Invisible Theatre launches anniversary with pandemic-safe shows

By Bridgette M. Redman

Invisible Theatre’s golden anniversary has a different shine than what the staff expected. However, they will bring patrons together to celebrate starting with two live multimedia shows—in a safe manner.

“We never envisioned our 50th anniversary would be this way,” says Susan Claassen, managing artistic director of the nonprofit theater that was founded in 1971.

“But we did envision that we would continue as live theater, and we applaud everybody’s efforts in small businesses everywhere who are reimagining.”

The two shows are “My Grandfather’s Prayers” and “Myths and Masks.” Both bring in guest stars and nontraditional theatrical performances.

“This is how, thank goodness, we have been able to reimagine,” says Claassen, who stresses the importance of live performances, even in greatly reduced capacities. “It is not a sustainable business model—our box office has been reduced by 75%—but we have always been about what can be done and done well. We will continue for as long as it is safe and for as long as we keep our artistic integrity intact.”

Puppets and ‘Prayers’

“My Grandfather’s Prayers” is a multimedia puppet production that features puppeteer Lisa Aimee Sturz’ search for her heritage. Using puppets, marionettes, scrolling scenery, poetry, shadow puppets and visual compositing, Sturz tells the story of her grandfather, Izso Glickstein (1889-1947), a fourth-generation cantor, child prodigy and operatic tenor. A mentor to Leonard Bernstein, Glickstein toured Europe with the Hungarian Opera, recorded records with Victor and RCA and was the uber-cantor for Europe’s largest synagogue. He survived Russian pogroms, Hungary’s White Terror and two world wars.

The 70-minute show will run Thursday, December 3, to Sunday, December 6.

Claassen says this show goes to the Invisible Theatre’s very roots, a company that got its name from the invisible energy that flows between performer and audience and what, she points out, makes the magic of theater. The performance resonates with today’s generation as it searches for who it is.

“Lisa questioned her own Judaism and then went on this journey of understanding her grandfather,” Claassen says. “Understanding our own cultural identity, that’s very relevant to our times. We tell our stories, and we can be allies to other people’s stories.”

Sturz tells the story with Elysia Hansel as part of the cast and Claassen performing as a guest puppeteer.

Telling her family story this way is natural for acclaimed puppeteer Sturz. The founder and artistic director of Red Herring Puppets, she is a world-class puppeteer who has performed with Jim Henson, Lucasfilm, Walt Disney Imagineering and PBS. Her credits include “Elmo in Grouchland,” “Muppets from Space,” “Howard the Duck,” “The Flintstones,” “Ninja Turtles 3,” “RoboCop 2” and “Batman Returns.”

It is this expertise that enables her to bring a highly emotional story to audiences through puppets.

“The same emotion is within the puppets,” Claassen says. “You’ll see a marionette touch his face or you’ll see a shadow puppet laugh and the music is so transformative. I speak as a Jewish person, there is something about the Klezmer sound that is so soulful. There are great laughs in this piece also. People are drawn to its cleverness. You don’t think of it as a puppet show; it is a multimedia show. Their story of the whole family coming to the United States and going back and looking for understanding is something that really resonates deeply in today’s world.”

Sturz recently moved her Red Herring Puppet company to Tucson.

Drumming up an

ancient world

Will Clipman, the creator of “Myths and Masks,” approached Claassen about bringing his show to Invisible Theatre after seeing a September performance. He and Claassen have known each other for years.

“He said, ‘I love this stage and would love to do my show here,’” Claassen says. “Needless to say, the idea of masks seems very relevant today. His music is percussion and storytelling and poetry. It takes us to another place and other worlds and other understandings. At times, we just need a respite from what things are like in the world out there. When we enter Invisible Theatre, we get swept away into other worlds.”

The show will have three performances from Friday, December 11, to Sunday, December 13.

Clipman, who is a seven-time Grammy nominee, started playing his father’s drums and his mother’s piano at age 3. By age 14, he landed his first professional gig. He’s recorded more than 70 albums and is a three-time Native American Music Award winner.

“Myths and Masks” mixes together mythopoetic storytelling, multicultural mask art and original world music that Clipman plays on a wide variety of exotic Indigenous instruments.

“Audiences will be swept away,” Claassen says. “They’ll hear percussion and storytelling. They’ll hear poetry. They’ll see instruments they don’t normally see. They’ll see masks. They’ll see Will transform into many mythic storytellers. It is really quite engaging.”

Clipman’s show transports its audience into worlds of myth and magic, of creatures and spirits, of poetry and prose. Moving from one instrument to the next, donning different masks, he creates strong visuals with his words, facewear and percussion.

“It rids you of the anxiety of the world and takes you to a world away from that,” says Claassen, who has seen the show many times.

Keeping it live

With permission to reopen given after they created stringent policies and drastically reduced audiences, Invisible Theatre has worked to create a place where audiences are comfortable attending.

“We’ve heard continuously from audience members who have come here that they feel safe here,” Claassen says. “They were just filled with gratitude. It was a touch of normalcy to be in a theater. It is communal. The very beginning of storytelling was a circle and people told a story. Yes, we’re more distanced now, yes, we have masks, but the enthusiasm and the commitment to communal experiences are as strong as they ever were.”

Shows are limited to no more than 60 or 75 minutes, as that seems to be the length people can comfortably sit without an intermission and a mask on. The entries are timed so patrons don’t pass in front of each other, and they no longer have concessions. Those are just a few of their new procedures and what they do for safety.

Reservations are required, and tickets will not be sold at the door.

“We really want to provide an opportunity for artists to work safely,” Claassen says.

“Of course, we had an underwriter who helped us, Anne Cavanagh, because our belief in paying artists couldn’t be done without donations. We’re about to kick off our 50th anniversary matching fund drive. It’s the only way we can survive and continue to pay our artists and our staff. That’s something we are really committed to. We believe that the arts are essential as they touch our souls, they lift our spirits and they take us places we’ve never even imagined.”