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Toy theaters are coming to life April 2

Before that, though, the Jungle's toy theater display reminds us about the beauty of creating, no matter how small.

A screenshot from Xinyi Shen's piece, "Girl." Unlike the other toy theaters at the Jungle, Shen's is only seen through photos as she is completing the class from China. All photos by Carly Caputa.


As I peered into the Jungle's windows at its latest Shine the Light installation, dodging the glare of the sun, I felt a little bittersweet. The mini toy theaters on display felt like glimpses of the theater we had lost in the past year, each a gem, grand in its possibilities yet small in size, waiting for someone to pick up its paper-cut characters and bring them to life.


But maybe these toy theaters are a metaphor and a harbinger of theater's inevitable return: The Jungle is broadcasting these short stories on social media on April 2 at 6:30 p.m., three days after Minnesota opens COVID-19 vaccine appointments to everyone 16 and up. (You can see the display itself through April 5.)

Matt Gawryk's display, including a toy theater inspired by "Waiting for Gadot" (and instructions on how to make it).
Matthew Gawryk's display, including a toy theater inspired by "Waiting for Gadot" (and instructions on how to make it).

All but one of the toy theaters is a student's final project from Jungle set designer Chelsea M. Warren's class at the University of Minnesota. The only requirement was that it had to fit on the table, and as such, the stories are equally limitless, with pieces on China's gender bias, the grief that seems married with dementia, the aftermath of witnessing the murder of a Black man, a reflection on cities, the story of Passover, and an adaptation of the beloved book "Where the Wild Things Are."


"[With toy theater] you have all these different elements in theater, and you choose what stories are important to you, what kind of visual world you want to create. You can really find your voice," M. Warren says.


And it's true. Through every colored pencil line, stark white against black construction paper; through the accordion folds that could stretch out to become the desert; through the wider dimension chosen carefully to allow for objects to move across the stage; even through the void of an empty background, you can see the vision of the toy theater's creator.


Even without fully experiencing their stories, these toy theaters still made me want to create by the time I got home. Their individuality showed their makers' different strengths and artistry, but all had that intangible spark of possibility, of the ability to make a whole world out of nothing.


"I think for different age groups, the intention can be very different," M. Warren says. She has made toy theaters with children to find joy in the tangibility of making theater in a tissue box, but she has also found that toy theaters, especially with their resurgence in the '90s, are made by adults to tackle mature, complex topics. "It's communicating through the form of toy theater where visual storytelling and sound come together, and I think there's something so magical in telling a story that way."


If you feel a similar urge to create after seeing the broadcast or while walking down Lyndale Avenue (Jungle marketing manager Carly Caputa recommends you go just after sunset), check out M. Warren's educational supplements, specifically created for "Shine the Light: Toy Theatre." She gives a brief overview of the history of toy theaters, teaches you how to make one, and has a list of prompts to start your own story.


No matter the result, it will be something you created, and that, as this display is so good at reminding, is beautiful in itself.

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