Downtown Condo Guys

Iain Gunn and Bridget Rountree (Animal Cracker Conspiracy)
Arts, North Park

The High Art of Puppetry, Stilt Walking and Other Kinetic Performances: Iain Gunn and Bridget Rountree Have Mastered Them All

By Frank Sabatini Jr.

It’s safe to say that the multi-disciplinary theater company known as Animal Cracker Conspiracy is on fire right now.

Founded by artists Bridget Rountree and husband Iain Gunn, the dynamic duo have an anchor studio and puppet workshop in North Park called Wonder Box. From it, they mastermind circus-like shows and dazzling costumes for museum events, major art festivals and county fairs throughout San Diego and in other cities.

Most recently they teamed up with the San Diego Symphony to present the main entertainment for the upcoming reopening of what was known as Copley Symphony Hall—now called Jacobs Music Center since undergoing an extensive remodel.

In addition, they’ve been in feverish production for a multi-disciplinary show for La Jolla Playhouse’s annual WOW Festival, (April 4–7) at the UCSD campus as well as taking part in Art Alive (April 25—28) for The San Diego Museum of Art. And not long ago they played a creative role in a San Diego tour stop at Rady Shell of Little Amal, who is a fictional Syrian refugee girl represented in the form of a 12-foot puppet.

We caught up with these creative powerhouses for an engaging chat as they came up for a breath of air.

Downtown Condo Guys: When and how did Animal Cracker Conspiracy form?

Rountree: It started in 2006. It was a collaborative effort between Iain and myself with a shared interest in puppetry, visual arts, performance and circus. We had been together for about two years, but we weren’t married yet.

Gunn: There was a really cool art scene in San Diego at the time, and we were inspired to participate.

Downtown Condo Guys: Any significance to the name of your company?

Gunn: We wanted something cheeky and fun. We were coming from doing underground sideshow circus events, and using puppetry. So we wanted something that was family-friendly but with a subversive edge.

Downtown Condo Guys: Is performance art your primary livelihood?

Gunn: Yes. We travel all over and we animate events. We do characters and ambiance for just about any kind of gathering, but larger than the birthday party.

Downtown Condo Guys: What are your artistic backgrounds?

Rountree: I have a background in visual arts, a B.A. from UC Santa Barbara in literature, and then studied visual arts abroad in Italy for a few years. I’ve been continuing that endeavor for 20-plus years. And during an artist residency in South Africa I was introduced to the Handspring Puppet Company and spent a few days in their workshop. It was an ah-ha moment for me to combine art forms.

Gunn: I have a visual arts degree from the University of British Columbia, Canada. I also studied dance and circus arts and then got into puppetry, so I wanted to combine all of those things.

Downtown Condo Guys: Tell us about the puppets you use in your shows. Hand puppets? Marionettes?

Rountree: Neither of those.

Gunn: Because we mix them with dance and circus, our puppets tend toward Asian and European traditions. We use a lot of rod puppets ranging in size from 1 to 16 feet tall.

Downtown Condo Guys: Do you make the puppets by hand? And how many do you have in your inventory?

Rountree: Yes, we make everything ourselves from designing to building. Everything is created and fabricated at our 700-square-foot Wonder Box studio in North Park, which isn’t open to the public. We have over 50 puppets, and we also train younger puppeteers in workshops.

Gunn: We’re also starting to work with digital designers bit by bit, using lightweight materials.

Downtown Condo Guys: Are puppeteers a rare breed these days? Was the craft more popular in the distant past?

Gunn: It depends what type of puppets. There are puppeteers cropping up every day. Older puppeteers are sharing their secrets. Puppets are being used more and more in theater programs. It’s always had a revolutionary base to it. We’re super nerdy about studying puppet companies around the world. Every chance we get to see work done by real living puppeteers is one of our greatest joys.

Rountree: [In doing so] we’ve been to Italy, Bali, Java, South Africa, Mexico, India, England and France over the last 20 years. Puppetry has always been historically on the fringe to comment on political and social movements.

Downtown Condo Guys: We heard that you had ties to the late Jim Henson. Is that correct?

Rountree: We never knew Jim, but we’ve received multiple grants from the Jim Henson Foundation, which supports American puppetry.

Downtown Condo Guys: How many stock performers does your company have?

Rountree: The two of us, plus up to 20 at a time on a project-by-project basis.

Downtown Condo Guys: Other than puppeteering, what are some of the other types of visual performances you conduct?

Gunn: I do installations with video and dabble in public sculpture.

Rountree: I create visual art shows, and we stilt walk.

Downtown Condo Guys: How difficult is stilt walking? Have you ever tipped over and fallen?

Gunn: It’s extremely dangerous and we try to make it look as easy as possible. We’ve fallen numerous times.

Rountree: You have to train with a professional. It’s a circus skill.

Downtown Condo Guys: Tell us about your upcoming gig for the opening season of the San Diego Symphony at Jacobs Music Center (formerly Copley Symphony Hall). Will this be the first unveiling of the venue after being closed for remodel?

Rountree: Yes. We are still in talks about what we’ll be doing. But it will be a mix of many different genres of puppetry, such as giants, stilts, and possibly shadows. It will be later this year, with the date yet to be announced. The symphony will play and we’ll be among the main entertainment on a large scale.

Downtown Condo Guys: Have you done any work with San Diego’s Fern Street Circus?

Gunn: I performed with them on and off for 10 years in many of their shows. I’ve also built puppets for them.

Downtown Condo Guys: What was the most elaborate project you ever took on?

Rountree: It will be for Spectrum: Society of Wonder at April’s WOW Festival in early April. We’re working with a symphony quartet, giant puppets, dance, stilts, and shadow puppets. It’s an illuminated show that will be about an hour long.

Downtown Condo Guys: When you aren’t in visual-arts mode, what are some of your favorite hobbies?

Gunn: Reading, gardening, kayaking and cycling.

Rountree: Sleeping, reading, writing, and I am constantly drawing.