“MINE” is an innovative, unique, and incredibly imaginative mixed-media theater production that was delivered to the masses via Theatermania courtesy of Manhattan’s Dixon Place. Described as an ecofeminist tragicomedy, “MINE” investigates the way humans interact with matter, both in nature and objects in our everyday lives. The performance begins with a tough-talking TV-psychic named Delia who guides viewers through several interlinked portals. It begins with telling the story of a mountain decimated by greedy businessmen (brilliantly acted out via literal finger puppets); a process portrayed through many innovative and hand-made props and costumes. In a later section, the story follows the breakdown of a marriage via a groundhog who is living under a divorcing couple’s house (which, it is alluded, might be built on the land where the great mountain once stood). The rodent has become oddly attached to the couple’s things and has slowly been collecting discarded items from their fractured home. The sentimental groundhog places great value on the objects it has acquired, perhaps more so than the couple ever did, even though the items have led to cluttered and not entirely pleasant living conditions. Learning to let go of old items (and emotional baggage) is the key to freedom and growth, a way to continue your journey in life towards the place where you belong.
“MINE” has a distinctive style that incorporates a variety of puppetry techniques, film projections, stop-motion animation, costumes that can only be described as wearable sculptures, and humor that is entirely due to the vivid yet oddball imagination of Shayna Strype, who both wrote the play and stars in it as various characters including the hoarding groundhog. Themes of nostalgia, excess, control, and loss premeditate through the piece which results in a lingering sense of wonder once the curtain closes.
Performer, writer, and puppeteer Shayna Strype enjoys working on stage and in film. One of her movies, “Our Mine,” was commissioned by Heather Henson (daughter of the legendary Jim Henson) and Handmade Puppet Dreams. Shayna received a Jim Henson Foundation Workshop Grant in 2020 to create “MINE” which was always intended to be a solo puppetry performance. Shayna holds an MFA in Theater, resides in Brooklyn, and finds a true passion in creating layered elements and handcrafted worlds. She recently discussed “MINE” via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get interested in the theater and how did you break into the industry?
Shayna Strype (SS): I’ve been performing since I was a young kid. My breakout role was ‘Ham’ the Piggy Bank in a 15-minute stage-version of “Toy Story,” in which my one line “(Grunt)” was skipped. Luckily, I’ve since recovered from that and continued on to study theater, puppetry, video, and solo performance at Sarah Lawrence College in NY. For the past seven years, I’ve been developing my work through different residencies and works-in-progress showings in NY. I’m grateful for the support of Ellie Covan, Dixon Place, and The Jim Henson Foundation to make this show happen!
MM: What was your childhood like and how much did it inspire you creatively?
SS: I feel so grateful for the ways in which my parents cultivated creativity in our household. Early on, my dad taught my sister Melissa and me how to use the video camera and she and I have been making stuff ever since. For the majority of our childhood, we had the camera set up on a tripod and every day we would get into costumes, make up skits, and film each other doing whatever for hours on end. My sister recently got all these home videotapes digitized and it’s wild to see the through-lines between what we did then and what we are still doing now. I just watched a puppet-remake of Austin Powers that I made in middle school and – for better or worse – it’s extremely in line with what I’m making today.
MM: When and how did you first think up “MINE”?
SS: The original seed of the idea came after spending time in Bolivia, where I visited the mine Cerro Rico. The miners called it “The Mountain That Eats Men” because of the hundreds of thousands of men who lost their lives while working inside under dangerous conditions. After years of extraction, the mountain itself is on the brink of collapse. Returning home from Bolivia, I began to deeply consider the connection between our society’s treatment of women’s bodies and our treatment of the earth; the parallel degradation and exploitation of the two. At the same time, my parents were going through a divorce and my family was confronted with a houseful of memories to sort, pack, and throw away. The seeming ‘crumbling’ of our familial structure and the splitting up of our home felt similar to the impending collapse of the mountain. The piles of stuff and unsorted generations-worth of objects appeared to be an insurmountable pile of rubble trapping us all underneath. I was curious to link these disparate societal structures (extraction, marriage, excess, capitalism) and weave these themes together through a personal lens.
MM: How did you work in all these elements from dubious psychics to mountains to groundhogs to family drama?
SS: When I have faced obstacles in my life, I’ve found myself looking more towards magical realms – tarot, psychics, crystals, dreams – to get perspective. Delia’s psychic tarot reading invites the audience to ground themselves in dream-logic. The cards tell us that MOUNTAIN, GROUNDHOG, HOUSE somehow go together and allow for the viewer to make their own connections between these ideas.
At its core, the show is about our interconnectedness. To me, the groundhog, the mountain, the house, the psychic, and the caller are all different facets of the same character. I’m curious about how all of these realms are made up of the same energy and frequencies; how rocks, roots, old love letters, a coffee maker, a plastic bag, planet Jupiter, and people all emanate a vibration if we are sensitive enough to feel it. We are so quick to distance ourselves from nature and the natural world as if we are separate from or above it. What happens when we give reverence to the earth? To objects? To animals? To other human beings? Puppetry allows us to give voice to everything and make connections between the macro and micro of our universe.
MM: How personal is the story of “MINE”? For instance, are the props really things from your house and life?
SS: The show is very personal! I originally wanted to recreate something ‘universal’ but I learned over time that the only way to attempt to make something that might resonate with people is to delve into the deeply personal and specific. I was beginning to make this piece as we were moving out of our home and I took stuff from the ‘throw away pile’ to use for the show. It became a sort of meta issue where for years now I’ve had all this stuff in my apartment, rationalizing why I’m holding on to these objects – ‘I’m saving them for my groundhog suit!” It’s been fun/nostalgic/moving for friends and family to tune in and see their handwritten birthday cards from years ago or a photo they are in from the 90s sewn into a costume. The authenticity of the objects add a deeper layer for me as a performer. The wearable house sculpture is very much inspired by my childhood home and the storylines are all derived from my experiences. I also once had a psychic tell me that my energy was “emanating like a Koosh Ball.”
MM: The number of costumes and props created for this show was staggering. How long did it take you to craft everything?
SS: I’ve been working on this iteration of the show since 2018, so I’ve been slowly building and tweaking things over time. I made the groundhog puppet in 2018 out of some bad gaucho pants from Zara. The mountain costume and props have gone through various makeovers over the years. In its original version, the house was a 2D piece of cardboard that I wore like a bib. So, I’ve definitely been experimenting with the objects and trying to hone the visual world of the play for a while.
MM: What’s your favorite part of this show and why?
SS: In this iteration, I love the moment when the groundhog uses the metal detector to play the musical frequencies of all the objects. The sound designer, Jordan Parker, was so down to get creative with what beautiful sounds an expired metro card or a Troll figurine might make. It’s a moment in the show where I can really let go of everything and just have fun jamming out to the sweet tunes in the groundhog suit.
MM: How did you come to work with Dixon Place and what has the experience been like?
SS: Dixon Place is such a champion for emerging artists and serves as a home for experimental puppetry in New York. Since graduating in 2014, Dixon Place has been the main venue where my peers and I have been able to put up new work and truly experiment. After Puppet Blok in 2018 where artists show 15 min selections of puppetry work, Ellie Covan and Dixon Place commissioned me to create a full-length version of the piece I showed. I am so impressed with how the theater has been able to pivot in this challenging time and continue to support their artists-in-residence and commissioned artists throughout the pandemic. Check out all the other puppet shows that are happening both online and in-person at Dixon Place this Spring!
MM: What do you hope people remember most about this show?
SS: I have been getting a lot of messages from people who seem to resonate with the Welsch word ‘Hireath’ that I discuss at the end. The word has grown with me over the years and has taken on new meaning at this particular moment in time. “Hiraeath: a homesickness for a place to which you cannot return, or maybe a place that never was; a nostalgia. A yearning for the lost places of your past. But I think it works in reverse too, a nostalgia for the future. A homesickness for a place you haven’t quite found yet.”
MM: How did the covid lockdown affect your creative output?
SS: Covid unexpectedly coincided with the year-long sabbatical that I took from my job teaching theater at Friends Seminary in Manhattan. Pre-covid, I planned to take a year off and ideally tour ‘MINE’ which was supposed to happen last April. Obviously, things didn’t pan out that way, but I’ve been so grateful for the opportunities that arose instead. Heather Henson and Handmade Puppet Dreams commissioned me and several other artists to create short puppetry films, so I spent the fall and winter filming a short film version of ‘MINE’ with my partner Dane Manary in my apartment. Since January, I’ve been focused on creating this show and experimenting with my talented team (Britt Moseley, Ruth Lichtman, Desiree Mitton, Nehprii Amenii, Caren Celine Morris, Jordan Parker, and Paige Seber) with how to approach this new world of virtual theater.
MM: What’s the best fan feedback you’ve gotten about your work so far?
SS: I’m so moved by the responses I’ve gotten – people texting me selfies of themselves in tears at the end, beautiful voicemails about the show left on the Delia psychic hotline number, and drawings that people have made inspired by the characters. While the show was intended mostly for adult audiences, several people said they watched it with their young children and had some deep conversations afterward. A friend spoke to her six-year-old son about what divorce was and he asked, ‘So love can die like a person can die?’ I’m touched by the way people of all ages can interact and grapple with these themes in their own ways.
MM: How do you hope your career evolves over the next five years?
SS: I hope to develop and share new work in theater, film, and TV with content that feels authentic, innovative, and meaningful. I’m thinking about creating an in-person version of this show that I can perform in New York or maybe tour around. I’m looking forward to premiering my short film ‘Our Mine’ in Brooklyn this June and, throughout the festival circuit, I hope to meet fellow filmmakers interested in experimental forms of storytelling and handmade lo-fi aesthetics. In the next few years, I aim to direct and art direct more film and music videos with puppetry and animation. My sister Melissa Strype and I have an ongoing comedy series called “The Diaper” (which is not about diapers) and we look forward to making more work together as ‘Strype Sister Studios’. I am currently developing a TV show for young people (and for adults too – why not), inspired by intersections between PeeWee’s Playhouse, Tim and Eric, and Michel Gondry. I hope to continue learning more multimedia techniques that I can weave into my work in various mediums.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
SS: I don’t think there’s some ultimate looming goal that will make me feel like I’ve ‘arrived’ as an artist, but my biggest hope for myself is to continue making art with people I love and admire. I want to continually surprise myself with what I make and lean into things that seem scary or out of reach. I want to continue to cultivate a creative community of friends who champion each other’s work and build each other up. I hope to continue finding joy in the late nights, messy studio, dirty fingernails process, and grow old still thinking it’s fun to spend a full day making a weird hat.
I want to thank my incredible team for their willingness to take on this project in a time of so many unknowns. We were all brand new to this realm of virtual theater and I’m so proud and grateful for what we were able to accomplish. Ruth Lichtman (Producer), Desiree Mitton (Live Feed Operator, Dramaturg), Britt Moseley (Projection Designer), Nehprii Amenii (Assistant Director, Set Designer), Jordan Parker (Music and Sound Designer), Paige Seber (Light Designer), and Caren Celine Morris (Stage Manager).
“MINE” will be performed live on April 21, 22, 23, 24 at 7:30pm ET. It will be available On Demand from April 26 – May 3. To learn more about Shayna, visit her official website.
Photos courtesy of Dane Manary and Peter Yesley.