Ambitious ‘Taurus’ Production Has Been Years in the Making

Blend of music, puppetry, design, and drama will run from April 12 through April 14

Harry the Giant, the 15-foot-tall puppet featured in “Taurus,” interacts with Blue, one of the rod puppets featured in the show, during tech week rehearsals in the Nafe Katter Theater on Saturday, April 6, 2024. Many of the characters in the show, created by puppet arts student Joanie Papillon, are portrayed through various forms of puppetry.

Harry the Giant, the 15-foot-tall puppet featured in “Taurus,” interacts with Blue, one of the rod puppets featured in the show, during tech week rehearsals in the Nafe Katter Theater on Saturday, April 6, 2024. Many of the characters in the show, created by puppet arts student Joanie Papillon, are portrayed through various forms of puppetry. (Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)

Even with opening night less than a week away, Joanie Papillon ’24 (SFA) remembers during the first full run of her original play “Taurus” to use pleasantries and offer compliments when talking to the cast and crew.

“Thank you,” she adds after asking the actors to back up three lines and begin again. “Please,” she begins when telling the flutist to lengthen the interlude. “This is going so well,” she offers to those around her during a break in the action, prompting everyone to find a piece of wood to knock on for continued luck.

Countdown to Commencement word mark

“Taurus” has been several years in the making and uses shadow puppets to tell the story of the Taurus constellation in which Zeus, disguised as a white bull, abducts princess Europa.

Meanwhile on stage, a 15-foot-tall puppet, Harry the Giant, is outgrowing his house – a metaphor for growing too fast or outgrowing oneself – and live actors discussing mythology and a story one of them is writing both take on the heavy subject of the nature of love.

The show has been several years in the making and comes thanks to a Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) award to build Harry the Giant, a UConn IDEA Grant Program award to create the other character puppets, and D Series funding from the Department of Dramatic Arts to bring the production to the stage.

It’s a collaboration between the Department of Music, Department of Dramatic Arts, and the Puppet Arts and Design & Tech programs in the School of Fine Arts.

“I want to keep promoting ‘Taurus’ and hope it has a life after UConn. It’s my first piece for adult audiences since what I do in my home country of Canada with my puppet company there is for kids 12 and under,” Papillon says.

Performances will be held Friday, April 12, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 13, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 14, at 2 p.m. at the Nafe Katter Theatre in the Fine Arts Complex. Free tickets are available online. (KP)

A worker helps build a set during the production of 'Taurus.'
(Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)
A performer in 'Taurus' stands behind an illuminated screen.
(Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)

The overall story of “Taurus” is assembled through three different worlds featuring various forms of puppetry, and creator Papillon (top) says the idea for such a structure derived from her studies of “Cathay: Three Tales of China,” a puppet play by Ping Chong.

The first world uses shadow puppetry through a large silk screen to portray the myth of the Taurus, some of which is performed by Kelly Whitesell (bottom) through her masked shadow character Europa. Papillon says she chose this path for the first world since shadow theater is “one of the oldest forms of puppetry” and was one of the easier ways to portray the sensitive events of the mythology.

For “Taurus’” second world, Papillon says she wanted to “balance the mythology with a fantasy world that would truly take the audience outside of themselves” through the visual metaphors of Harry the Giant and several other rod puppets.

Cast and crew members stand on and around the stage in the Nafe Katter theater during the production of 'Taurus.'
(Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)
Crew members help build a gigantic puppet for 'Taurus.'
(Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)

The third world of “Taurus” includes live acting and uses the entire theater as a university classroom where professor Cedric (played by Matt Sorensen, top center right) stands onstage and discusses the myth of the Taurus with students Marlene (played by Kat Corrigan, top center left), Jessica (played by Papillon, top far left), Laura (played by Harley Walker, top far right) and Kelly (played by Madeline Altman, not pictured) as they sit in the audience.

As the play goes on, the live acting world melds into the other two, such as when Harry the Giant emerges for the first time and interacts with Corrigan’s character Marlene (bottom right).

Papillon said the live acting and university setting help add a sense of realism and “grounds” the two worlds that feature puppetry so that the audience can relate to them more.

“I think overall the different visual worlds create awe and pathos, which allows us to transport the audience,” Papillon said. “The play is about taking them outside themselves such that they may better look within.”

Crew members build parts of the elaborate set of 'Taurus.'
(Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)
A cast member interacts with shadow puppets during a run-through of 'Taurus.'
(Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)
A crew member works behind the scenes on building a set for 'Taurus.'
(Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)

All the onstage performers help bring the show’s various puppets to life, like Vic Basilio (top left), who operates Harry the Giant’s right hand while Papillon (top right) operates his left hand.

However, many of the show’s performers take on multiple roles throughout the show. Walker (middle left) operates the shadow puppets shown on the silk screen when she’s not operating rod puppet Blue or acting as Laura, Whitesell (middle right) provides live singing while portraying Europa, and Sorensen (bottom) operates Harry the Giant’s head in addition to acting as Cedric.

Papillon says that although she had originally hoped to have more performers involved so most of the cast would not have to double-up, she was ultimately glad the roles worked out the way they did.

“Having the same people performing the different worlds helped them become invested in the overarching vision and understand the through line of the play,” Papillon says. “We also developed a wonderful synergy as a team, which allows us to truly trust each other and rely on our scene partners.”

A cast member dons a mask while illuminated from behind a screen.
(Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)
A musician plays the flute while the production of 'Taurus' continues.
(Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)

The sounds of the show are also just as varied as the visuals. Some lines are spoken live through Sorensen, Corrigan, Papillon, Walker, and Altman’s acting, while others, such as Harry the Giant’s lines performed by Tom Tuke, are heard through a recorded soundtrack.

The musical aspects of the show that are performed live include singing by Whitesell (top center) and instrumental solos by flutist Devora Trestman (bottom right) and violinist Krystian Pawlowski (not pictured).

On the impacts of the live music, Papillon says the live flute made her feel “like her breath in the flute infused the fairy with a new life” and that the violin “relates to the sensuality of the Taurus story.”

The cast and crew of "Taurus" take their first bows after the first run-through of tech week in the Nafe Katter Theater on April 6, 2024.
(Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)

As she took her first bow following the run-through, Papillon says all she could think of was gratitude for the cast and crew standing alongside her and scattered throughout the theater who helped bring the most complex work she has ever produced to life.

“We had such a great time throughout the rehearsal process, and our first run on Saturday testified of the commitment everyone made to this show,” Papillon says. “It’s been profoundly humbling for me to watch the team come together like that and unite around a vision that sprouted from my artistic seed.”

“Taurus” premieres at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 12, with additional performances at 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 13, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, in the Nafe Katter Theatre. Admission is free, and those who wish to attend can book a ticket online. Livestreams are also available on YouTube for the Saturday matinee and Saturday evening shows. (SH)