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Her heroes have always been puppets

Theater’s director hopes to win converts to age-old art form

Performer Brad Shur chats with artistic director Roxanna Myhrum at Brookline’s Puppet Showplace Theatre. Performer Brad Shur chats with artistic director Roxanna Myhrum at Brookline’s Puppet Showplace Theatre. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Andreae Downs
Globe Correspondent / June 17, 2010

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If you start seeing a lot of young performing types streaming off the MBTA’s D Line in Brookline Village, you may have the new artistic director of the Puppet Showplace Theatre to blame.

Over the last 35 years, the Station Street theater has had only three artistic directors — a testament to the institution’s stability and, possibly, its ability to remunerate.

Now Roxanna Myhrum, 26, has joined this short list. The Harvard grad and theater jack-of-all-trades brings visions of puppet collaboration as well as a commitment to the traditions and carefully crafted works of the age-old art form.

“We were impressed with how well-rounded she was,’’ said Kris Higgins, executive director of the theater. He and three board members, including two master puppeteers, were attracted by Myhrum’s opera and theater experience as well as her sound puppetry credentials.

Higgins and Myhrum share the belief that their 100-seat venue is often a child’s first exposure to live theater.

And they mean to get them hooked early.

“Children are such an engaged audience here,’’ said Myhrum. “It’s not like when they are watching TV. They see injustice and they want vengeance; they see something frightening and they scream to make it go away.’’

But Myhrum also subscribes to the effort, begun a few years ago, to hold adult events at the theater, such as PuppetSLAMs, where new, edgy pieces are premiered, or Puppet Incubator sessions, where theater, dance, or even sculpture can take on a new form.

“My interest is in the emerging artist community,’’ she said. “I want to help them take their dreams of puppetry and connect them to master puppeteers.’’

Puppetry is an ancient art form, which has retained the medieval tradition of masters training apprentices and journeymen, Myhrum explained. It even has a guild (the Boston Area Guild of Puppetry meets at the theater).

Paul Vincent Davis, one of the premier hand puppeteers in the country and a former artist-in-residence at the theater, is teaching his shows, including “Raccoon Tales’’ and “Here Come the Clowns,’’ to Brad Shur, the current resident artist.

“It’s so cool that these shows, which took hours and hours of work to develop, don’t retire with him; they are kept alive on our stage,’’ Myhrum said.

She comes to puppetry naturally — her grandfather, Robert Myhrum, worked on the iconic “Sesame Street’’ in its early years on PBS — and was hooked at 15, when she helped out at the National Puppetry Festival.

She became aware of the Brookline theater while at Harvard, when her high school puppet teacher, Carl Weiting, was emcee for a PuppetSLAM.

She knew about slams from a 1999 Springfield incarnation when she saw Jim Napolitano, who “totally blew my mind. It was funny, modern, just so impressive,’’ she said.

“Puppeteers are totally my heroes. They do everything: building, performance, often musical composition, and booking their own tours.’’

The part-time directorship may take most of Myhrum’s intellectual energy, but she also works on Boston’s Freedom Trail as a Colonial reenactor (her “day job’’) and for the Boston Opera Collaborative, which is also dedicated to emerging artists.

Myhrum’s continued connection to outside arts venues is fine with Higgins and the board.

“We’ve always had good relationships with other area theaters,’’ he said, and the Puppet Showplace Theatre sees itself as both a collaborator and a developer of future audiences for performing arts everywhere.

Andreae Downs can be reached at andreaedowns@yahoo.com.

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