Coffee, halibut and whiskey: Davey Steinman’s world of puppets

University alum David Steinman debuts his puppet rock opera at Puppet Lab.

Actor Peter Lincolnrusk plays a singing chalkboard with other actors hands in Davey Steinmans show Basement Creatures at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre on Wednesday, Feb. 18.

Image by Alex Tuthill-Preus

Actor Peter Lincolnrusk plays a singing chalkboard with other actors’ hands in Davey Steinman’s show “Basement Creatures” at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre on Wednesday, Feb. 18.

by Jackie Renzetti

As a mechanical engineering freshman at the University of Minnesota, Davey Steinman wandered into the Rarig Center and found a spiral staircase, beckoning him to explore his first catwalk.

When he was a sophomore, free food attracted Steinman to a former art professor’s lecture, where he saw a professor work with moving art, helping him realize engineering and art can mix.

By the time he graduated in 2010, Steinman was leaving the University with a degree in theatre arts.

Though engineering and theater may seem a far cry from each other, Steinman sees links between the two.

“It’s always been my curiosity for how things worked. That’s what led me into the engineering world, but that’s also what led me into theatre,” he said.

Beginning next weekend, he’ll showcase how he combines both fields when he performs his original rock opera titled “Basement Creatures” as part of the Puppet Lab series at Minneapolis’ In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre.

Steinman’s work focuses on image- and music-driven theater, also known as figure theater. The three terms describe the same thing: nontraditional storytelling.

“It’s really hard to categorize,” Steinman said. “It’s funny how the theater community latches on to the word puppetry and those in the community know there still maybe stilting or aerialists involved. I remember going to a puppetry cabaret, and there were no hand puppets in the whole thing.”

Steinman said other forms of puppetry include masks and heavy makeup.

“A lot of people describe it as bringing to life something that’s not alive,” Steinman said.

Aside from writing, directing and performing in his own shows, Steinman freelances as a video-projection artist. He’s done video and stagehand work for various local theaters, taught puppetry and video projection youth workshops at Pillsbury House Theatre and held a residency at Seward Montessori School.

But before that, two University teachers — former art professor Ali Momeni and theatre professor Michael Sommers — influenced Steinman’s decision to switch majors, he said.

 “It’s funny to think that in happenstance … [Momeni and Sommers] are both very foundational people that I met just through coincidence that [I] wasn’t seeking out,” Steinman said. “I think being open to that and receptive to new things has led me to this world, which is very fulfilling and rewarding, but very exhausting, too.”

Steinman said participating in the Halloween festival Barebones and In the Heart of the Beast’s MayDay Parade  were also important in his decision.

Before he began pursuing theater full-time in 2013, Steinman took a job as an airport baggage handler for the opportunity to travel. Free standby tickets allowed him to visit destinations worldwide.

“Seeing something new every day kind of sparks my writing and generation and stuff,” Steinman said.

Steinman compiled his travel and work experiences into his unfinished show “Bagman.” He filmed various aspects of his baggage handler job and used the footage in his video projection work in the one-man show about travel.

When he quit that job, he motorcycled across the country, using a GoPro camera to record footage of his journey.

At each stop, he’d perform “Bagman.”

Most of Steinman’s work has an autobiographical bent. “Basement Creatures” was inspired by living in his basement, and it humanizes centipedes and bedbugs. It also features aerial dancing and video projection.

Steinman worked with Daniel Benoit to create a scenery from video. Benoit hopes to use video that responds to actors on stage by using technology that reacts to light and sound. The final show will be a mix of pre-recorded footage and a live feed of Steinman’s character.

Benoit attached a camera to a pulley system that went down the hay chute of his family’s barn to record video simulating falling underground.

“You have to understand, David is brilliant,” said Benoit, who attended high school with Steinman.

He said that unlike other directors he’s worked with, Steinman understands video projection concepts, making collaborating much easier.

The show also relies on masks, which Steinman built with University alumnus Alexander Hathaway. Some actors’ masks cover their heads, while others cover half, which helps retain humanity, Hathaway said.

For the Puppet Lab show, Alison Heimstead, program director for the lab, said a panel selects four artists from a pool of about 15 applicants based on their dedication and potential for puppetry. She said the goal of the project is to support emerging artists as they develop their voice.

The lab consists of about five months of rehearsal with feedback from other artists and Puppet Lab staff. The four shows are split between Puppet Lab’s two weekends.

Heimstead said she’s excited by Steinman’s energy.

“He makes these characters that are incredibly repellent but also have this incredible magnitude to them,” she said.

Hathaway said once during a production of a different story, he confided in Steinman, then an acquaintance, about the stressful week before the debut.

“He offered me pickled halibut or some kind of fish. He just had a jar of it. When he was working on the show, he said all he ate was coffee, halibut and whiskey,” Hathaway said. “It was cool to have that camaraderie.”


What: Puppet Lab

Where: Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, 1500 E. Lake St., Minneapolis

When: Feb. 26 – Mar. 8

Cost: $8–$12