Last Thursday morning, puppeteer Yael Rasooly found herself missing a certain someone, or rather, being a certain someone: a lonely secretary named Ruth Spencer.
Born from a place of invention, theatricality and borderline desperation, the Israeli artist had conjured up a world where Ruth finds refuge from her mundane life, far from her dead-end job where she spends most her days fantasizing about her boss, who does not reciprocate her affections.
But down Ruth’s rabbit hole, commonplace objects are anthropomorphized, photo cutouts have personality and pop-up figurines take on new life, all from behind her desk in her little corner, on any given stage — during the one-woman show “Paper Cut,” staging Friday at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
“I haven’t performed it in just over a month, which feels very long,” Rasooly said. “I miss my character. She can just do whatever she wants. She just has pure inventiveness every moment. She’s quite something. It’s really a ride. It’s kind of like that feeling when you’re a kid and you’re about to go on a rollercoaster. I feel like that with her, but at the same time, I have to operate the rollercoaster, as well.”
While “Paper Cut” may be a puppet show, it is not geared toward children, emphasized Liz Joyce of Goat on a Boat, who sat in the audience during the 2017 Puppeteers of America National Festival in Minnesota and watched Rasooly perform, completely enraptured and determined to bring her to the East End.
“I was blown away because I’m a solo performer and I appreciate a one-woman act, and she is incredibly talented,” Joyce said. “I’m excited about being able to share her show with our audiences. Goat on a Boat’s been around for 18 years, and this is the first time we’ve done an adult performance — and we’re going to try to keep them coming.”
Over the last nine years, Rasooly has performed “Paper Cut” more than 400 times across 28 countries — a show that conveniently fits into two suitcases — and racked up accolades along the way, including the Excellence Award at the New York International Fringe Festival.
“I feel very fortunate that this has been such a big part of my life. I definitely never expected anything like this,” she said. “I guess that sometimes happens. There’s no rules in theater. You can spend three or four years working in a production, and putting your whole heart and soul into it, and it gets to be seen so little. And then you can make a show between your living room and your kitchen, which is what ‘Paper Cut’ is, and tour the world.”
Performed in both English and French — but never in Hebrew, Rasooly noted — the show is a study in escapism, where Ruth is a glamorous movie star from the 1940s and finds her ideal love at last. But as the story unravels, and as imagination and reality collide, her romantic tale becomes a Hitchcock nightmare, the puppeteer said.
“I did start watching Hitchcock films at a much younger age than I should have,” Rasooly said. “I think I watched ‘Vertigo’ when I was 7 or 8; I was peeking from behind my older sister, who was too young herself. I really think that left a deep mark on me, the mystery and the haunting effect of those films, alongside that beauty.”
The classically trained singer and pianist began her studies at the School of Visual Theatre in Jerusalem, where she first studied directing and acting. At that time, puppetry had never crossed her mind, she said.
“I had a lousy perception of it. It just seemed like it was for children, or that it’s very simplistic,” she said. “And then I saw a show that just blew my mind. It was a very small team of people and they were doing what I know to be today as contemporary objects and puppet theater, and that really changed my experience. I thought, ‘What is this, I have to research it, I have to find out.’”
A prominent figure in the British puppet scene directed her through the appropriate channels — “She said, ‘Go to meet these artists,’ I went to meet those artists. She said, ‘Go to see those shows,’ I went to see those shows,” Rasooly said — and it wasn’t long before she found herself immersed in the world of puppetry.
She absorbed the great masters and their massive productions, and sought out modern puppet theater. She watched classical marionettes and illusion and magic, even a puppet show of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” played by vegetables.
“It was such a mix and so diverse, and it kind of shook me to the core and made me feel like, ‘Oh, okay, there’s a place for me. This is what I want to do, and I might just be able to pull it off,’” she said. “Once you know it, you’re hooked — like Thai food. I really think there’s similarity there.”
Rasooly returned to Jerusalem and incorporated her newfound love of puppetry into her studies. It felt right, she said, until graduation. Reality had set in. Suddenly, her support system from the School of Visual Theatre was gone. A solo show she mounted in Tel Aviv was losing money — “and even worse than losing money, no one was coming,” she said.
Out of it, she willed “Paper Cut” into existence, she said, somewhere between her living room and her kitchen.
“It was a very rough time, and I was just beginning,” she said. “On a more personal level, I think it was definitely a reaction to a serious romance I was having at the time, and I guess my journey in that and the liberation of that, and heartache and disillusion, and rising up from the ashes. For me, art has always been a very, very necessary part of my life. I don’t think it’s really a choice for me, even though I love making it every day.”
Now sponsored by the Israel Institute’s Visiting Israeli Artists Program, Rasooly is spending a semester in the United States, teaching nearly 60 students across three institutions in Connecticut — Trinity College, UConn and the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.
“I’ve learned so much from this performance, from ‘Paper Cut,’ but I guess what I’m mostly focused on now in my teaching is guiding people to shape their own independent language and to transform their own voice into performance,” she said. “‘Paper Cut’ has definitely shown me that is possible, and you can also live in works through that.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have teachers that also believed in me before I believed in myself and gave me that encouragement — and saw how absolutely vital it was for me,” she added. “It’s still one of the most powerful aspects of my life: the creation and meeting audiences. I’m pretty much addicted to that.”
Yael Rasooly’s “Paper Cut” will stage on Friday, March 8, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. A wine reception will follow the performance, held in honor of International Women’s Day. Advance tickets are $30, or $40 at the door. The show is suited for adults only. For more information, call (631) 725-4193 or visit goatonaboat.org.