‘Puppet’ tells Antrim native Dan Hurlin’s story

Young actors in the Lobster Theater perform “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” in summer 1973.  Kneeling, from left, are Amy Proctor,  Becky Davison, Dean Proctor. Standing, from left, are Margaret Brzozowski, Frank Proctor and Polly Webber. 

Young actors in the Lobster Theater perform “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” in summer 1973.  Kneeling, from left, are Amy Proctor,  Becky Davison, Dean Proctor. Standing, from left, are Margaret Brzozowski, Frank Proctor and Polly Webber.  COURTESY PHOTO BY DAN HURLIN

Puppet artist Dan Hurlin in his studio. 

Puppet artist Dan Hurlin in his studio.  COURTESY PHOTO DAN HURLIN

Dan Hurlin in his studio at Sarah Lawrence College. 

Dan Hurlin in his studio at Sarah Lawrence College.  COURTESY PHOTO SARAH LAWRENCE COLLEGE

Puppet artists performing Dan Hurlin’s work “Disfarmer.”

Puppet artists performing Dan Hurlin’s work “Disfarmer.” COURTESY PHOTO BY RICHARD TERMINE

A historic clipping from the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript about the Lobster Theater. 

A historic clipping from the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript about the Lobster Theater.  COURTESY PHOTO DAN HURLIN/FILE PHOTO

By JESSECA TIMMONS

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Published: 04-10-2024 8:31 AM

Contemporary puppet artist Dan Hurlin is returning to his hometown of Antrim on April 14 for a special screening of “Puppet,” a documentary about his work, at 2 p.m. at the Antrim First Presbyterian Church Hall, 73 Main St.

The presentation is free and geared to adults over 16 years of age. The showing of the film will be followed by a question-and-answer session.

Hurlin, who is known for his work in theater and contemporary, adult-audience puppetry, has deep roots in Antrim and the Monadnock region. From 1980 to 1993, he was director of Andy’s Summer Playhouse, and has been a MacDowell Fellow four times.

Bill Nichols, president of the Antrim Historical Society who grew up with Hurlin, said he had been trying to get him to come back for years. 

“Dan is a wonderful person with so much talent in so many areas. We are extremely proud to be able to have him come back home to show us what he has been up to over all these years,” Nichols said.

Nichols and Hurlin, who grew up in the same neighborhood on North Main Street in Antrim, stayed in touch through the years. In the 1990s, Hurlin sent Nichols a series of drawings he had done of his childhood home and other houses on North Main Street. 

“They were sketches of the houses on North Main Street where he grew up, all done by memory. I think there were 16 at that time. He sketched them as best he could from memory, and then included a photo of each house dating from that era, and also  a photo of each from the current time,” Nichols recalled. “What he sent me were copies of the original drawings that he had been displaying in several galleries in New York City. I immediately wanted to talk to him about creating a program for the Antrim Historical Society, and then also put them on display at the library in Antrim.”

Both Nichols and Hurlin grew up surrounded by theater. Nichols’ mother, Izzy Nichols, ran the Antrim Players and taught theater at ConVal, and Hurlin’s mother, Priscilla Hurlin, was  involved in the Antrim Players and the Peterborough Players. 

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At the age of 12, Dan Hurlin founded the Lobster Theater, which put on shows in a neighbor’s barn. 

“We had an 8-foot by 8-foot stage in Bill Flander’s barn, and we could seat 25 people. We charged kids 25 cents and adults 50 cents,” Hurlin recalled. “The Manchester Union Leader came out with a list of children’s summer theater one summer, and they included The Lobster Theater! We were officially recognized by the NH Council for the Arts. We ran for nine years.” 

At the end of Hurlin’s freshman year at Antrim High School, the school closed and merged with Peterborough High School, and Hurlin left to attend Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts. He then attended Sarah Lawrence College, where he taught theater and creative performance. 

Puppetry was not on Hurlin’s radar until he saw an exhibit of toy theaters at the Museum of American Folk Art in the 1980s. 

“It was like I was struck by lightning,” Hurlin said. “I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I literally went home and holed up for three or four months and built a miniature theater.” 

“Puppet,” by filmmaker David Soll, documents Hurlin’s process in making a puppet film about the life of  Depression-era photographer Mike Disfarmer.   Disfarmer, who changed his name from “Meyer” because he never felt he belonged with his family of origin, lived and worked as a portrait photographer in a small town in Arkansas his whole life. 

Hurlin became intrigued by the Disfarmer’s story after happening to see a book about him in Barnes & Noble.

“The book talked about how despite the fact that Disfarmer was known to everyone in his small town, not one person felt as if they really knew him,” Hurlin said. “Disfarmer was a recluse; everyone saw him, but no one really knew him. It just struck me that a puppet would be the perfect way to tell his story. A puppet is a block of wood; it can’t talk. The audience has to project emotions on it; the audience fills in the emotional detail.” 

Hurlin said having a documentary filmmaker “follow me around for three years” was a unique experience.

“He kind of became part of the crew after a while,” Hurlin says. “We would try things and say, ‘David, what do you think?’” 

Hurlin says he saw parallels between Disfarmer’s life in small-town Arkansas and his own experiences growing up in Antrim.

“There are always eccentric people who are integrated into the fabric of the community,” Hurlin said. 

Hurlin said that unlike most cultures, the United States does not have its own tradition of Indigenous puppetry, such as the Bunraku puppetry in Japan, or the Wayang tradition of Indonesia.

“In Indonesia, the ‘dalang,” the puppet masters, are revered almost as priests,” Hurlin said. “But adult puppetry is not well known in the U.S. The wonderful thing is, you can’t get into it for the wrong reasons, it’s totally impractical. You have to do it because you love it.”

“Puppet” is available on iTunes and Sundance Now. For information on Hurlin, go to danhurlin.com.