Propagating puppets


“ONCE there was a set of triplets, identical triplets to be exact. Of course, anyone with a basic understanding of human reproduction will say that is impossible, but these sisters knew otherwise ...”

So begins Susan Simpson’s short story “The Ditto Sisters,” the tale of three siblings who live with the reality that only one sister is an original and the other two are copies. The story was born, Simpson says, of a lifelong fascination with the concept of originality versus replication, the truth to be found in artifice.

Now, the 37-year-old filmmaker and performance artist has turned her story into an experimental puppet play called “Lead Feet and Nothing Upstairs: A History of the Lifelike,” a modern-day myth that places the Ditto Sisters in the role of flawed deities who come to Los Angeles and cause the city’s buildings and human characters to replicate into contemporary urban sprawl.


Imagine, if you will, an army of Walt Disney Concert Halls, each one larger than the next. Or a row of apartment buildings all eerily alike ... wait a minute, that is Los Angeles. “It causes chaos, but also this culture to emerge,” Simpson says.

The show, opening Thursday and continuing through June 30, represents the inaugural performance in the Manual Archives, an approximately 300-square-foot, 20-seat storefront theater next to a skate shop on Sunset Boulevard, devoted to what Simpson calls “the newly invented folklore of Los Angeles.”

L.A. cultural critic Norman Klein -- who has turned up as a puppet in one of Simpson’s shows -- says of Simpson’s work: “It isn’t about fantasy, it’s about the miniaturization of the actual. She’s very interested in capturing a sense of detail and irony.”

Simpson, who migrated to Los Angeles as a CalArts grad student and now serves on the faculty, grew up in Vermont in proximity to the Bread and Puppet Theater, a politically radical company that puts life-sized puppet characters on parade.

“I think it helped me understand puppetry as a wondrous thing,” she says. “You know that it’s just a piece of wood, but you know very strongly that it is something else too.”

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-- Diane Haithman