It was opening night, Shaun Michael McNamara recalls, and everything was going wrong.
“We were doing Shakespeare. Three minutes in, the set pieces started falling over, the props started breaking, and the puppeteers were bumping into one another.”
The audience, he remembers, was only 4 feet away. “They started laughing at us, and I was so frustrated I started making fun of what was happening onstage.”
And so was born All Puppet Players, Phoenix’s premier (and only) adult puppet theater.
“It was supposed to be a one-off,” says McNamara, the brains behind this felt-and-fake-fur play troupe. “I was an actor living in California who’d done some puppeteering, and I wanted to do a dramatic piece using puppets. But then something else happened.”
That something else – a 2010 production called Hamlet Has No Legs – took off. “We started making fun of what we were doing, onstage, and everyone loved it. We transferred the show to a larger theater and sold out five shows a week for seven weeks. When we closed, I thanked my cast and said, ‘That was fun, see you later.’ But they were all like, ‘Are you kidding? We’re doing this again!’”
McNamara has been “doing this again” ever since. He moved back to Phoenix, his former hometown, and launched All Puppet Players, casting shows not with professional puppeteers but with what he calls “the right personalities.”
“Some of our actors didn’t start as actors,” says McNamara, whose troupe is the resident company at Downtown’s Playhouse on the Park. “They are volunteers, or audience members, or maybe a rocket scientist who answered an audition ad. It takes a specific personality to want to put a puppet on your hand and enact an obscure ’80s movie while popping off an offensive joke to a slightly inebriated audience.”
From the start, locals have lined up to see All Puppet’s brand of movie satire enacted by talented amateurs.
“We’ve done a spoof of The Exorcist, we did Top Gun, we did a show called Fifty Shades of Felt,” he says.
At first, McNamara tried splitting his playbill, doing one adult show for each squeaky-clean kiddie show.
“It was a stupid business plan,” he admits today. “Once I kicked the kids out, it worked.”
Drunks, McNamara says, are an easier audience to play to than children, because your house manager can kick a drunk out.
“Have you ever tried kicking out an audience of crying 4-year-olds? You can’t. I hate kids,” laughs the father of a 9-year-old. “I was writing shows for my daughter, and she was the only one showing up. I finally said, ‘I love you, but I can’t keep writing shows just for you.’”
Today, McNamara has the opposite problem. All Puppet Players shows routinely sell out – especially its annual Die Hard holiday spoof. The company has just folded a production of Jurassic Puppets, and this month they’re staging a musical parody of Friday the 13th.
“A full-time job running a grown-up puppet theater isn’t how I envisioned my show business career,” says McNamara, who attended Cactus High School in Glendale and is glad to be back home.
“But I don’t miss casting calls, and I don’t miss the Hollywood hustle. Trying to reimagine an old movie as an adults-only puppet show is really a thousand times better.”