Howling at shadows with Cave Dogs in Kingston

(Jim Fossett)

Sensory experiences, by their very nature, are hard to put into words. And some things are harder to explain than others.

Take a Cave Dogs performance, for example. The genre-busting Bloomington-based troupe of interdisciplinary artists, writers and performers presents a live experience to its audience, but it’s not traditional theater. Shadow and video projections play on a screen and from behind it, evoking the dreamlike qualities of experimental film, but it’s not about watching a movie. A soundtrack layered with music and sampled sounds is part of the experience, as is storytelling and dialogue, but they’re not the entire point.

Nor is it really performance art, although it meshes elements of the visual arts with live performance, and the audience is offered an aspect of the human experience on which to contemplate. It even involves puppetry, but not in an “Ernie-and-Bert” sense – rather, in the nature of a prop turned animated or given human characteristics. And it’s suitable for children to watch, but it’s not meant for any specific age group. “Adults will take something different away from the experience than children will,” says Cave Dogs co-founder Suzanne Stokes, “but it’s captivating enough to keep kids’ attention.”

“It envelops the audience in a physical way,” she says. “Most of the people who come to our shows say that they really feel like they’ve never seen anything like this before.”

The Cave Dogs will bring their latest production, Sure-Minded Uncertainties, to BSP Lounge in Uptown Kingston on Friday, May 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 18 at 2 p.m. The underlying theme is humanity’s complex relationship to nature and our stewardship of it, “or not,” says Stokes. “It’s a series of short stories told from multiple perspectives that interconnect with each other, but it’s not an in-your-face statement. It’s more about presenting different ways of thinking about science, expansion, technology, curiosity; the good, the bad and the in-between, without taking a stance. People can take away what they will from it.”

“This version of the production should probably be called Sure-Minded Uncertainties Remixed,” says Stokes, because it has undergone changes since the original version traveled to festivals in Sweden and Denmark last summer and in the fall to New Orleans. The shows are in flux all the time, she says, with parts added to them and changed – due to the necessities involved in traveling with a production, and also because of feedback that the troupe receives at performances. “It’s been an eye-opener, going to these festivals,” Stokes says. “It changes what we do.” The production will travel this summer to the Fringe Festival in New York City, and then on to Boston and possibly back to New Orleans.

The Cave Dogs blend of traditional storytelling and shadow puppet theater with the contemporary artforms of film and computer-generated animation began in 1991, when then-recent SUNY-New Paltz grad Stokes put together a show based on her MFA grad work Shadow. Her degrees are in metalsmithing, but her work evolved from making wearable jewelry to making tiny figures that she projected as shadows with a soundtrack: “Nothing like it is now, but that started it,” she says. Husband Jim Fossett, a photographer and videographer, got involved and Cave Dogs was formed, with Ted Conway, Douglas Keller, Adam Mastropaolo and Maria Jansdotter-Farr comprising the rest of the collective today. The members of the troupe work collaboratively, with each contributing in a number of ways, including making props and writing the storylines, which Stokes credits Jansdotter-Farr with “pulling together at the end.”

Grammy Award-winning Dean Jones of Tillson, known locally as part of family-friendly musical group Dog on Fleas, created the soundtrack for Sure-minded Uncertainties, as he has for every Cave Dogs production since the beginning, says Stokes. That body of work includes Archaeology of a Storm (2008), Ferrous City (2002), How to Build a Raft (1998), Emily’s Circus (1994), Sustenance (1993), Fall of Perception (1992) and Shadows of Doubt and Other Precarious Truths (1991).

Stokes and Fossett also teach in the Art Department at SUNY-New Paltz, where their students sometimes make contributions to Cave Dogs productions. “There’s six of us who perform and rehearse weekly, but there’s probably about 30 to 50 people who put into the creative part in different ways,” says Stokes. “They might be part of the soundtrack, or give us an image to work with. They might make a prop or do some video, or edit, or come up with choreography or costume design; there’s so many ways people contribute.”

The audience is always invited backstage at Cave Dogs performances, Stokes says, and many people do come back and look at props and try to figure out how things are done. “Some of the effects get explained by what they see,” she says, “and some don’t. But it’s a really nice, informal way for them to see what we’re up to, and we get to hear their feedback in a very relaxed and informal manner.”

For more information about Cave Dogs, visit https://www.cavedogs.org.

Sure-Minded Uncertainties, Cave Dogs, Friday, May 17, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, May 18, 2 p.m., $12, BSP Lounge, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; (845) 481-5158, https://www.bsplounge.com.

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