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Drama in small claims

The maker of elaborate puppets had to hand over her creations to a fledgling theater group after a Jackson County small claims court judge ruled the puppets belong to the group.

In his decision Friday afternoon following a nearly four-hour trial, Judge Joe Davis ordered Brooke Sharp-Shapiro to give the puppets to Puppeteers for Fears within 24 hours. The puppets were handed over Friday evening.

"First, I want to acknowledge what I find to be tremendous work that you have done," Davis told Sharp-Shapiro about the puppets, some of which are as large as people.

But when Sharp-Shapiro and a group of creative friends decided to band together and share in the profits of their new puppet theater's performances, they created a partnership in the eyes of the law, he said.

Anything they made became the property of that partnership, unless they spelled out a different agreement in writing, Davis explained.

"That's why you have to be very careful and make written agreements — or you are left with the default position of the law," he told Sharp-Shapiro.

After the trial, she declined to comment about the judge's decision and left quickly.

Josh Gross faced off against Sharp-Shapiro in small claims court, saying she had a dispute with a member of the group, then locked the puppets away in a storage unit, forcing Ashland-based Puppeteers for Fears to cancel performances.

Gross is the writer of horror-themed comedic musicals starring Sasquatch, a serial killer, a mummy, aliens, a cow and other characters — all in puppet form.

"I feel like a giant weight is lifted off," he said after the judge's ruling.

Gross said the show will now go on, with "Robopocalypse: The Musical" up next.

Although the dispute centered on oddball puppet characters, the trial offered drama as Gross and Sharp-Shapiro, two average people without legal training, represented themselves in small claims court — offering opening statements, presenting evidence, grilling witnesses and making objections.

Gross' fast-talking, concise, "just the facts, ma'am" style contrasted with that of Sharp-Shapiro, who often paused to gather her thoughts, formulate questions for witnesses and fight back tears.

Citizen lawyers

Gross said he prepared for his day in court by reading instructions provided by small claims court and watching YouTube videos.

"In small claims court, a lot of disputes are more emotional," he said.

Gross said he realized he had to focus on the facts, so he gathered up everything from bank records to printouts of text messages to transcripts of media interviews group members had done to promote their shows. 

Both Gross and Sharp-Shapiro came to court with a stack of documents.

In his opening statement, Gross said he came up with the idea for a horror-themed musical puppet show to be staged on Halloween weekend in 2015 in Ashland. Everyone who came on board agreed to work for a share of the profits.

Gross said members knew they would be putting in a lot of work for little money, but there was an opportunity to make more as the theater company grew and added performances.

Gross said he told everyone to save receipts for their out-of-pocket expenses, and he paid Sharp-Shapiro for the materials she purchased to make the puppets.

Gross said Sharp-Shapiro was like a factory worker making cars, with the cars belonging to the company.

Everybody agreed that Sharp-Shapiro had an argument in 2017 with group member and actor Reece Bredl, because he didn't like the appearance of one of the puppets she made.

According to text messages, Sharp-Shapiro wanted him to be replaced, a demand Gross refused.

Sharp-Shapiro texted, "If he is in, I am out."

In a later text, she wrote, "I suppose the one option I could give you is if you insist on keeping that lesser human in your show he has to rent his puppet (for) $50 a show. That is all I am willing to offer and then I'm done after that show unless you decide to replace him."

After Gross' opening statement, the judge gave Sharp-Shapiro the opportunity to ask Gross questions, kicking off a testy exchange between the two and multiple references to their stacks of documents.

Davis called a five-minute court recess so they could look at each other's evidence and provide copies to him.

"I cannot run this proceeding with you two showing each other documents that I don't have," Davis said.

After the court recess, Sharp-Shapiro went on the offensive, extracting an admission from Gross that he had no bill of sale for the puppets and didn't have complete, accurate records of all financial transactions related to the group.

Gross then fought back, calling a string of witnesses to back up his claim that the puppets did not belong to Sharp-Shapiro.

Aubry Hollingshead testified she did website design, posters, marketing and other work for the group, earning much less from her share of the profits than the true market value of her contributions.

"My understanding was that those assets belonged to the company in perpetuity," she said.

On cross examination, Sharp-Shapiro said Hollingshead sent her a text asking to "borrow" the puppets.

Hollingshead said she used that word casually, and also because it had become clear that Sharp-Shapiro had formed an emotional attachment to the puppets.

"It was something we all did to tiptoe around your feelings," Hollingshead said.

Group member Beth Boulay testified all members of the group were working without receiving much compensation, but accepted that arrangement. Part of the group's profits were used to pay Sharp-Shapiro for materials, Boulay said.

"It was my understanding that the puppets were the general property of the company, but because Brooke made them, they were in her care," Boulay said.

Boulay said Sharp-Shapiro put more time into making the puppets than the other group members spent on rehearsals.

Percussionist Christopher Moreno, a member of the group's band that performs live for the puppet shows, testified he made his own electronic drum set to play in tight spaces. He never submitted receipts for the materials or asked for reimbursement, so he and other group members understood the special drum set belonged to him and he could use it elsewhere.

Feelings vs. Facts

Sharp-Shapiro repeatedly quizzed witnesses about whether they agreed with Gross' claims that she had become erratic, emotional and difficult to deal with.

But just as often, Davis interrupted her with instructions to focus on the legal question of why she thought she owned the puppets if she received money for materials and a share of profits.

"I'm not interested in who likes who," Davis said.

Reiterating his instructions at another point in the trial, Davis said, "I'm not trying to be dismissive of the hurt feelings, but shining a light on that is not helpful to me because that's not what the law requires."

Calling her own witnesses to the stand, Sharp-Shapiro asked local production company owner Jason Gallagher how he usually paid her for her work on performances. She is a costume designer and artist in addition to being a puppet maker.

Gallagher said Sharp-Shapiro is sometimes paid a flat rate and sometimes earns a percentage of proceeds for her time, labor and materials. At the end of every show, she retains ownership of the products she makes, he testified.

Gallagher said Sharp-Shapiro functions as an independent contractor for many performance groups in the Rogue Valley.

Sharp-Shapiro called her own husband, Will Shapiro, to the stand. He played in the group's band before relationships frayed.

He said his understanding was that his wife would retain ownership of the puppets if Puppeteers for Fears dissolved. He said she commonly works in the valley with the understanding that she retains ownership of her creations.

Shapiro said his wife was given a share of profits to partially compensate her for her time, but the money was not payment for the puppets.

Sharp-Shapiro's mother said she heard Gross agree to a statement that Sharp-Shapiro would retain ownership of the puppets.

"I have absolutely no memory of that," Gross responded.

The Ruling

After the last witness left the stand, Davis stated his findings that the puppets belong to Puppeteers for Fears.

Sharp-Shapiro tried to interrupt and accept a settlement offer Gross made during failed mediation attempts. He had offered a $500 bonus payment, royalties on future shows and the return of the puppets to Sharp-Shapiro as they are phased out of productions over the next three-to-five years.

"You can't go back to take someone's settlement offer now because you don't like the way the court's ruling," Davis told Sharp-Shapiro.

Davis said discussions of settlement offers were not admissible once the case went to trial.

In the Jackson County Circuit Court lobby after the trial, Gross said he knows that Sharp-Shapiro is giving the puppets to Puppeteers for Fears after receiving much less than their actual value.

But if the theater company had been able to continue growing, she could have earned more money from show proceeds, puppet-making workshops, puppet auctions and other money-making ventures, Gross said.

"This whole debacle interrupted our whole trajectory," he said.

With the loss of their puppet maker, Gross said other members of the group plan to pitch in and learn the art of puppet making.

"Everyone's going to make a go of it," he said.

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-659-5740 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Aubry Hollingshead and Josh Gross share a moment with their returned puppets for Puppeteers for Fears at their home in Ashland Friday. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]