A scene from The Paper Hat Game
  • Eric Monson
  • A scene from The Paper Hat Game

If anyone reading this remembers Scotty Iseri, otherwise known as the Paper Hat Guy, please share your stories in the comments because, based on the show The Paper Hat Game, which just opened at the Den Theatre, Iseri’s habit of making paper hats out of newspapers (he preferred the Reader in its broadsheet incarnation) and distributing them to his fellow el passengers sounds like one of the most delightful things ever to happen on the CTA, even beating out bottle-cap three card monte.

Torry Bend, the director of The Paper Hat Game, thought so too, even though she never actually got to see Iseri in action. But they’d been undergrads together at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, and Iseri had told her about his adventures paper hatting. At that time, the early 2000s, Bend was studying set design in LA but was starting to get into puppetry.

“He was telling me his story,” she remembers, “and I thought, this would be amazing for a puppet show.”

It took a while, but once you see The Paper Hat Game (and you really should), you’ll understand why. There are puppets, yes, but also intricately designed moving dioramas juxtaposed with film to create a panoramic view of city life.

This is actually the third incarnation of The Paper Hat Game. Bend staged versions of it in 2011 and 2012 at Duke University, where she’s a professor of theater.

“It seems ridiculous luxurious to take five years for one 45- to 50-minute-long show,” Bend says, “but we needed time to finesse it and work on the balance of narrative and visual storytelling versus text. This is also one of the first times I’ve worked with a video designer, Raquel Salvatella de Prada. She was a huge collaborative force. When I first started, I was adamant about not using video. But then I realized I needed to use video to get across the magic of the story.”

The story itself is simple. An ordinary guy living in a big city feels isolated and alone. One day, for no particular reason, he starts making paper hats on the subway and giving them away. It fosters a spirit of connection among people. (Most people.) He becomes a familiar figure in the city. Then one night, coming home, three guys jump him and beat him up.

“Scotty really was beaten up,” Bend says. “He was really affected by it. He’d felt so welcomed by the city, and then to have the city turn against him was really painful.”

In the play, as in real life, Iseri took a clothes iron with him for protection the first time he left his apartment after the attack. He ran into someone he’d met while paper hatting. The person had rejected the hat, but recognized him as the Paper Hat Guy.

“It was a big deal,” says Bend. “He went from feeling betrayed to something more nuanced, to feeling part of the city. It was part of reclaiming the city and the community.”

(Iseri had planned to come back to Chicago from Portland, Oregon, where he now lives, to see the show, but his wife recently had a baby. But Bend says he’s been entirely supportive of the project.)

In Bend’s telling, the city is a complex arrangement of interconnected systems in which humans play a very small part. Even on the subway, where people are forced into close proximity, they do their very best to avoid one another. One of the biggest challenges for Bend was to convey the sense of connection people got from the paper-hat game in a way that didn’t feel overly dramatic or “actorly.”

“Originally we had actors read from a script,” she says. “But it fell flat. It felt dishonest. So we sat down a recorder and asked people to pretend they’d just gotten off a train where there had been paper hatting. It was amazing how evident it became after the fact. It was the feeling that any person could hop on the subway and have this happen and touch you.”

That feeling pervades The Paper Hat Game. That and the notion that something as simple as a paper hat can make a city feel as manageable and welcoming as a small town.

(A note on the city: Bend originally intended to set it in Chicago. But when she and Salvatella de Prada attempted to film on the el, CTA security kicked them off the platform. The MTA in New York was another story. “New York is so open,” Bend says. “They don’t care. We couldn’t afford to pay the cost for the CTA imagery we would have included.” So instead, The Paper Hat Game is set in a generic cityscape that incorporates elements of Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Louisville—though because of the inclusion of the familiar New York subway tiles, it’s easy to assume that it’s all New York. “We’ve been worried about bringing it to Chicago,” Bend admits. “We were worried people would be so annoyed. But we tried to make it as ambiguous as possible. That last aerial shot is of Chicago, but we flipped it so the lake is on the wrong side. We want people to feel like, that feels so familiar, I know that, do I know that?”)

The Paper Hat Game runs through Sun 9/22 at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee, 773-609-2336, thedentheatre.com; it’s $15. If you’re lucky, the crew will let you go backstage to see how the whole mechanism works.