April 17, 2024 Coverage and Posts, CSA, Theater

Pittsburgh Tribune: ‘Apis’ tells environmental story with a cast of mostly puppets

courtesy of D.T. Burns

‘Apis’ tells environmental story with a cast of mostly puppets

by Patrick Varine

If you go
What: “Apis,” by Lindsay Goranson
When: 8 p.m. April 18; 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. April 19
Where: New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, Pittsburgh
Tickets: $20 for student/artist; $30 general admission
For more: NewHazlettTheater.org


The last creature on Earth travels through time in order to try and change history in “Apis,” the final production in the New Hazlett Theater’s 11th season of Community Supported Art productions.

And who is that last creature? He’s a little blue bee named Bob. And he’s one of several puppets that make up the majority of the cast in “Apis,” which touches on themes of science, consumerism and environmentalism.

Bob’s work in the play comes courtesy of puppeteer D.T. Burns, 32, of Bethel Park. Burns spoke with TribLive recently about puppeteering and helping round out the theater’s community-supported production season.

This interview has been edited for length.

Q: How did you get your start puppeteering?

A: As a theater artist I’ve always loved puppets, but during the pandemic I got to spend time pursuing puppetry in-depth. When live events were canceled and it wasn’t safe to rehearse in-person, I started creating stories for puppet characters that I could build at home. I spent lockdown building, voicing, and operating my own puppets, and I’m excited at all the ways I’m now able to bring those skills to live theater performances.

Q: What puppets are you in charge of in “Apis,” and what unique challenges do they present?

A: I operate the puppet for Bob, a time-traveling blue Orchid Bee, as well as helping with the robot Niftybot and a giant Allegheny Mound Ant (named) Nan. Operating insect puppets is an exciting challenge, because they have so many different body structures than humans. Bob, for instance, has six limbs, and we’ve had to decide when the middle two limbs should gesture like arms versus when they should move like feet!

Q: How do you determine the way a particular puppet will move and act?

A: The puppets’ movements are based on a lot of research and observation. The team watched a lot of nature documentary footage of our insects during the design process, finding ways we could capture the particular ways of moving. Our bee, Bob, performs a lot of hovering, fidgeting, and hip swiveling that mirror bee-flight behaviors. Even Bob’s accent is based around the way bees’ mandibles and mouths move differently.

Q: Puppets comprise the majority of the cast in this play — what sort of challenges does that present?

A: Working with puppets takes a lot of careful planning and choreography. It’s usually easy for a human actor to walk in through a door and pick up a prop. But for a puppet, those same actions can sometimes take an hour of rehearsal. Two puppeteers have to move in the same rhythm, breathing and stepping and reaching together to create a perfect illusion of life. Every action becomes choreographed and intentional, and the resulting scene becomes all the more exciting when it all comes together.

Q: What do you hope people will take with them when they leave the theater after seeing “Apis”?

A: “Apis” shows a world of possible futures, with the dream of helping the humans of today build a better world for our endangered pollinators. I would love for our audiences to leave inspired to fill their yards and garden spaces with native wildflowers – to create local ecosystems where bees like Bob can thrive!


Patrick Varine is a TribLive reporter covering Delmont, Export and Murrysville. He is a Western Pennsylvania native and joined the Trib in 2010 after working as a reporter and editor with the former Dover Post Co. in Delaware. He can be reached at pvarine@triblive.com.



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