“Can a puppet be as dynamic as an actor?” asks James Ortiz, the creator of the acclaimed Off-Broadway musical, The Woodsman. This is the very question he explores in the show, whose two central characters, the Tinman and The Witch, are indeed puppets, not actors. The Woodsman uses puppetry, sound, original music by Edward W. Hardy and an ensemble of actors and puppeteers to recount the story of Oz’s Tinman and the woman he loved. It’s a tale filled with human emotions of love, grief, loyalty, fear and courage.
“Often puppetry is used as an effect or like a trick,” says Ortiz. “But could we actually express complicated feelings without words? That was the challenge.” Ortiz has long been drawn to the characters and story in The Wizard of Oz—it was the first novel his mother ever read to him. When he thought about ways in which he could adapt the Tinman’s story to the stage, puppetry seemed like the right fit.
“It’s a story about a guy who loses his humanity, so how do you play that by [just] painting someone silver?” he says. “It’s also a story about a guy who, bit by bit, slowly in each piece, becomes replaced until he’s all gone. It just felt like the best way to do that would be through puppetry.” An eclectic mix of materials forms The Woodsman’s Tinman—a water cooler bottle, pipe installations, aluminium, wood, armature wire and coffee cans. For his face, Ortiz learned how to rivet metal. While the Tinman’s features and form are unmistakably machine-like, his movement is fluid and gracious. There is something sensitive and vulnerable about him.
“We’re used to this image of the Tinman being a bulky, boxy thing from the movie,” explains Ortiz. “In most interpretations, it’s almost always an actor in a suit. But the way he’s described in the novel, there’s a sense that you can see daylight through his joints. The only thing holding him together is his own will power. There’s the idea that he’s quite spindly—that’s in most of the early illustrations of him."
“It was important for me that he be fragile in appearance. His earlier form is a very sensitive young man who is in the midst of trying to figure out what’s best for the person he loves,” he continues. “It was important that he had a fragility that could also be reflected in this other version of him.”
Ortiz is also The Woodsman’s star, co-director and puppet designer; as well as co-founder of Strangemen & Co., the company behind the production. From very humble beginnings, it began as a 45-minute sketch put on as a fundraiser for the company. The audience response was so positive they were motivated to develop it further. The full-length production returns to the New York City stage for a third time, following two earlier sold-out runs at 59E59 Theaters, and continues to garner critical acclaim. Ortiz is happily riding the show’s wave of success.
From a very young age, puppetry attracted Ortiz. In his hometown of Richardson, TX, he remembers being intrigued by a marionette trailer that would visit the city each summer. “I saw it and thought it was so cool. I thought, ‘Could I do that?’“ He explains how throughout junior high and high school, puppetry became “an identifying feature” of his. “People knew me as ‘the puppet guy,’“ he laughs. Though he studied acting in college, his first professional job was working on a show with puppets. “I think it was fate,” he says. “It certainly aligned my trajectory.”
Ortiz’s love of the craft has grown deeper over the years. Today, he is fascinated by a puppet’s potential to achieve things on stage that a human actor may not be able to. “When an actor is playing a character onstage, we, as an audience, are in some way aware that at the end of the day, they take off their wig and they’re not really that person,” he explains. “But a puppet was made only to be that, so there is, weirdly, a different level of investment that we have with it.”
In this same vein, Ortiz recognizes the “creepy-doll-in-the-attack” energy that people sometimes associate with puppets. “I’m fully aware that there’s something inherently eerie about puppetry,” he says. “There are two responses when I say that I work with puppets. One is: Have you seen ‘Being John Malkovich?’ Or, secondly, ‘That’s terrifying.’“
Ortiz doesn’t seem phased or deterred by this; the artist has a host of future projects he is envisioning, many of which involve more puppetry. Before he can do that however, The Woodsman will have to stop extending due to popular demand.
The return engagement of The Woodsman played at New World Stages – Stage 5, located at 340 West 50th St. Tickets are on sale via Telecharge.com, by calling (212) 239-6200 and at the New World Stages box office.