Phoenix's All Puppet Players bring horror and humor to ‘PuppIT’ | Phoenix New Times
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Phoenix's All Puppet Players clown around in their latest show, ‘PuppIT’

Stephen King's classic novel "It" gets the puppet treatment in All Puppet Players' latest show — no kids allowed.
All Puppet Players is staging "PuppIt," based on Stephen King's "It," Sept. 8–Oct. 7.
All Puppet Players is staging "PuppIt," based on Stephen King's "It," Sept. 8–Oct. 7. Fourth Wall Photo Studio/Jason K. Walz

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When Shaun Michael McNamara brought live adults-only puppet theater to the Valley in 2012, he’d just spent a couple of years selling out shows in small theaters around southern California.

But when Phoenix Theatre got wind of All Puppet Players and asked McNamara if he wanted to rent the 199-seat Playhouse on the Park starting in 2014, he wasn't sure if he could fill it.

“I thought, ‘We’re never going to sell this; it’s too big,'" he says. "I had all these doubts that what we were doing was only for a specific group of weirdos.”

But, he adds, “What I’ve realized now is that there are so many more weirdos out there than I could have ever anticipated, thankfully.”

At first, All Puppet Players struggled to find its audience and even did some shows that allowed kids, which owner and artistic director McNamara called “a nightmare.” The group got a flurry of publicity and a bump in business when it staged the ribald "50 Shades of Felt" in 2015, but it wasn’t their core audience.

So McNamara returned to his staple recipe of taking a popular 1980s text, adding references from that era and contemporary quips, blending it up and pouring it out onstage.

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"Die Hard: A Christmas Story," an annual holiday classic for All Puppet Players, returns this November.
Fourth Wall Photo Studio/Jason K. Walz

Now, most runs sell out, with a rabidly loyal fan base signing up for everything from "Jurassic Puppets" to "Die Hard: A Christmas Story," which will run a sixth season this December. Some fans attend multiple dates of the same show — although no two shows are ever truly the same due to the copious ad-libbing and audience interaction.

“I don’t like repetitiveness,” says McNamara, who writes, directs and performs in every show. “It’s one reason I don’t like performing normal theater pieces.”

Instead, he incorporates the audience into the show. “They are just another cast member that we are dealing with that evening,” he says.

The next show, "PuppIT," runs Sept. 8 through Oct. 7 and is loosely based on Stephen King’s horror novel "It," about a shape-shifting evil entity that eats children and appears often as a terrifying clown. The Oct. 1 show requires attendance in a clown costume and probably will sell out early.

Just as with all of the shows before it, "PuppIT" won’t be true to the original story. Instead, it will rely liberally on 1980s references and impromptu jokes added at times during rehearsals and sometimes during the actual shows.

Eddie Steele, an audience member and supporter who hasn’t missed a show in eight years, says one time his adult son sneezed during a performance of "The Exorcist Has No Legs." The priest, played by McNamara, turned to him and said, “God bless you. And that’s for real because I’m a priest!”

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"Creature From The Black Lagoon" was a hit for All Puppet Players in 2021; their next show opening Sept. 8 is "PuppIT," based on Stephen King's "It."
Fourth Wall Photo Studio/Jason K. Walz

Shannon Phelps, an actor and puppeteer with All Puppet Players, says she enjoys having that agency as a performer to create content.

“Shaun will say, ‘If you have an idea, shout it out; we’ll see if it’s funny and add it into the script,’” she notes.

Putting on a show that morphs each night isn’t easy, of course. JennAfer Spruell, resident stage manager, explains, “The improv aspect can be quite challenging and you really have to understand the rhythm of how these shows work so you can anticipate when a scene is ending.”

Sometimes a scene will go on much longer than expected or end abruptly, and the crew has to be ready for anything.

“You have to be ready to roll with those punches,” Spruell says.

And then there’s the heckling.

“Something about our environment makes the audience think that they’re allowed to participate,” Spruell says. “Everybody thinks they’re funny and they’re not.”

Pro tip: Do not heckle. Also, have no expectations.

“Get ready to experience something that you’re not expecting because no amount of description can prepare you for what you’re going to see,” McNamara says. “You absolutely know what you’re going to get with 'Noises Off' or a Neil Simon play. With us, you just don’t know what you’re going to get.”

McNamara, who grew up in Glendale, was inspired to be a puppeteer after he took an after-school program in fifth grade. “I didn’t like to talk and I didn’t like to be seen and I saw I could hide behind this and it opened me up and it was great,” he says.

In 2001, McNamara moved to California and worked for Disneyland and Universal Studios for a few years doing puppets, including Chucky, the demented doll from the horror films.

Chucky was deemed too cheeky, however: After an audience member took a video of the Halloween “insult” show and uploaded it to an obscure new website called YouTube, his bosses told him he did his job perfectly but declared his act “inappropriate” and fired him.

In 2010, McNamara started All Puppet Players in a 40-seat black-box theater in Santa Ana, Calif. “My wife and I took all of our savings and put it in this weird little show,” he says.

The concept started with "Hamlet" two nights a week and moved to a larger theater in Fullerton for seven weeks. “It sold out,” McNamara recalls. “It went nuts.”

The couple moved back to Arizona and McNamara put on shows at Theater Works in Peoria, Nearly Naked Theater in Phoenix and Mesa Encore Theatre’s black-box theater before settling in at Playhouse on the Park. They do four main stage shows a year along with assorted movie screenings accompanied by puppet commentary.

All Puppet Players just signed a new lease with the venue, meaning audiences will be treated to their signature brand of theatrical anarchy for at least five more years.

“There is no way for you to prepare yourself,” McNamara says. “We have a bar. You’re going to see puppets. Just sit back. We’re going to take care of it for you. And you’re going to be part of something that will never happen again.”

PuppIT. Through Saturday, Oct. 7. Playhouse on the Park, 1850 N. Central Ave. Ages 17 and up only. Tickets are $42. Call 602-254-2151 or visit allpuppetplayers.com.
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