Interview: Elizabeth Fuller and Conrad Bishop on puppets, poetry and ‘King Lear’

Independent-Eye-King-Lear-Review-1380x770Elizabeth Fuller and Conrad Bishop, the multitalented, long-married team at the core of Sebastopol’s Independent Eye theatre troupe, approach their art with a fervor and devotion rarely seen outside of religion or psychosis. Over the decades, they have tackled all forms of theatre, from the traditional to the experimental. They have also written books and produced syndicated radio series, frequently collaborating with other artists and theatre companies to create bold, description-defying new works. But they are arguably known best as puppeteers. Employing gorgeously crafted handmade characters (with eerie glass eyes), Bishop and Fuller have fused puppetry and live acting to bring to life stories as diverse as Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

For the last year and a half, their chief obsession has been Shakespeare’s King Lear—a tour-de-force 100-minute production performed without intermission, all done within a portable box the size of a small refrigerator. Bishop plays Lear; Fuller plays the Fool. All the other characters are puppets. Independent Eye will be presenting King Lear on June 14, 16 and 18 at NohSpace in San Francisco as part of foolsFury’s Fury Factory Festival of Ensemble Theater.

How did you meet?

Conrad Bishop: It was in college. We were students at Northwestern, in Chicago, in 1969. We were in the theatre department. I was a sophomore, and Elizabeth was a third-year transfer. We sat across the aisle from each other in a Stage Left class.

Elizabeth Fuller: The professor had a sense of humor that was dryer than a gimlet. Conrad and I were the only two people in the class who got his jokes. The rest of the class would sit there still as stone, and we’d be laughing like fools. So obviously, we noticed each other.

Bishop: The first thing we ever did together was a directing project. I cast Elizabeth in Woyzeck and staged the murder scene. Our first artistic encounter involved me having my future bride stabbed in the face. It was an auspicious beginning.

Fuller: After we graduated and started our first ensemble, we were making fifty dollars a week, touring around the country, but it was enough to live on. This was in the late 60s, early 70s. The world has changed so much since then, and theatre has definitely changed.

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