Puppets of Masters: Dave English and Will Schutze, co-creators of the new puppet film “The Dragon of Polish Hill”
The only constant, “dark” philosopher Heraclitus was wont to say, is change. This prescient statement–issued a couple thousand years before anyone thought about a designated hitter, Kardashian regime, or beer sales in Pennsylvania grocery stores–is proven true over and over again. From macro tectonic shifts of global climate change and computer technology wiping out entire industries to weeds breaking through pavement in the back alley, we are all powerless against the gale force winds of change affecting things big and little, anywhere and everywhere.
That basic tenet–times will change and so do the people and places that exist within them–forms one of the themes running through The Dragon of Polish Hill. The puppet play-turned-puppet film experienced its own radical reimagining as the global coronavirus pandemic shut down a just-getting-started theatrical production and eventually spawned a no one-planned-it-this-way feature-length movie.
The story is very Pittsburgh: it’s got polka, old timers clashing with punk rockers, at least one urban legend, and of course it’s set in perhaps Pittsburgh’s most Pittsburgh of neighborhoods–Polish Hill.
In lieu of lots of busy schedules, we were limited to an electronic Q&A with co-creators Dave English and Will Schutze in advance of the film’s debut (online) screenings this week. They graciously answered The Orbit’s questions and provided all the great behind-the-scenes photos included here.
Full disclosure: publishing The Orbit is a labor-of-love; we pay the rent by scoring puppet shows. Orbit staff were involved with creating some of the music used in The Dragon of Polish Hill.
Tell me about The Dragon of Polish Hill. Where did the idea come from? Is there a dragon in Polish Hill? How has the story changed since its original conception?
Smoky city [photo: Renee Rosensteel]
Dave English: The Dragon of Polish Hill is a 120-minute puppet movie based on a play written by Dave English and co-produced with collaborator Will Schutze. English a native of Pittsburgh and planted the roots of this show almost two decades ago in doodles of old Polish Hill residents, then further developed the concept as a Brew House Distillery Resident Artist back in 2010. The story combines reality and fantasy to create a post-industrial folklore where an old man made from onions and a rabbit-eared hipster punk get into a fight in coffee shop and then become buddies. The story has evolved over the years to include the pre-existing character, Willy James, a product of Schutze’s imagination and a puppet with his own life prior to playing the antagonist in this show. It also began as a play for a live audience but was canceled due to the pandemic. Now it has since been reimagined as a film. Yes: there was once a dragon in Polish Hill. The last time anyone saw it was 1964.
Will Schutze: The idea came from Dave. I believe that at its conception–years before I met Dave, Stanley Onion wasn’t an onion man. He was a regular guy who ran a livery service. The story was more focused on the end of a neighborhood. Now Willy James, a puppet I made gets to play the antagonist (in a way). Dave completely blew my mind when he sent me the script.
Old Pittsburgh. Polish Hill street set.
The story deals with the sometimes ugly subjects of generational clash, gentrification, and displacement. Is there hope for the future?
DE: The story touches on gentrification, elder neglect, racism, and other typical power distortions because that’s what I saw everywhere. I wrote this whole thing years ago and revised it in 2017. It’s weird how many things in the play gained new relevance since then. What a time to write a play with a pandemic reference in it … before the pandemic happens.
Is there hope? Yes. I think the play ends hopefully. I am a hopeful person. I study history and I see trends and cycles. I see examples of the world being worse off than where we are right now. I have hope because I work with kids and I’m giving them the message they need to be better people than me. I have hope also because I believe in magic and miracles. Not as a nerd or a lunatic, but because that shit is real. Me and my buddy make little creatures come to life. We make people laugh and live insane lives. We’re lucky. We pulled off a puppet movie during a pandemic. But I shouldn’t be surprised because puppetry has already survived many plagues, so we’ll survive this one.
WS: Definitely. People get real with each other. They are forced to communicate just to make it through the day. We gotta figure it out.
Puppetry ain’t pretty–but it sure tastes good. Schultze and English butchering “The Dragon of Polish Hill.”
Why puppets? Why polka?
DE: We’re puppeteers because it is in our DNA to make puppets. Both of us have some underlying evolutionary motivation to make inanimate objects come to life. Puppets are fantastic and allow you to tell stories that go to stranger places.
Why Polka? As a style and a theme polka is generally associated with an older population who largely moved away from urban ethnic neighborhoods in the mid to late 20th century. I live in Polish Hill and my neighbor blasts polka radio shows every Sunday afternoon. I also grew up going to polka events with my parents and their friends when I was a kid, I genuinely like polka.
WS: I think I can speak for Dave a bit as well and say that it’s what we are passionate about. We’ve chosen/been chosen by the puppets. It’s a mysterious thing. I actually gotta leave it at that.
“The Dragon of Polish Hill” film set at New Hazlett Theater
This started as a theatrical/live-action puppet show and has necessarily turned into a puppet movie (because of the pandemic). How has the transition between media been? Has anything in the story substantively changed?
DE: Some things have changed but nothing major. The butcher shop scene and the intro music were going to be a pre-show delight for a live audience finding their seats, That doesn’t work any more. The introduction of the dragon is very different. Overall we had to rethink a lot of things and continuously remind ourselves that the format is changed. It wasn’t easy but it happened surprisingly smoothly. I have to credit the talent around me.
WS: The story is the same, and actually, there was already a video element Dave wrote into the show early on. Dave and I had done some shows in the past using video projection behind live marionette performance. Dave included that technique in the script and Joe Serkoch and I both captured many video elements for the first installment of this show. I had already edited all the pre-recorded audio, which included amazing original music created by The Upholsterers. Dave wrote all the lyrics. I did some songs. So much stuff was prerecorded and, although intended for a live theatrical performance, it actually is going to totally work out in the filming and editing process.
It’s weird–like really strange that in the show, a central part of the plot is Stanley’s story having the potential of being turned into a movie. I could go on and on and on discussing the super deep meta-ness of this show and the way it’s coming together, but I’ll hold back. We are so grateful for the recorded voice work that was done on this show at such early stages when we were just beginning to put the pieces together. I was blown away by coming to this town from Texas and seeing the communal support friends, artists, and creators of all kinds engage in to make beautiful things happen. It happens in other places I’ve lived, but I have now had the privilege of collaborating with someone, Dave, who has put in the work to really know how to bring people together for a positive experience that is hopefully enriching for all involved. I’m so glad we’re at this point.
Sometimes a banana is just a banana
Is there anything else you’d like Orbit readers to know about the show?
DE: If you want to cancel culture us that’s fine but you shouldn’t have waited until the world was ending.
WS: It’s really good. It hasn’t been easy, but nothing has for anyone recently. It has definitely been fun and rewarding, and we hope that our puppet/music/theater/video alchemy yields something rewarding for all who watch.
Schutze at work, video editing “The Dragon of Polish Hill”
What’s next for the show? For each of you as puppeteers/artists?
DE: It is hard to say what is next for anyone these days. Our lives hinge between a global pandemic, a new social revolution, and a madman election that could lead to the end of our democracy. A puppet show like ours is a feather in the wind against these forces. We’re magical weirdos who feel damn lucky and privileged to even be doing any of this right now. So many other people had shows canceled and that was it. Too bad. But we got to finish the damn show and somehow ended up with a full length puppet movie. Our plan was to shop it to theaters all around the country and do a tour–the whole thing is built to fold up and be transportable–but theaters are closed. Audiences are reluctant. I don’t blame them. So now we don’t have a live show to shop around. Now we have a movie and for me that is new territory. So we’re shopping a movie around.
WS: This show has already gone through so many stages and permutations. I will be extremely happy once we complete the film and share it with folks. I truly believe it is going to have a good life. I definitely look forward to more adventures with Dave and I am so glad to be making these connections with all yinz too.
The outlaw Willy James
To watch any of the upcoming free (donations accepted) screenings of The Dragon of Polish Hill, register ahead of time here: https://www.crowdcast.io/newhazletttheater
There are three scheduled screenings:
- Thursday, Sept. 24 at 8 PM
- Friday, Sept. 25 at 11 AM
- Friday, Sept. 25 at 8 PM
All photos courtesy of Dave English and Will Schutze, except where noted.