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Puppets in legal limbo

A dispute over puppets has the writer of horror-themed musicals squaring off in court against a puppet maker whose creations include Sasquatch, aliens, cows, a serial killer and a winged octopus.

A last attempt at mediation in Jackson County Circuit Court's small claims court failed this week.

Josh Gross, writer and founder of Ashland-based Puppeteers for Fears, will face Brooke Sharp-Shapiro, puppet maker, costume designer and sculptor, during a trial on Jan. 12.

Gross filed a claim against Sharp-Shapiro in October, saying she became upset after a dispute with a cast member and locked the puppets inside a storage unit.

He said the fledgling puppet theater company has taken a $10,000 hit because of canceled performances and the costs of dealing with the conflict.

"It seems a little silly to fight over puppets, but the analogy is they're like tools," Gross said. "People think, 'Oh, it's puppets. It's really cute.' But it's not. The creative life and career aspirations of a dozen people are held up."

Gross said the puppets belong to the theater company.

Gross paid Sharp-Shapiro about $50 per puppet for her labor. Additionally, he gave her $752 for materials, according to his court claim.

Gross said members of the egalitarian theater company also share ticket revenue.

For her part, Sharp-Shapiro said she accepted a relatively small amount of money to make the puppets, which she thought would be used by the theater company briefly. She said the puppets belong to her and she made them with the intention of selling them later.

She is asking for approximately $350 for each puppet, noting each one took 20 to 30 hours to make. If she accepted the offer Gross made, Sharp-Shapiro said she would have been working for less than $2.50 per hour.

"I didn't want to sabotage them," she said of the theater company. "I came up with a very fair number for the amount I expected to be paid for the puppets. He became accusative, saying they were his puppets. He told me he was going to take me to court."

The elaborate puppets are professional-grade, with some as large as human beings.

Gross said after he filed the court claim, he was contacted by the makers of the "Hot Bench" television show — a "Judge Judy"-style reality program in which three judges preside over small claims court cases. Makers of the show offered to fly him and Sharp-Shapiro to Los Angeles to tape an episode.

"I watched the show and decided it was a bad idea. It was very, very aggressive. I was trying to find a solution," Gross said.

Episodes cover topics such as a German shepherd's attack on a Chihuahua, a fight over a baby's funeral expenses, women feuding over dolls and a landlord seeking damages from a tenant for boric acid and food splatter damage.

A surprise hit

Puppeteers for Fears launched in 2015 with what was originally intended to be a one-night Halloween performance of three short musicals.

One musical in the R-rated performance was a satire based on "Silence of the Lambs," a movie starring Jodie Foster as an FBI agent and Anthony Hopkins as a cannibalistic serial killer.

Puppeteers for Fears stages shows with a rock band, multi-media elements and actors wielding the puppets.

Gross had tapped Sharp-Shapiro, the wife of the bass player, to make puppets for the performance. She already was a costume designer and sculptor, but hadn't made puppets for the theater before.

In an interview later with a local NBC station, Gross described how surprised he was by the quality of her creations. Gross, Sharp-Shapiro and another company member appeared in the station's studio with several of the elaborate, large-scale puppets, which earned the admiration of the television reporter.

Gross told the reporter, "It was funny because when I first asked Brooke if she would help us with this we were kind of like, 'Hey, you're good at crafts. Will you, like, help us throw something together?' And we were sort of expecting, like, paper bags or, like, socks and she came back with these and stuff like this and we were like, 'What?!? Who are you?!?'"

In an interview with the Mail Tribune about the dispute in small claims court, Sharp-Shapiro said Gross initially showed her some rough puppets he had and asked her to make puppets for a show.

"I looked at them and knew I could make some beautiful puppets," says Sharp-Shapiro, who grew up watching "The Muppet Show" and "Fraggle Rock." "I was confident in my ability. He was very excited when he saw what I was able to make. He said he couldn't come close to paying me what they were worth. They take hours of work and hand-stitching." 

After watching online tutorials, Sharp-Shapiro said she made about 19 puppets. They were kept in her possession except during the times when they were needed for rehearsals, shows, publicity photo shoots and similar situations.

Sharp-Shapiro said she keeps them in a temperature-controlled storage unit because the foam she used to make them is sensitive to temperature swings.

She said her artist mother, who has Parkinson's disease, helped her on the project, especially when it came to making the eyes for the puppets.

"I don't know how many more things like that she's going to be able to do," Sharp-Shapiro said.

Both Gross and Sharp-Shapiro said they didn't expect the Puppeteers for Fears shows to become so popular.

"This was friends seeing if they could do a puppet show with everyone bringing what they could to the table," Sharp-Shapiro said. "I thought we were going to do a couple of shows and afterward I would sell the puppets and have a cool memory."

Instead, audiences responded to the irreverent, high-energy musicals, leading Gross to write new musicals, add performances and take the show on the road.

He said his formula is to think of what would be the most inappropriate subject possible for a musical — and then put pen to paper.

One of the shows is "Cattle Mutilation: The Musical," in which Sasquatch — otherwise known as Bigfoot — is accused of mutilating cattle. Complete with 10 songs and appearances by the extraterrestrials Blork and Blork Jr., the musical is a tale of friendship, false accusations and alien probing.

Puppeteers for Fears also has brought the monstrous imaginings of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft to the stage with "Cthulhu: The Musical."

In a 1928 short story, Lovecraft tells of Cthulhu, a winged, ocean-dwelling, octopus-faced demon who drives people insane.

Puppeteers for Fears has called Lovecraft's tale "dark, disturbing, and totally unfit for musical comedy — all qualities that make it a perfect fit" for the theater company's style.

For 2018, the theater company hopes to stage "Robopocalypse: The Musical."

Its website offers the following description: "Banks. Bridges. Cars. Artificial intelligence will be running all of them before long. But what happens when it all goes wrong? Hilarity ensues, complete with singing puppets."

Gross said he also wrote a show that would have been a comedy roast of William Shakespeare. Puppets for Sasquatch, aliens, an amorphous blob and other characters would have been used in the fundraising show.

"Every day that goes on, we lose money," he said. 

The downward spiral

Although the legal dispute between Gross and Sharp-Shapiro centers on money and the ownership of the puppets, Gross says their falling out is actually rooted in hurt feelings caused by an argument this year.

"It became like a line drawn in the sand because feelings were hurt," he said.

Gross said Sharp-Shapiro was given instructions to make a puppet representing the world's worst serial killer for "Ritual Murder: The Musical." She created a puppet that looked evil and terrifying.

However, an actor didn't like the puppet because he thought it should look goofy, Gross said.

Gross said the actor made a comment that was something like, "What the f--- am I supposed to do with that?"

Gross said he told the actor to apologize but Sharp-Shapiro didn't like the apology. Although the exchange between the two lasted only about 15 seconds, Gross said she became increasingly unreasonable about the actor, eventually demanding that he be kicked off the tour.

"She became more difficult to work with and hostile and combative. She started being very strange about the puppets. It became clear she thought she was the owner of the puppets, even though the company paid her and paid for materials," Gross said. "She decided they were hers and she would take her ball and go home and we couldn't use them anymore."

Sharp-Shapiro recalled being nervous about presenting the newly made puppet to the theater company members.

"You're presenting your art for the first time and you have this self-doubt. What if they don't like it? I've never had anyone respond to me in such a surprising negative way. My feelings were hurt," she said. "I responded, 'You can't talk to me like that. I'm not even being paid.' It was embarrassing. Everyone was there for a rehearsal."

Sharp-Shapiro said Gross successfully mediated the dispute between her and the actor, but the episode made her feel like she wasn't a part of the team and was contributing far too much time and effort — especially since she also has a full-time job.

Although Sharp-Shapiro and Gross remain at odds, they still have mutual respect for each other's talents.

Gross said Sharp-Shapiro's puppets are high quality and labor intensive.

"They do take time and effort to build. Brooke is an incredibly talented seamstress and puppet maker," he said.

Sharp-Shapiro said Gross has the ability to create great shows.

"I have in no way wanted to sabotage Josh. I don't want to ruin his vision. He's a talented writer and has the drive and know-how to do something like this," she said. "But I'm not OK with being taken advantage of and being wrongfully accused of stealing what is mine and what I created."

Both said they regret they didn't spell out their expectations in writing.

"The entire company has been held hostage," Gross said. "We had a handshake agreement — not a written agreement."

And both are worried and uncertain about who will win when the case goes to trial in January.

"This has been a huge lesson learned for me," Sharp-Shapiro said. "I need to learn to protect myself better. Josh is learning that, too. The real lesson is going to come for one of us in court."

Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

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Brooke Sharp-Shapiro created a puppet version of a monster from a 1920s H.P. Lovecraft horror story for Puppeteers for Fears' production of 'Cthulhu: The Musical.' [Photo by Aubry Hollingshead]
Puppet maker and costume designer Brooke Sharp-Shapiro has been sued in small claims court by musical writer Josh Gross. [Photo courtesy of Sharp-Shapiro]