Last August, a few days before the Republican National Convention, 75 puppet makers were arrested at a warehouse in west Philadelphia. They were charged with conspiracy and held on a bus without water or bathroom facilities for nine hours. Then they were put in jail, where most of them stayed for two weeks. To add insult to injury, police put the puppets they’d made–about 200 of them–into trash compactors.

They’d been making the puppets to use in a protest rally. “The thing is, they weren’t even protesting yet,” says Laura Heit, who had several friends in the group. Outraged, she did what any self-respecting puppeteer would do: she made a puppet show about it.

This time a warehouse wasn’t necessary–Heit did the work on her kitchen table. The finished puppets, wearing prison stripes, stand about one and a half inches tall and are manipulated using matchsticks glued to their backs. The set, a jailhouse, is made out of a matchbox, which also serves as storage for the puppets when they’re not in use.

She’s made about two dozen puppet theaters like this one, and periodically she puts on miniature variety shows around town. This year she’ll perform as part of the 11-day Puppetropolis Chicago festival.

Heit, who studied printmaking and animation at the School of the Art Institute, was one of the original members of Redmoon Theater, the company known for its larger-than-life-size puppets. Animation led her into puppetry, she says; both are about bringing things to life. “When you’ve created a movement for something that doesn’t really exist, you get hooked right away.”

She designed and built Redmoon puppets for six and a half years, the last two as a master builder, in charge of all puppet construction. “Working on large-scale shows, you often feel like they’re never ending, until the final day, when you get to see the outcome,” says Heit. “And even then it’s hard to see your part in it, because it’s such a collaborative process. So it was really necessary for me to find something I could do very quickly and by myself.”

She first took her own shows public in November 1999, at the Butcher Shop gallery, where she had a studio. To make the tabletop dramas audience-friendly, she had a friend train a video camera on her and project the images live onto a large screen. “The first time I did it, it was really a shock to see my hand so big,” she says. “All of a sudden my finger was two feet tall.”

The shows run anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes; none are scripted. “I’ll either know the theme or it’ll be some anecdote. Some of them are more like little jokes; some are dreams.” She doesn’t rehearse either. “People have told me I should, and people have offered to direct me. But somehow that kind of takes it away from what I want it to be. I want to dump the box on the table and show you whatever comes out.”

What comes out might be a ghost story, or a love story set in a burlesque house, or a story about a forest fire in which Heit actually sets the stage on fire. She’s built a banjo player (“the world’s smallest marionette”), a tightrope walker, and the Summerside Sausage Fairy, who turns little girls’ dolls into sausages. “That one’s based on a play I wrote in the third grade. It was very popular.” The matchboxes themselves are little works of art: backdrops unfold and tiny props slide into place. A three-dimensional bed pops out of the wall in one set, and tiny cloth curtains hang from the windows.

A few years ago Heit and some fellow Redmooners started an offshoot company called Theater Dank as a forum for smaller-scale shows. Theater Dank organized the Chicago Puppetry Festival at Link’s Hall in 1999. For the festival’s second year, Heit–who’s currently working on her own film using puppets–put together a puppet film festival. This year that’s morphed into the Chicago International Puppet Film Festival, curated by Heit, which is running as part of Puppetropolis.

Last fall she brought her matchbox puppets to New York, performing at the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater and the Great Small Works Toy Theater Festival. She included the show about the Philly arrest in her set. “It was really frustrating because it wasn’t publicized at all, and I really wanted to get the word out,” she says. Most of the charges against the puppet makers were eventually dropped–in December.

Heit will perform The Matchbox Shows this weekend as part of Puppetropolis’s “Combustible Puppet Cabaret,” June 15 and 16, at the Storefront Theater at Gallery 37, 66 E. Randolph. Tickets are $12; call 312-742-8497. Some of her puppets are on display through June 29 at the Suburban Fine Arts Center at 1913 Sheridan in Highland Park; call 847-432-1888. And the Chicago International Puppet Film Festival runs June 23 and 24, at 4 and 8 PM both days, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State (773-722-5463). Tickets to each screening are $8.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.