Note: This paper was written for a graduate course in puppetry history and theory, co-taught by Bradford Clark.
Of the many humorous titles Paul Zaloom has given to his performances-- Zaloominations, Creature from the Blue Zaloom, Fruit of Zaloom --probably the most descriptive of the technique and subject matter of his stage work is the 1986 performance titled Theater of Trash. Zaloom's performances are filled with funny as well as scathing political commentaries presented through the manipulation of found objects, slide projections, "Punch-and-Judy" style puppetry, and his own vocal and physical skills. In his show My Civilization, for example, Zaloom "intermeshes his accounts of nuclear hazards, art censorship, the S&L scandal, the collapsing real estate market" (Weales 692). In that particular show, those extremely controversial issues are all tackled on card tables, as Zaloom explores the various issues through his manipulation and interaction with the objects (trash) covering those tables. This paper includes an exploration of Zaloom's performance aesthetic, including excerpts from reviews of his productions, as well as personal interviews Zaloom has given. The significance and effectiveness of Zaloom's chosen aesthetic will also be considered.
Paul Zaloom was born in 1952 in Garden City, Long Island. The second in a family of six children, Paul's older brother Chris recalls his brother's early fascination with object manipulation, "He'd animate inanimate objects. Paul had an affinity for objects and for thinking they had a life of their own." (Goodman 88). Zaloom recalls his attendance at a boarding-school as teenager as a "severely unpleasant" experience, but he did enjoy a summer camp he attended in Vermont (Goodman 88). Besides providing him a pleasant summer camp experience, Vermont also gave Zaloom his first college experience (Goddard College), and his first taste of puppetry at the Bread and Puppet Theatre, located less than an hour away in Grover. Zaloom eloquently describes the very first time he entered the puppet world:
"I walked down the college road to Cate Farm," he says simply, "and there was a show in this beautiful hay barn, 'Grey Lady Cantata #2.' It was a world I had never seen before, but maybe had imagined in my subconscious and yearned for. This man had created a series of tableaux with small movement in them, a fairly abstract piece about a soldier going off to war, and his mother being bombed by airplanes. The image of the bombers coming and killing the grey ladies was really very powerful. And I said to myself, 'I have to get involved with this somehow. I want to be a part of this world.' (Sears 6)
This initial contact with Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theatre helped Zaloom realize that "puppets could, indeed, effect change in the world" (Sears 6). This contact led to a continued relationship with Schumann for over sixteen years, with Zaloom often serving as the Ringmaster at Schumann's Resurrection Circus.
The performances of Schumann and Zaloom are both highly political, yet the techniques and approaches of the two artists are extremely different, and should be clarified to avoid any possible confusion or false assumptions. In Zaloom's own words:
What I do is more American, more crass. It's just more rank and ugly...Peter's stuff is European. It's more lyrical and beautiful. He demands more of the audience by stretching time. I really want to make the audience happy. Still, we share in common a very strong, low tech, homemade, funky aesthetic, celebrating in the cheapness of the art as well. (Sears 6)
The "low tech" aesthetic Zaloom speaks of is the core of his style, and often is singled out for praise in reviews of his performances. Taking everyday objects, Zaloom is able to transform them into powerful images:
I'll find something like an Ivory bottle for dishwashing, and soak off the labels. That looks like a female form to me; she'll become a teacher in 'Education in America.' At best, what these objects do is have a number of meanings to them. They'll function on two levels. (Sears 6)
The soap bottle, besides evoking a female form, might also evoke cleanliness, sterility, domesticity, and hollowness (if it has been emptied of soap.) That one found object brings with it numerous associations, many of which the audience can immediately share, that a puppet made of fabric or other materials may not. Those varied associations invest the character or objects with a life, forcing the audience to acknowledge and perhaps compare it to the "life" they may already connect with the object.
Mel Gussow, in his New York Times review of Zaloom's My Civilization, makes special mention of his performance attitude:
In Mr. Zaloom's performance, there is a quality of child's play, but it is most inventive gamesmanship. In the years since he began performing, he has grown as a clown and as a social commentator. He has become an ecological antidote to the poisons and pollutants in everyday life. (21)
This carefree attitude or playfulness is also noted by Stephen Holden who writes that
Much of the power in Mr. Zaloom's work lies in the deceptively casual, almost slapdash tone of his little lectures. He appeals to audiences with the humor of a mischievous child who has just returned from the landful covered with dirt, his hands full of goodies for a game of show and tell. (15)
In the comments by Gussow and Holden, each mentions a clearly didactic aspect in Zaloom's performances. Gussow calls him a "social commentator," while Holden refers to Zaloom's "little lectures." To further explore and understand this didacticism, it would be beneficial to examine a few of his performances. This would help both clarify his message(s), as well as establish a greater understanding of his extensive use of object manipulation. Fred Siegel, in his report on the International Clown-Theatre Congress, gave this description of My Civilization:
Zaloom presented My Civilization, a three-part full evening show that took on the savings and loan scandal, toxic waste, and Jesse Helms by animating tables full of stuffed animals, appliances, paintbrushes, and other flea market materials. Helms, for example, was portrayed by a mannequin leg...Taking shots at Phillip Morris--a major funder of Zaloom's work and the whole congress--Zaloom showed the company as a giant, coughing cigarette. (182)
Siegel's brief description establishes the depth of Zaloom's performance aesthetic. Using found objects, like the mannequin leg for example, Zaloom is able to represent not only a particular character, Jesse Helms, but also the attitude Helms represents. Quite likely the artificial leg represents, metaphorically speaking, "the one leg" Helms and his followers have to stand on. It may also represent Helms repeated attempts to "kick" funding and particular artists away from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Gerald Weales, in Commonweal, focuses on Zaloom's vocal talents and his use of cutouts and liquids during the performance of My Civilization. Those materials were evidently used in conjunction with more traditional object manipulation, sometimes in the form of slide projections on a screen. (692) Zaloom is able to take these "low tech" objects and staging techniques and create a playful atmosphere in his performances, probably akin to the carefree aspect of his Saturday morning science show, Beakman's World. These objects evoke laughter in the audience, while stirring their imaginations as well. Choosing a giant coughing cigarette to represent Phillip Morris, rather than a puppet of a human being, helps keep Zaloom's focus on the issues and concepts, keeping the "politics" of the performance clearly in view for the audience. The product, in this case the cigarette, is always in the audiences mind and the audiences eyes. Zaloom, in his show titled The House of Horror, alerts the audience to the dangers within the walls of our houses. The "plot" of this piece involves a family's purchase of a dream home built from "4000 man-made petrochemical substances" (Holden 26). The conveniences and chemicals which create the house, however, eventually lead to the destruction of the family. This type of violent ending is typical of a Zaloom performance, and Zaloom explains his reasoning behind writing such material:
I like to have an edge to my work so that you are not only laughing about something, but thinking about it as well. The laughter liberates you from the standard way of reacting to such horrible things as toxic waste and nuclear war. It might also possibly get you to take action. So I also like to say that my work has a very optimistic tone to it, even though almost all the scenes end up in death and destruction. (Sears 6)
Now the star of his own children's television show, Zaloom has apparently had less time to devote to his theatrical performances. This does not, however, mean that Zaloom has "sold out" or given up "the good fight." The political awareness which permeated Zaloom's live theatre performances has only been redirected to a younger audience. With Beakman's World, Zaloom answers viewer's questions about how science is at work in common objects like toilets and televisions. Beakman's World empowers children by explaining to them the "secrets" of science. In a more obviously optimistic manner, Zaloom is confronting the kind of technology which lead to the destruction of the occupants in the House of Horrors. Hopefully his television show will teach this next generation not only how science works, but the responsibility that goes along with that knowledge.
Goodman, Mark, "Wacko Wizard," People Weekly 11 April 1994: 87-88.
Gussow, Mel, "A History of World From Eden to Zaloom...," New York Times 10 Jan. 1991:C21.
Holden, Stephen, "Fighting Trash With Trash In a Nihilistic Puppet Show," New York Times 19 Oct. 1989:C29.
Holden, Stephen, "Theater in Review," New York Times 12 Sept. 1992: A15.
Sears, David, "Simply Zaloom," Puppetry Journal vol. 39.2 (1987): 6-7.
Siegel, Fred, "Clown Politics: Report on the International Clown-Theatre Congress," TDR vol. 36.2 (1992):182
Weales, Gerald, "Pulling Strings," Commonweal vol. 118.20 (1991): 692.