Brothel-y love

Horror author Kathe Koja recasts her Victorian-era novel for the DIA stage

Feb 15, 2012 at 12:00 am

It's another "cold" Saturday rehearsal at the Russell Industrial Center. The small band of six actresses and actors hasn't shed its coats. It's not advisable, given the chill both inside and out. You bring your own heat at the Russell: coffee, tea, layers of clothing ... your passion for the work. A week before the show, the cast — or as one actress preferred to call them, the collective — are busily piecing together a presentation that will never be seen again, at least not in this way. They act the parts of dancing puppets. They cast their shadows to be filmed. They practice exchanges and monologues. 

This is all in preparation for Friday's show, Puppets and Passion, by native Detroiter Kathe Koja, a writer with a penchant for stream of consciousness and (sometimes) violent imagery. And though she isn't widely recognized in her hometown, serious fans of horror fiction hold her in esteem not unlike what the wider reading world grants crossover stars like Stephen King, Peter Straub and Clive Barker. Her 1991 novel Cipher won horror fiction's Bram Stoker Award for the best first novel.

Her latest, Under the Poppy, the source for Puppets and Passion, recently won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for the best novel of 2011; the gay-lesbian fandom award goes to science fiction, fantasy and horror positively exploring gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered characters, themes or issues. Her young adult fiction, like her horror work, has garnered critical acclaim and a substantial following. 

"I started writing the novel in 2007 and have been pretty much living in the Poppy world ever since," Koja says. "It came out in hardcover in 2010, the paperback comes out this year. There's a sequel called the The Mercury Waltz, that comes out in early 2013. The sheer theatricality of the project kept growing and wanted to be bigger and bigger. I have always loved theater performance as an audience member, and there's nothing like a live show. There's nothing like having people performing around you and feeling that give and take of energy, so this is totally a different way to work for me."

Which is how Under the Poppy has spawned performances like the one now being prepared, incorporating acting, puppetry, music and film. Each performance is intended as a self-contained exploration of the Poppy universe, each with its own script. 

"Some episodes are pulled directly from the book," Koja says. "Some are written outside of the book but using the same story — but it's nothing we saw on the page reading the book, it's something that happened off-stage. How do we make something that people will enter into as fully as you do when you enter a novel? We want them to be as engrossed." 

Under the Poppy takes its name from a Victorian-era brothel. The main character of the book is the puppeteer Istvan, who is caught in an unrequited love triangle between brothel co-owners Rupert and Decca. Decca, who happens to be Istvan's sister, is in love with her business partner Rupert, while Rupert is in love with Istvan. The girls — or floozies — of the Poppy entertain the masses, including Istvan's naughty puppets. All the while, the war looms as an ominous backdrop for the 1870s lovers.

Koja and the cast keep the secrets of the Poppy very close. In fact, one of the stars of the show (the puppet) won't be constructed until the night of the show.

A writer "allowed" to drop by a rehearsal gets no more than a glimpse, maybe 15 minutes. Koja explains that she doesn't want her cast distracted. A stranger peeking behind the curtain, as it were, might hamper the actors from attempting more and giving their best.

What is glimpsed, for what it's worth, is obviously well choreographed: a monologue about love accompanies two dancing, cavorting couples portraying dancing, cavorting puppets. One character breaks off from the others, making a sales pitch, enticing her invisible audience of brothel patrons to admire her wares. As soon as it has begun, it's over, and the actors discuss how they can improve the performance. It's like watching actors perform in front of a blue screen: You're not exactly sure which parts are missing, and how this will affect the final performance, only that you're missing out on something — or a lot of things. You're left with pieces of a puzzle that don't really fit. 

Then filmmaker Diane Cheklich stops by to shoot the cast against bright light and a white shade to give the illusion of shadow puppetry. It's a sexually charged dance, a sort of give and take between aggressor and pursued. They draw close, and Koja stands in the background watching this scene, nodding her approval — and then you're ushered out. 

Puppets and Passion is the third performance installment of the Poppy story, following earlier segments at the People's Art Festival and the art gallery District VII. The plan is for two more short presentations and then a major production later this year, one that will, as Koja explains, literally allow the audience full access to the Poppy (the brothel as well as the performance) in a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure for grown-ups. They're still looking for locations in Detroit. And while there's been out-of-town interest, for Koja, this show needs to premiere in her hometown or nothing. 

She never knows the endings of anything she writes, and this same approach is possibly the charm of the show.

Puppets and Passion may be a good introduction if you haven't read the book, or seen any of the show's previous incarnations. Even if you have, Koja promises it'll be something new. They're calling Puppets and Passion the "movie trailer" for the big immersive production to come.

What Koja wants the "trailer" to say is this: "Here's this world, here's what this is like, and we want you to know what we're about, and then we'll be able to open the doors of the brothel entirely, and then you can walk in. What you do is up to you."


Puppets and Passion (also listed as DIA Moment Puppet Performance: Under the Poppy) is at 8 p.m., Friday, Feb. 17, at the Detroit Institute of Arts lecture hall, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900. Free with DIA admission. More information at and



Excerpt from
Under the Poppy

by Kathe Koja

That first night at the brothel we didn't even have the sign yet, only the name, Under the Poppy chalked mysterious-like on the wall outside. It was me on the door, Decca the hostess, and Rupert the host, telling the girls what to do, how to flutter their fans ... The ladies have always fancied him, not that he fancies them back. Poor Decca, she's in love with him, you know, straight-up, and that's not telling tales because anyone who spends a tick with her can see it. There's gossip about them being sibs, but people only say that 'cause they live here together and aren't wed or bedding, and people have to say something. 

That other's her true brother, the show-man from overseas, or wherever he says he comes from: they have that same foxface look, and the same air of, what you call it, secrecy. Like they both know something you don't. But he wears his easier than hers, like for him it's a sweety tucked into his pocket, and hers is a bone stuck in her throat ... He's brought a new kind of life to us for sure. Not that we were asking for it! But those puppets, what does he call them? The mecs, right? They're well worth having, I'd like to learn to work a few of them myself. Make that Pan Loudermilk jig, eh? Not bloody likely. He looks like he'd bite your fingers off if you tried.