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No Small Parts. Only Small Actors.

New York City-based theater company founded in 1999 to promote performance opportunities for vending machine toys.

I had noticed that there were these tiny plastic ninjas in vending machines all across the city, but no one was using them to perform classical theater. Something had to be done. --Dov Weinstein, founder of Tiny Ninja Theater
In August 2000, Tiny Ninja Theater presented its first show, Macbeth, at the New York International Fringe Festival on a table top in a 10-seat theatre. The show won the FringeNYC 2000 Award for Innovation and Originality, and went on to tour the United States and Europe, in theatres up to 70 seats. All audience members receive opera glasses before they are seated. Although the company is made up of a hundred or so ninjas, other vending machine toys have taken leads, as you can see from the company’s original cast of Macbeth:
    Duncan, King of Scotland, played by: Ninja
    Malcolm, son to Duncan, played by: Ninja
    Donalbain, son to Duncan, played by: Ninja
    Macbeth, a general in the King's army, played by: Mr. Smile
    Banquo, a general in the King's army, played by: Ninja
    Macduff, a nobleman of Scotland, played by: Ninja
    Lennox, a nobleman of Scotland, played by: Ninja
    Ross, a nobleman of Scotland, played by: Ninja
    Menteith, a nobleman of Scotland, played by: Ninja
    Angus, a nobleman of Scotland, played by: Ninja
    Caithness, a nobleman of Scotland, played by: Ninja
    Fleance, son to Banquo, played by: Street Fighter
    Siward, Earl of Northumberland, general of the English forces, played by: Ninja
    Seyton, an officer attending on Macbeth, played by: Ninja
    Boy, son to Macduff, played by: Judo Fighter
    A Scotch Doctor, played by: Ninja
    A Sergeant, played by: Ninja
    A Porter, played by: Himself
    Murderers, played by: Johnny & Tony Ball
    Lady Macbeth, played by: Mrs. Smile
    Lady Macduff, played by: Ninja
    Gentlewoman attending on Lady Macbeth, played by: Ninja
    Three Witches, played by: The Green Sisters
    Lords, Gentlemen, Officers, Soldiers, Attendants, and Messengers, played by: Ninja
    and introducing Ninja as Young Siward
Guest actors with the company have included a Princess Leia action figure and a Doctor Doom action figure (playing, respectively, Hilary Clinton and Rudy Guiliani in Election 2000).

The company has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Piccolo Spoleto in Charleston, North Carolina, the International Toy Theatre Festival, and shows in Sweden and Germany.

Notable works:
Mainstage Productions:

  • Tiny Ninja Theater Presents Macbeth (2000)
  • Tiny Ninja Theater Presents Romeo and Juliet (2002)
  • Tiny Ninja Theater Presents Hamlet (2004)
Mainstage productions present works of classical theatre, without jokes or comments on the manipulation of the toy ninjas. The scripts, although edited, contain the words of the original playwright.

Suitcase Productions:

  • Tiny Ninja Theater presents The Effects of Nuclear War
  • Election 2000
  • A Brief History of D.U.M.B.O.
  • Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Often performed with other artists or companies on the bill, Suitcase productions are short works that are more experimental in nature. The juxtaposition of objects and the relationship between manipulated actor and manipulating director are used to comment on the story. The sets, casts, and tech also fit entirely inside two small suitcases.

Artistic director and founder Dov Weinstein manipulates all of the toy ninjas himself, and does all of the voices. (He is an experienced puppeteer. Weinstein also selects and adapts the texts himself. He prefers drama with strong narratives, few characters, and fewer subplots. He avoids comedy for the ninjas, as the juxtaposition of text and actor does not work as well for comedy.

“It sounds stupid, but I’m involved in a collaboration, because my actors are who they are more powerfully than any live actor. They refuse to be molded or shaped or changed in any way. They are in some ways the most rigorous partners one could choose, the most unforgiving partners, because they are absolutely committed to being who they are and to doing what they do.”
The theatre community has been quick to embrace what could have been a one-off comedy sketch: they recognize not only Weinstein’s acting skills, but the choices made in staging classic theater with toys reveal a sharp director’s mind and creative stagecraft. Technical spoilers ahead: Part of the delight of the audiences watching Weinstein is being surprised by his solutions to stagecraft problems inherent in using toy actors and tiny sets. If you're planning on going to see his shows, skip this section.

In Macbeth, ninjas are attached to a hand fan that opens and closes, to conceal and reveal an approaching army. Hands-free movement is created by magnets on the characters feet, with Weinstein’s hands manipulating another magnet underneath the stage. Repelling magnets also allow characters to knock each other over. During a battle scene, a simple emptying of a bag of toy ninjas onto a table creates appropriate carnage and piles of bodies.
"I think it's safe to say that this is Macbeth as it was meant to be seen," said company manager Jonathan Van Gieson, "performed by Tiny Ninjas on a briefcase-sized stage. If tiny plastic ninjas had existed in the 17th century, I have no doubt that Shakespeare himself would have staged the play in this way."
--press release for Tiny Ninja Theater presents Macbeth
TNT’s production of Romeo and Juliet used more elaborate sets: a garden is created from green plastic tableware, and a first aid kit emblazoned with a red cross becomes Friar Laurence’s cell. The various locations of the play required multiple casting: a change of scenery requires an extra set of identical looking figurines ready to go.

Western theatre has a tradition of toy theatres going back to 18th and 19th century Europe. These toy theatres used paper dolls and cardboard cutouts to present miniature spectacles. Weinstein is carrying on in this tradition, but using actual toys.

Weinstein has hinted that the company attempt to stage the works of Anton Chekov and Eugene O’Neill in future productions.


Sources:
Derek Armstrong. "All is But Toys." Stage Directions. March 2001. http://www.stage-directions.com/backissues/mar01/allisbut_toys.shtml (14 September 2004)
Dan Bacalzo. Review of "Tiny Ninja Theater." Theatremania. 9 April 2003. http://www.theatermania.com/content/news.cfm?int_news_id=3362 (14 September 2004) Jeffrey Day. "Tiny Ninja Theater Returns to Charleston to Redefine 'Romeo & Juliet'" The State. 31 May 2002. Peter Marks. "'Romeo': Shakespeare In a Shoe Box." Washington Post. 11 January 11 2003.
Orla Swift. "Small Actors Make Big Splash." Dramatics. April 2003. http://www.edta.org/pdf_archive/ninjas14200315341.pdf(13 August 2004)
Tiny Ninja Theater Company Website, http://www.tinyninjatheater.com (14 September 2004)

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