You probably won't find Lynn Zetzman playing with GI Joes or action figures, but in a sense that's what she's involved with - or the Victorian-era equivalent, anyway.
Zetzman, a local artist and Appleton Xavier art teacher, will be showing Long Live Toy Theater, an exhibit of toy theater puppets and stages, Oct. 22 to Nov. 16 in the Aaron Bohrod Gallery at the UW-Fox Valley, Menasha. For Zetzman, toy theater is an avocation that's fairly new. But its origins reach far back into 18th and 19th century Europe, when it became a common pastime for children in Victorian England.
"There's a lot of 18th century examples from Austria and Germany, but they became very popular in England in the 19th century," said Zetzinan. "It was the most popular toy in Victorian England for adolescent boys."
Actually, toy theater as a phenomenon unto itself came about as sort of an accident amid the bustling theater scene of Europe at the turn of the 19th century, when traditional theaters were looking to make a little extra revenue.
"They had started out making theatrical prints of the major leads in their plays to sell as souvenirs for the adults," said Zetzman. "Children started to buy them and reenact the plays and the parts those characters did."
Today, toy theater is considered anything but kid stuff, attracting many adults, like Zetzman, with its simple charm. The puppets are figures made from paper and mounted on heavy tag board or plywood, then displayed on miniature, decorative stages.
"I think children are still doing them and have done them, but the only people I've seen recently outside of my own children who have gotten interested are adults," said Zetzman. "I think in the last decade there's been a real resurgence among adult practitioners."
Zetzman herself became interested last summer, after attending a regional puppet festival in Madison, and taking a workshop with renowned British toy theater artist Robert Poulter. Later, she and her husband attended the Priors Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark - a venue devoted entirely to toy theater - and Zetzman was hooked. Toy theater dovetailed nicely with Zetzman's extensive background and training in the visual arts. (Along with her position at Xavier, she exhibits regularly at the Ann Nathan Gallery and Navy Pier exhibitions in Chicago, and one of her textile murals is built into the wall of St. Mary Basilica in Minneapolis.)
"I enjoy building the objects more, I think," said Zetzman. "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."
She has performed a handful of times since she got involved with toy theater. She's done dry runs of about 20 different plays, and performed about six of them publicly. In conjunction with the exhibit she'll give a public performace at 10 a.m. Oct 27, and a gallery talk and performance for the Puppetry Guild at 10 a.m. Nov. 3 at the UW-Fox Valley. (Both performances are open to the public.) She says she enjoys both the opportunity for performing and the freedom that toy theater affords.
"I guess I've always really enjoyed theater and a lot of contemporary performances are very conceptual and mostly targeted at an intellectual community," said Zetzman. "I had started to get involved in puppets, which has a more popular appeal, and it's very difficult when you work full time and have a family, to coordinate efforts to do puppet shows with six other puppeteers, so here a person can do it all themselves.
"Along with the flexibility also comes artistic freedom, says Zetzman. "When you 're totally in control, all the artistic choices are yours".
Included in Zetzman's exhibit at the Aaron Bohrod Gallery will be 30 built theaters set up with scenery and figures, several flat sheets of scenery and characters displayed on the walls, and information about the history of toy theater, which is credited with documenting the productions and theaters of the 1800s. Some of the plays represented in the exhibit will be Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, Cinderella, A Christmas Carol, St. George and the Dragon, and several epic Danish plays.
If nothing else, the exhibit promises to be a fascinating look at a small slice of Western history.
"You know how you look at old advertisements and think 'that's the '50s, isn't that fun?'" said Zetzman. "I look at these and it really captures an era for me."
For more information on toy theater go to www.
or Zetzman's Web site at www.athenet.net/~ratstar.
For information on the Long live Toy Theater exhibit, call the Aaron Bohrod Gallery at 920-832-2626.