Long Live Toy Theater

A Review by Don Abramson


The Aaron Bohrod Gallery on the University of Wisconsin Fox Valley campus at Menasha, Wisconsin, hosted a very special exhibition of toy theaters collected and built by Lynn Zetzman. Running from October 22 to November 16, 2001, the show, titled Long Live Toy Theater, featured a gallery talk and two public performances by Lynn of Steven Langdale's PUNCH AND JUDY. Included in the exhibition were some thirty built theaters, complete with characters and scenery, and as many flat sheets of prosceniums, scenery, and characters displayed on the walls. Also included was information about the history of toy theater.

It was an amazing and delightful range of designs, representing a dozen countries and providing a mini-history of theater design from the 18th to the 21st century. Pollock's theaters were well-represented, as were the modern designs of Langdale, whose giant Theater Royal Drury Land formed a signboard outside the gallery. Both of Robert Poulter's remarkable concertina theaters were shown, as well as several designs featured in Harry
Oudekerk's Web site. Also included were Danish and Swedish designs and German designs from Schreiber and other publishers. The United States was represented by toy theaters from the Delineator magazine, the New York Recorder Newspaper, and some children's theaters, circa 1960. An enlargement of Edward Gorey's Dracula featured a proscenium that Lynn created from the book's covers.

Perhaps the jewel in the crown for me was the Nepali theater, which Lynn commissioned. After creating a mockup and templates, Lynn had members of theJanikpur Women's Development Center do thertwork-tempera paints on barkcloth in a charming folk style-but she herself wrote the play, LORD SHIVA AS A SERVANT, based on a traditional Maithili story. (Lynn herself speaks Nepali and has lived in Nepal twice.) Because they are hand-painted, no two theaters are alike, and they are rare, because only ten were
commissioned.

Lynn has long been interested in theater but was introduced to toy theater less than two years ago, when she took Poulter's workshop at the Great Lakes Regional Festival of Puppeteers of America, held in Madison, Wisconsin. She became hooked. Lynn is an artist and a teacher at Xavier High School in Appleton, Wisconsin, and she was able to draw on her extensive experience with art-drawing, painting, and construction, as well as art history-when she began to collect and build her toy theaters. Lynn says she can draw anything, and quickly. Even so, my companion, Bill Fosser, creator and head puppeteer of Opera in Focus in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, was amazed to learn that Lynn had put this entire show together in seven months.

Lynn doesn't just collect; she performs as well. She has done a number of different shows in different places and usually does a dry run with any new theater she is putting together. "I enjoy building the objects more, I think," Lynn said in an interview in The Scene newspaper. "I love theater but I don't have formal training in theater, whereas I am trained as a visual artist and an art historian, so that part is more comfortable to me than the performing part. But I can't make them without performing with them."

Alas, Bill and I didn't get to see Lynn perform. We had little enough time to spend with her after making the four-hour drive from Chicago. But the trip, we both felt, was well worth the effort. The exhibition was certainly
enjoyable, but even more so was the chance to chat with Lynn in person after many months of our exchanging e-mail).

"Long live toy theater!" And it can't help but do so with such an able and enthusiastic person as Lynn Zetzman as its advocate and practitioner.