By 1994, however, Lasko and Thomas could afford to take a full time salary on behalf of their efforts. Today, the company employs six full-time and eight part-time people, in addition to a core of over a hundred volunteers and students who help build puppets and perform in the various Redmoon events year-round. During the same time, Lasko and Thomas brought up substantially the number of Redmoon functions, increasing the number of workshops and performances at public events while still finding time, every year or so, to stage another full length, long running show.
Though this success was exhilarating, the pace began to take a toll on Thomas. He starred in Redmoon's third full-length show, Frankie and Johnnie, playing Frankie's unfaithful lover; he also played Johnnie with a cool, cruel, indifference that took all of the heat out that fabled romance. In retrospect, it's easy to wonder if Thomas' ironic performance wasn't an early manifestation of his dissatisfaction with the company and his life.
In December 1998, Thomas left the theater he'd founded. "I left because I needed to make an artistic change with my work," he explains, "and I couldn't figure out how to do it with the organizational structure of Redmoon. And it looked like they were doing pretty good without me."
Thomas hints there may also have been even more basic reasons for his leaving. There is a great difference between the temperament needed to create a theater out of nothing, and the temperament needed to run a theater over the long haul. It takes patience to put up with the dozen petty slings and arrows of day-to-day management, and Thomas seems to know intuitively that Lasko possessed that kind of patience, while he did not.
Thomas puts it succinctly: "Starting an organization and running one are two different things."
This realization led Thomas to a make a series of dramatic decisions that have altered the pace and look of his career. First, he took a six-month hiatus from theater, taking refuge from the world in a local Buddhist monastery. "I committed myself full time to the formal study of Zen," Thomas says, adding that while he is now back in the industry, he also continues to study part time at a Zen seminary.
"I've learned, in the year and a half I've been in the program, that I am a theater artist. And I have to learn how to make the next step on how to integrate my spiritual work with my theater work."
Alas, Thomas's return to the biz has not included rejoining Redmoon. Instead, he has returned to creating small-scale puppet shows, including his current project, a puppet version of Spanish composer Manuel de Falla's opera Master Pedro's Puppet Show. Based on an episode from Cervantes' Don Quixote, Thomas' show is being produced as part of the Chicago Festival of Puppet Theater. Lasko, in the meantime, has persevered on without Thomas--not an easy situation to manage, it would seem. "It is more work [being without him]," Lasko says. "That was the first thing that hit me after he left."
But Lasko is highly excited about Redmoon's latest full length production, . "I think what made me do this show was the desire to close the 'monster trilogy'--Moby Dick, Frankenstein, and now Hunchback. I wanted to put it all together one more time. And answer a few more questions I had about the idea of a narrator, and how a narrator can work in a play like this." And what has Lasko learned? "I learned that I don't want to do those plays again. It isn't because I don't like them. It's just the depth and the scale of the work. I feel like that way of working is finished for me now--the idea of taking these huge thematic 'monster' epic works and putting all of the theater's energy into making them work."
Lasko maintains this despite the superlative reviews Redmoon has received from this latest effort, with Hedy Weiss at the Sun-Times admonishing her readers to "Catch it while you can." Nevertheless, for next year's full length show, Lasko is sketching out plans for a less ambitious, more cerebral work--a puppet version of Chekhov's The Seagull, which he thinks he will call Nina, after the chief love interest of the play. "I don't want to tie myself down to it," lasko cautions, "until I have worked on it for a while."
In the meantime, the company has any number of other projects ahead--it's annual spectacles, a production at the Chicago Historical Society, an appearance next September at Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater. All in all, "the theater is far more successful that I had never dared to think it would be," Lasko muses, "and it's very exciting that the theater has gotten to this level of success."
That is, one puppet at a time.