“The Dragon of Polish Hill” Descends Upon the North Side
Puppeteer Dave English tells a tale of generational divide and eventual understanding
By David Bernabo
Recital continues our partnership with the New Hazlett Theater by publishing a preview and an editorially-independent review for the five performances in the 2019–20 CSA Performance Series season.
Throughout the season, Recital is meeting with each of the artists to bring you a brief profile of them and their work in the days before their opening performance. We will publish a considered review for each performance, developed from post-show discussions with a consistent panel of local experts in related disciplines.
I meet puppeteer Dave English at Kaibur, the coffee shop in Polish Hill, where unbeknownst to me, we begin to act out one of the pivotal scenes in his new play, The Dragon of Polish Hill. In conducting my interview with English, I parallel the role of a Pittsburgh City Paper arts writer interviewing Willy James, a new-to-Pittsburgh hotshot artist. Willy James is a rabbit-eared puppet in a world of puppets, transforming the hip factor of his last known address in Austin, TX to a City Paper cover. Unlike Willy James, who says things like “I’m not a poet, but I am poetic” and “I don’t really like to think of myself as in a category,” English is gracious and humble in detailing the plot of the play, the immense input and inspiration coming from his collaborators, and the path that led him to the New Hazlett Theater’s stage.
The Dragon of Polish Hill premieres on March 26 with a second performance on March 27. It’s the fourth performance in the seventh year of the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA series. And it’s the biggest stage that English has occupied so far.
Stanley Onion is the oldest man in Polish Hill. He is 115 years old and has dementia. He wanders out of St. Ursula’s Assisted Living, a fictionalized version of John Paul Plaza, the high-rise in Polish Hill that looms over Kaibur Coffee. He walks down to the coffee shop, thinking that it is a butcher shop — “in his mind, it still is.” He gets irritated when he can’t order cuts of meat — “everything is vegan here, bro.” Willy James is still being interviewed by the City Paper writer, but soon winds up in an altercation with Stanley Onion. Onion goes down.
“Instead of the City Paper cover story being about what an awesome artist Willy James is,” says English, “it’s about what an asshole he is, how this hipster knocked down the oldest man in Polish Hill.”
Social media blows up, and Willy James is “cancelled.” Willy James goes to court. The judge awards him 90 days of community service at St. Ursula’s, taking care of Stanley Onion. Onion tells James about his life, and the two eventually become friends. I don’t want to ruin all the surprises, but let’s just say it all ends with a polka.
Note: The fictional, rabbit-eared Willy James has no relation to local Pittsburgh filmmaker Willy James.
Dave English’s interests in puppets began early in life. At the age of three, English pointed at the TV and informed his mother that he wanted to be a Muppet when he grew up.
“I wanted to be in The Electric Mayhem and hang out with Dr. Teeth and Animal. Being backstage, hanging out with Kermit — fucking ideal.”
He crafted animal forms and puppets from scraps that his mother acquired from her job as a teacher. Years later, he got a degree in puppetry from West Virginia University.
Now, English’s creative practice involves a range of activities — “I do a lot of one-off gigs; at the airport, school visits and after-school events, community events, a lot of things with children.” Last year, English made a puppet of the largely forgotten Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra founder Frederic Archer and did a performance at the Homewood Cemetery where Archer is buried in an unmarked grave. This year, English will team up with O’Ryan the O’mazing! for an election-themed show called Clown vs. Puppet 2020.
A few years ago, English visited puppeteer and owner of Rasputin’s Marionettes Matt Scott in Los Angeles to learn how to enhance the polish of his own builds. While there, he was encouraged by Scott’s setup, which in some ways, English found comparable to his own studio capabilities. He was also inspired by “the symphony of [Scott’s] process.”
Back in Pittsburgh with the New Hazlett Theater CSA opportunity and a grant from the Heinz Foundation, English decked out a room next to his bedroom with a band saw and a benchtop belt sander. New puppets like a middle-aged Stanley Onion emerged, sporting higher quality materials and better construction.
“Working towards a larger story is a new trend for me,” says English. “The Dragon of Polish Hill is my longest piece, and I’m seeing a big difference in the quality and depth of it.”
The move to the big stage requires a bigger cast of collaborators. Texas-based puppeteer Will Schutze will join English on stage to navigate the intense choreography — the flicks of the wrist, the curls of a finger — that generates life in the puppets.
Leah Pecoraro-Eddy, “who now has a miniaturized Polish Hill materializing in her attic,” will design the set and costumes with assistance from Albert Pantone. Chris Popovich will handle lighting. Geoffrey Cormier is building shadow puppets. Giovanna Rappa is also helping out with the puppetry. Videographer Joe Serkoch will handle direct video feeds that will bring the audience closer to some of the puppets. Squonk Opera’s Jackie Dempsey will perform accordion interludes along with preshow selections in the lobby.
A few others are coming on board in the weeks before the show, so be sure to mark your calendars!
The Dragon of Polish Hill premieres on Thursday, March 26 with a second performance on Friday, March 27, 8PM at the New Hazlett Theater. Buy tickets here or at the door. 6 Allegheny Square E, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.