1999’s Up a Tree: A Puppet Show About the Redwoods

Stephen Bass just texted me asking when our puppet play “Up a Tree” ran at Intersection for the Arts. My photos and archive of the show was not on this site, and the paper media was in a box in storage. I tried a few different searches via a few search sites, and couldn’t get a hit. I even tried the Wayback Machine to see if Intersection had a decent website then (it was mostly a page of broken images).

Up a Tree
Kevin Woodson’s great poster for the show.

I then found the story of the activists vs. Maxxam Corp., including Julia Butterfly Hill and David “Gypsy” Chain, and correctly guessed the show’s run as being in 1999.

Hill famously lived in the top of an ancient redwood tree named Luna (Hill said the tree named herself), and our show featured the tree and the activist. Chain was part of the Earth First! direct action tactic, and was killed when a logger felled a tree on the young man. Chain’s story was also in “Up a Tree”.

“Up a Tree” was a low/no budget puppet installation about the plight of the old growth trees up in Northern California, incorporating marionettes with Bunraku operating options (basically, rods that allowed floor-level performers to manipulate the stringed puppets), shadow puppets for flashbacks, soft hand puppets for the animals in the forest (The boss Fox kept trying to trick the logger Beavers into making as much money as possible for Fox’s multinational corporation). Luna was a huge tree going into the rafters of the puppet stage with real tree bark and moving parts used when the tree spoke to Hill.

This show was thrown together with glue, bins of tree bark, the amazing puppet-crafting skills of Jonathan Youtt and David Morley (Joelle LaPlum probably helped as well), and directed by Dan Chumley (with some visits from Peggy Snyder) of the SF Mime Troupe. I played one of the Beavers, the voice of Chain’s abusive father in the shadow flashbacks, and was on the floor-level to be the Bunraku puppeteer for most of the marionettes (and pulled the rope so Luna could “talk”).

I made friends for life during this show, and also got a masters class in puppetry and theater arts. Julia called in one show a week from her platform in Luna and took questions. We went out to visit the tree and be part of some civil disobedience for an action, and there was a massive circle at the end where a woman gave us all a tincture of Luna’s tree sap. When Julia came down from her 738-day sit weeks later, she came straight to CELLspace to meet us all and get in on the fun when she could.

Other great memories: Michael Franti brought his family to a show one night. Building the set, the puppets, the props, and the redwood bark install at the Intersection’s entrance, was a CELLspace community effort. I even cut an EarthFirst! stencil for Chain’s puppet’s small t-shirt. Pod was our amazing sound tech and Leon Rosen helped with that as well. There’s a video of the show, but I recall the sound being horrible.

A Direct Hit

Dan Chumley must’ve known a theater critic at the time, because a quick search of the show name with his got a direct hit from SFGate’s repost of an “SF Chronicle” review. Here is that review in its entirety.

Puppets With a Cause in ‘Tree’ / Show has a gentle anti-logging message

In “Up a Tree,” a new hourlong installation at Intersection for the Arts, there’s no…

By Steven Winn, Chronicle Theater Critic
October 30, 1999

Puppets are especially beguiling when they appear to have a life of their own. In “Up a Tree,” a new hourlong installation at Intersection for the Arts, there’s no attempt to disguise how labor-intensive that illusion can be.

That’s entirely fitting in this gentle, somewhat fuzzy piece of communal puppet agitprop about Earth First activists and their battle against logging of the Northern California redwood forests. Marionettes, Bunraku-style figures, handheld animals and Balinese shadow puppets share a fragrant forest set with seven visible members of the Monkey Thump Puppet Collective. Explicit and implicit is a message that everyone must work together to protect an endangered environment. The show celebrates the work of two real-life protesters, Julia Butterfly Hill and the late David “Gypsy” Chain. The set, by director Dan Chumley and Peggy Snyder, stakes its own claim on reality. It’s filled with trunks and limbs of real redwood, gathered by a group that retrieves “naturally fallen trees.” Kevin Cain supplies the filtered forest light.

Hill, who has lived for nearly two years in the branches of a Humboldt County redwood tree, is played by a tiny marionette (voice of Deborah Ben-Eliezer). She scampers along the high limb of a tree named Luna (Whitney Combs), who talks back to Hill and shakes several lower limbs for emphasis.

Gypsy (the raw-voiced Jonathan Youtt), a full-sized Bunraku puppet who operates at ground level with a cadre of protesters, is a relative innocent who dies when a felled tree lands on him. A foulmouthed logger (David Morley) is the pat villain of the piece. But the script raises the intriguing possibility that Gypsy may have martyred himself without really thinking much about it.

That mystery takes form in the show’s most haunting image, when a legless Gypsy flies on his strings over the forest floor. Here, strikingly, there’s no human intervention in in sight. Gypsy has floated free of his past (detailed in a few shadow puppet flashbacks) and his own murky motivations. He’s become a spirit force for the movement.

A dopey animal subplot involves an entrepreneurial fox (Star Rose) with a cell phone grafted to one paw and a couple of reluctant beavers employed as loggers. These puppets, unlike the carefully crafted humans, look slapdash, and their scenes add little to the piece.

“Up a Tree” is a labor of love and a devoted tribute to a cause. It’s anything but elegant, in writing or execution, but an authentic soulfulness is as clear as the fresh redwood smell that fills the house.

UP A TREE: The theatrical installation continues through November 21 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco.