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Thinking big in a small space

At age 43, puppeteer Michele Costa of Theatre Figuren thrives on a simple life, where little ideas become performances, where a 16-by-32-foot space becomes her home.

Her puppet shows -- suitable for children and adults -- combine sculpture, painting, movement, mime, music. They are children's stories with a thought-provoking edge, and include "Leo's Notebook," inspired by the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci, and "Ferdinand," about the pacifist bull.

Currently, Costa's puppets and masks are on stage at new Phoenix theatre in "Freud and the Sandman."

>PeopleTalk: How did puppetry find you?

Michele Costa: It wasn't until after graduating from [Fredonia State] college. I went to school for theater, but I can't remember ever learning anything about masks or puppetry. It's changed now because Julie Traynor has done a lot for puppetry in this country. I can't even remember seeing a puppet show as a child, but there was a puppeteer in Westfield putting on "Sleeping Beauty," and he hired me to create some scenery.

>PT: Is performing a workout?

MC: Surprisingly yes. My early shows, too -- because I was a dancer and also loved mime and mask work -- were very physical. Now that I'm concentrating on very small puppetry, not moving is very strenuous. In some of my shows, the stage is attached to me. I'm so focused on what my figure is doing, I just sweat.

>PT: What is your forte?

MC: Bunraku, a Japanese-style puppetry, meaning that you see the puppeteer in full view using rods or hands to move the puppet. I have always enjoyed the physical connection of seeing the puppeteer animating the object. You have to know when to try and fade away and become neutral.

>PT: Do you make your puppets?

MC: I make them, and I never use them a second time. I make the characters for a story or sketch, and that's who they are. I'm kind of strange that way. Once they have their personality ingrained, once I have so carefully sculpted their face and thought about their movement, it's hard to think of them any other way. They become very lifelike to me.

>PT: What becomes of them?

MC: I do keep most of them. They're right in the house. Other ones? My mother's basement has many. I have to destroy them in such a way that is OK. You can never just throw them away, so I have to do something -- especially with their heads. It's awful to say, but their head has to be taken apart in pieces or burned. To me, it's their face that is their essence so I have to make sure it is totally destroyed so no one will look in a garbage dump and see these eyeballs looking up. That would just be pathetic.

>PT: Have you created a puppet that mirrors you?

MC: My characters discover something special about very simple things, and that goes to lifestyle because I'm very simple. My husband and I say we really like our routine. Because we're self-employed, we really never have that urge to kick back, relax, get out of town and go to some great island. We have the leisure of taking lunch in the backyard or walking the dogs down Elmwood every night. To us, that's better than any exotic vacation.

>PT: You must live in the smallest house in Buffalo.

MC: We call it the wee house. My husband and I have this lifestyle of living small and as cheaply as possible. We had a house in Allentown, about 1,300 [square] feet, an old house he had renovated, but it needed a roof, and for the price of a roof he figured he could build us a house. We scaled way down.

>PT: You built it yourselves?

MC: Three people -- my husband, myself and a friend -- hand-dug the whole foundation. There is no basement. It's built on a frost-protected slab, and the floor is heated so there are pipes running hot water through it. You're looking at everything you own, and if you don't use it, or if it isn't dear to you or very beautiful, you get rid of it. We've been there four years, about the same time I got rid of my car. I bike everywhere, about 15 miles a day. And we both work at home, too, so we have our little 8-by-8 foot work spaces up in little lofts. The bed just unfolds. We have two dogs.

>PT: Does it surprise you how little you need?

MC: No, what surprises me is how much other people have, where people live, the size of houses, the rooms and furniture that is never sat upon or walked in. We always say we could go a lot smaller.

>PT: What do you splurge on?

MC: Handcrafted jewelry. Ninety-eight percent of any clothing I have is from Amvets. I enjoy the action of going to a place where you're not directed to your size or color. You're not just picking it off the rack. It's the search, the discovery.

jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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