When is a toy not really a toy but a dramatic set? Not to mention an oracle, a sort-of GPS for domestic orientation, and a bit of a ruse? The answer: when it's a toy theater called "The Homing Device." Made by Montpelier artist Trish Denton, 27, the "device" is a tabletop-sized dollhouse-cum-puppet theater that, she claims, can help people "ground themselves in their direction 'home.'" That dubious-sounding feature may or may not be why the International Toy Theatre Festival in New York City accepted "The Homing Device" for this year's event. More likely, it's because of Denton's ingenious creation itself, and the magical-realist story behind it.
A little background. Denton explains that toy theater was a popular home diversion in Victorian England - back when children and adults alike managed to fill their hours without electronic apparati. Being a parent who wishes modern leisure time weren't dominated by digital stuff, Denton created her own model in a charmingly DIY manner. And then she gave it an enigmatic legend as backstory.
It goes like this: Back in the mid-20th century, a woman who is plagued by environmental sensitivities wants to create a golem to help her. But her "recipe" doesn't work. She tries again, and comes up with the Homing Device - a miniature living environment where she can be safe. Then she finds the instrument has a life of its own.
"She starts to realize that environments have autonomy, and she begins to respect it," Denton explains. The woman gradually becomes an interpreter, translating the environment's advice on people's relationships to "self, place and others."
The Homing Device becomes a world-renowned oracle, but some begin to speculate that the thing is a hoax. The woman and her device eventually disappear. "So it was found years later by developers. They dig it up, and it's being shown at the toy theater festival," Denton concludes, transmigrating her fantasy to a real-world time and place. "My role [at the festival] is, I'm sort of this exhibitor, a snake-oil salesman, making it more magical than it really is."
Fanciful? You bet. But no less than you might expect from a puppetry teacher who is getting her Bachelor's at Goddard in Multidisciplinary Studies in Systems Theory, Human Ecology, Design, Performance Arts and Symbolism. "I can get away with doing this type of stuff," Denton quips.
But she's perfectly serious about her commitment to "affordable and accessible arts education" - "I came from working-class Detroit," she explains. She hopes to use puppetry as a way of teaching about diversity. Denton is currently the stage manager for Viva La Voce Puppet Opera, serves as the Cardboard Teck Kid Tent Hostess at the annual Northeast Kingdom Music Festival, and does program development for Nutty Steph's Vermont Granola.
In fact, "Nutty" Steph Rieke has proffered her biofueled Volkswagen - the side reads, "Honk for your free sample of Vermont Granola" - to help Denton ferry her Homing Device to Manhattan. "I'm hoping this will be the precursor to a home-based performance tour in the fall," she says.
The Toy Theatre Festival takes place May 23-31 at St. Ann's Warehouse in New York City. For more info, go to www.stannswarehouse.org and click on "current season."