draw the sets. In many cases, many cases, they are the only existing record of actual productions.
Tricia [00:16:37] Were they puppets that got played with? Were they were the characters on sticks? How did it work?
Dan [00:16:43] Everything was two dimensional and then you would fold the paper together to make a three dimensional theater, and the puppet would be a two dimensional figure and usually about three inches, four inches tall. And then there would be a stick at the bottom of it so that you could slide the character in from the wings on the stage. And also, not only was it an existing record of actual productions, it was also a record, the only existing record of a lot of theaters, which have long since burnt down. They’re really fascinating and they’re really, really beautiful and they’re really small. They still make them, but nowhere near as elaborate as they used to. And the kits would come with the scripts, and the kids would cut out everything and fold everything and glue everything together. And then they’d rehearse the lines and then they would have the play. And they were things like Macbeth for mom and dad in the parlor.
Tricia [00:17:34] So what did you do when you saw your first toy theater?
Dan [00:17:37] There was a collector who collected antique toy theaters and there was a wall of them. And I just I remember feeling actually literally weak in my knees. I felt like, I kind of burst into tears looking at them. And I just was like, that is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Wow. So at the time, I was working on another piece in which I played a billion characters. At a certain point in the making of it, I decided to go up to my studio, which was in New Hampshire at the time, and I kind of, you know, metaphorically unplugged the phone and locked the door, locked myself in for about three months and I made a toy theater. I’d never really seen one because these guys were all behind glass, the ones at Santa Fe. I’d certainly never taken a class in it, and I’d certainly never seen one up close even. But I decided to make one. And I did.
Tricia [00:18:31] You were telling me about it in a conversation years ago. It was The Day the Ketchup Turned Blue. Yup. And for you, that constraint was. If it couldn’t fit in the trunk, it didn’t happen. So tell me about that.
Dan [00:18:45] I wanted it to be portable. I wanted to be able to set it up anywhere. And I bought a footlocker, the kind of footlocker that you’ll buy for your kid when he goes off to summer camp. And I just made the rule that if it doesn’t fit in the footlocker, it doesn’t go.
Tricia [00:19:00] Just brilliant.
Dan [00:19:02] Everything broke down and folded up and was able to put everything set into one footlocker. Yeah, it was super elaborate. I mean, there was like there were two slide projectors and a slide dissolve unit between them making projections in this toy theater. That was.
Tricia [00:19:18] Wow.
Dan [00:19:19] Yeah. I mean, it was really elaborate. And you look at it from the top and it looks like a loom. You know, there’s so many strings that go everywhere and it only lasts 12 minutes. You know, it’s a 12 minute play and it takes me 6 hours to set it up. The other thing I love about it is that it’s it’s so financially unfeasible that that the only motivation I could possibly have had for doing it was that I loved it.
Tricia [00:19:46] Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Dan [00:19:47] Which is kind of why I love puppetry in general, because very few people are in it for the wrong reasons, you know, because know it’s just not going to make any money at it.
Tricia [00:20:01] I love that very few people are in it for the wrong. One reason he showed it in Jaffrey years ago. I cried because at the end it’s very touching.
Dan [00:20:10] It’s super, super sad.
Tricia [00:20:11] Yeah, it’s super sad at the end.
Dan [00:20:13] I did it everywhere. I mean, I, I actually it was based on a short story. By short, I mean five sentences that were written by a very dear friend of mine when he was eight years old. And I told him at that time that I was interested in doing material written by children and performing it as an adult. And he said, Oh, I have this story I wrote when I was eight years old. It’s brilliant. And I said, Oh, well, give it to me. So it’s a story written by a little eight-year-old. And then in the epilogue of my toy theater version of it, you find out that when he was 32 years old, he died of AIDS. I toured it around and I performed it in people’s living rooms to help raise money for AIDS research. So you would throw a party for all your friends and they would buy $100 ticket and you would make fabulous desserts. And then 12 at a time, they would come into the dining room and see the show. And then the weird and problematic thing about it was that, you know, there would be like 50 people in this house waiting to see it. Right? Only 12 people can see it at a time. So the first 12 would come see the show and then they would come back to the rest of the people and they would all be sobbing. So, you know, it was hard to get the next group in because they were a little a little trepidatious.
Tricia [00:21:37] But it’s a brilliant idea.
Dan [00:21:38] I have to say, it was a beautiful show. And every time I, you know, I hear the music from it, I tear up a little bit.
Tricia [00:21:44] You and I have talked about how it may also link to your sister as well.
Dan [00:21:50] Yeah, I didn’t even know when I was building it. I mean, the main character’s name is Lucy and my sister was named Lucy.
Tricia [00:21:56] Your sister, Lucy was killed by a drunk driver when she was in high school. Yeah. You didn’t connect those dots?
Dan [00:22:03] Not until when I did the first run through of it. And so the first time I started to rehearse it, and I did it with all the music and everything, as soon as I was finished, I suddenly went, Oh my God. The main character has the same name as my sister. I just — that undid me for quite a while.
Tricia [00:22:45] Something similar. I worked all the time that Eric and I were trying to have children, worked on a show called Be Fruitful and Multiply, having not even made any connection at all. It was all those obsessive pencil drawings. Yeah. From the base of those Noah’s Ark figurines where it’s all about, you know, going in two by two. But just never, never, ever made the connection. Huh. This is probably about the fact we’re trying to have children and it’s not working. But let me obsessively do this. They would say to us in art school, the soul sees long before the eyes.
Dan [00:23:26] Yes, that’s been kind of the truth for me. Like even in Disfarmer, it wasn’t until the piece was already up and running that I realized that I was expressing my biggest fear, which was being alone in the world.
Tricia [00:23:39] Yeah.
Dan [00:23:40] Yeah. It didn’t even occur to me until I made it. I always told my students, there’s always two questions that you should be asking yourself when you make something. You don’t need to come to the answer of them, but you always need to have these two questions going on in your head. And the first one is, why is this the right way to tell this story? And that is true because some ideas make better paintings then they make plays and some ideas make better, you know, music concerts than paintings. And some ideas make better plays, some ideas make better movies, etc., etc.. The medium, you constantly have to be asking yourself, what is this medium bringing to this idea? And then the second question you always have to be asking yourself is how can I read this material as an autobiography?
Tricia [00:24:53] Yeah.
Dan [00:24:54] How is this piece really about me? And why am I making it and not somebody else? Yeah. And you don’t always find the answer to those questions.
Tricia [00:25:01] No.
Dan [00:25:02] But they always have to be in your head rattling around.
Tricia [00:25:06] Yeah.
Dan [00:25:06] I’d always been making pieces about outsiders. A little further digging around, I suddenly realized, Oh my God, I’ve been an outsider all my life, which is what I meant about how is this piece autobiographical?
Tricia [00:25:27] The last question for you is, what is the thing that is scaring you right now?
Dan [00:25:31] Mm. I tell my students, if you’re not scared of doing something, it’s not worth doing. I say all the time, you’re the one who gets to decide whether or not it’s good or bad. You are deciding whether or not you have achieved your goals or however you want to put it. It still requires work to get to the point where you can be assured enough in your own whatever to have the ability to to place value on it. So and the example I have is that I on my retirement from Sarah Lawrence, they asked me if I would mount a retrospective of all the puppets that I’ve made. So I put together this exhibit and I got really excited about it because it was in COVID and a lot of people in the puppet community were making performances for Zoom, and I just was so not interested in it. I think largely because it was two dimensional. I suddenly thought, Oh my God, when I put all these puppets together and I put them in little vignettes around the room, and I suddenly realized, hmm, I could be a sculptor. You know, I could, this could be the new way I’m approaching puppetry. So I invited a very dear friend of mine, Julia Jacquet, who is a spectacular visual artist. She’s just this amazing painter and she’s pretty accomplished. And so I asked her if she would come and see the show. Because secretly inside of me, I was like, do I have the stuff to be an artist? You know, I know I can do theater, but does this count as visual art, is this is this okay? Oh, my God. And, you know, that was in my head. And then finally, I kind of fessed up to it, and I asked her, so do you think I could do this? And she thought for just 2 seconds and then said, Do you love it?
Tricia [00:27:17] I mean, that’s just extraordinary. That’s extraordinary.
Dan [00:27:21] Yeah. And that just was like, oh, right. That’s what I’ve been teaching everybody else.
Tricia [00:27:27] I was going to say.
Dan [00:27:30] Yeah, it’s really.
Tricia [00:27:31] Not a real quick study Dan. Not a real quick study.
Dan [00:27:35] Oh, I have so many examples of me, like not following my own great advice.
Tricia [00:27:51] Well, talking with Dan is a complete joy. And he always gets me thinking about my work and what I might want to create. Here’s some things you may want to think about, too. Are there constraints that you think are working against you that may actually be a secret blessing? If you’re trying to start a project but are too overwhelmed, what constraint can you put in place to get you going? Maybe limit the size, the number of words, or the colors used? And remember the two questions Dan always ask his students: is this the right way to tell the story and why am I making it and not somebody else?
[00:28:30] During this episode, we played music from Dan’s piece Disfarmer. If you’d like to experience more of his incredible work, go to danhurlin.com.
[00:28:49] If you haven’t had a chance to download the No Time to be Timid manifesto yet, make sure to visit my website triciaroseburt.com. And while you’re there, please reach out and give us some feedback about the show. We’d love to hear your thoughts. And if you feel like this is no time to be timid in your own life, then maybe I can help you with that. In my private coaching practice, I help my clients to tell and live better stories. Some of them are artists and creatives who want to express themselves in a new medium. Others are leaders who want to motivate groups to take action. And many of them are business professionals who want to better communicate with their customers and employees. You can reach out to me at triciaroseburt.com. And make sure to follow me on Instagram at Tricia Rose Burt.
[00:29:36] Let our friends at Interabang Books help you stock your creative library. This episode’s book recommendation is Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit,” which I quoted at the top of the show. In her book, she takes the lessons learned from her remarkable career as one of America’s greatest choreographers and shares them with you, whatever creative impulse you follow, whether you’re a painter, director, businessperson, mother, or chef. Go to interabangbooks.com and receive a 10% discount when you use promo code, Not Timid. Again, that’s interabangbooks.com promo code Not Timid.
[00:30:31] Thanks for listening. I hope you’ll join us for Episode 8: failure is your friend. We’ll be talking with Hilary Graham, a television writer for shows like Bones and Orange Is the New Black and showrunner for the Netflix series Social Distance. Make sure to tune in and remember, this is no time to be timid.
[00:30:58] No Time to be Timid is written and produced by me, Tricia Rose Burt. Our executive producer is Mia Rovegno and our sound engineer is Adam Arnone of Echo Finch. If you like what you hear, please spread the word, subscribe to the show, and review us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. No Time to be Timid is a presentation of I Will Be Good Productions.