'Cinderella' gets a hand up - sort of

"Salsa Cinderella" is nacho traditional rags-to-riches story.

I know, you winced at that. I winced while writing it. The fully adult portion of Drew Allison (if there is one) probably winced when he read it.

But the permanent elementary schooler inside the 51-year-old puppeteer is smiling, because it's the kind of thing that might crack up his audiences.

The 7-year-olds who visit ImaginOn this weekend will see a company in action onstage that's five times as old as they are, yet one as eternally young as a fairy tale.

They'll watch an updated version of the story, in which a nerdy white prince insists everyone in the kingdom dance his clunky way - until he meets an exotic young lady who introduces some hip foreign steps.

They may not get the full message about diversity. They may not see a gentle plea for open-mindedness at a time when the immigration debate is rancorous. But a seed of an idea could be planted. "That," says Allison, "is what we do. We plant seeds and hope they grow over years."

He's been doing that since 1976, when he founded Grey Seal Puppets at East Mecklenburg High School. His friend Donald Devet kept the company alive while Allison graduated from UNC Wilmington with a bachelor's in English and a minor in theater in 1981. Since then, Allison has presided over a company that has established a steady, three-legged stream of income.

One leg is on-camera work, most recently a DVD about oral hygiene for Junior League of Charlotte. Another is character costume design: Grey Seal has built mascot suits for the Charlotte Knights, Carolina Panthers and Carolina Bobcats, not to mention the new wildcat recently unveiled by Davidson College. When the Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans, Grey Seal's suit for Hugo went with them. (It must be replaced every year, like most mascot gear. Now, that's steady income.)

The third component of the company is Allison himself, performing one-person shows all over America. Mecklenburgers usually see him when Children's Theatre of Charlotte sponsors a production (such as "Salsa Cinderella") or the Singing Christmas Tree pays an annual visit to Ovens Auditorium, where he works with other puppeteers on a grander scale.

Mostly, though, Allison is alone when he pops up in elementary schools or festivals with one of Grey Seal's seven shows. So what keeps him sane during the zillionth performance of "The Emperor's New Clothes"?

The audience, he says - if they're attentive. And the constant nip/tuck he performs on old pieces: "Bathtub Pirates" used to be about rogues sailing to Blockbuster to pirate videos, but now it's about scalawags sailing the Torrents (as in Bit Torrents) to download movies illegally.

"The cornerstone of Grey Seal's philosophy is that voices must always be done live," he says. "I'm alone out there, so if I suddenly want to change a voice or a bit of timing, there's nothing to stop me."

That kind of spontaneity extends to the creative process. "Salsa Cinderella" came out of an employee brainstorming session.

"A scrap of something on the floor looked like a nacho chip," says Allison. "The story of Cinderella came up, and Latin-American food came up with it as a metaphor. We took off from there." Allison, who has been trying to upgrade the company's musical scores in recent years, then hired Charlotte composer John Alexander to provide something with a Latino flavor.

"When we consider a show, we ask, 'Can we tell this story nonverbally?' The power of puppetry comes in movement. And puppets lend themselves to satire, to exaggeration, to a little bit of fantasy. You're not trying to depict reality."

Financial realities have reduced Grey Seal's staff of permanent employees to two, workshop coordinator Vania Reckard and office manager Megan Agee, though Grey Seal hires freelancers. But tough times haven't stifled Allison's optimism.

He's more eager to teach, whether that means being a mentor at a national puppetry workshop or simply explaining to kids after a show that they, too, could be puppeteers: "You can take a mop somebody throws out, stick a hat on it, and suddenly you've got a pirate."

He's exploring puppetry aimed more at adults, especially in "puppet slams" - short presentations like poetry slams - where he has worked up bits on Rumpelstiltskin as a potential spin doctor and the story of a remittance man, set to Jimmy Buffett's mournful song of that name.

"It's intriguing to see the limits of puppetry tested," he says. "With 'Avenue Q' doing so well and Pee-Wee Herman going to Broadway this fall, people are willing to look at puppets in new ways."