What: Puppeteers for Fears presents “Cattle Mutilation: The Musical!”

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Capitol, 190 NW Oregon Ave., Bend

Cost: $12 in advance

Contact: facebook.com/TheCapitolBend or 541-678-5740

When Puppeteers for Fears launched in Ashland in 2015, more than one grateful citizen stopped artistic director and songwriter Josh Gross and said, “Thank you for doing anything different.”

The theater company specializes in puppet horror and sci-fi musicals — definitely different. The troupe is touring this summer, and will make its first Bend stop Saturday at The Capitol, where it will perform its original 90-minute show, “Cattle Mutilation: The Musical!” (Puppeteers for Fears’ website warns, “Shows are R-rated, and not intended for children — unless they’re awesome.”)

Think of it like “Avenue Q” meets “The X-Files” meets “Mars Attacks!” but with a Northwest flavor thanks to Bigfoot and a Bigfoot hunter as principle characters. Medford indie rock band Derek Deon and the Vaughns will play the show’s space-rock, surf-guitar tunes live, as well as some of their originals prior to the performance.

Harnessing the shark

Gross grew up playing in rock bands, and when he got a little older he began writing plays. Drafting a musical seemed like the logical next step.

“I thought it would be a fun way to merge the two different things that I’d been involved in,” he said. “I started casually fishing around for an idea to turn into a musical.” However, he also harbored “this weird hostility toward musicals because I’d see something like ‘West Side Story,’ and they’re just walking down the street and then suddenly they’re dance-singing. And I’m like ‘No, I don’t buy that. That just seems cornball.’”

The better way to get the audience to suspend disbelief would be a premise “so ridiculous that it would jump the shark so completely that people would just take it at face value that singing was happening,” Gross said.

At the time, he was living in Boise, Idaho, where a friend at a theater company asked if he’d write something for a Halloween production.

“And she decided their Halloween show was going to be, like horror with puppets,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Halloween horror puppet musical.’ THAT is weird enough that people will take it at face value. They’ll just go with it.”

He polled some friends asking what they thought would be the least appropriate topic for a musical. “All my friends came back with ‘serial killers,’ and I was like, ‘Great. Let’s do that.’”

Thus was born “Ritual Murder: The Musical!” a short satire of “Silence of the Lambs,” performed by Gross on ukulele and a few other friends. The next year he did something combining werewolves and the plot of “Grease.” Its title: “There’s Hair Down There (A Werewolf Musical).”

In preparing for a third show and year, he had an idea to do a show involving mummies (“The Mummy’s Purse”) but ended up moving back to his hometown of Ashland before it was complete.

As Halloween 2015 approached, he got the idea to do all three of those shows in one night as a trilogy, just for fun. As soon as he concluded he didn’t know anyone to help pull it off, he spotted an actress he’d seen perform before, “and I just thought she was fantastic. I said, ‘You know what? F--- it.’ I walked over and tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, here’s a really weird idea. I just monologued the whole thing at her … and it turned out she had studied puppetry in college.’ Dumb luck I tapped the right person on the shoulder.”

They began assembling a team of puppeteers and a band including members of the punk group that Gross played in back in high school.

“We put together this very ramshackle production. It’s been described as having a budget of wire and duct tape,” he said. Puppeteers for Fears booked a show in Oberon’s Three Penny Tavern, the interior of which Gross describes as looking a lot like “The Lord of the Rings.”

The first show drew an above-capacity crowd of 90-something people. “You couldn’t even get to the bathroom, and they were so loud actually the building shook,” he said. Next night, same thing. That’s when he began hearing “Thank you for doing anything different. We had five, seven, 10 people say those exact words,” he said. “We were like, ‘OK. Maybe we’re on to something.’”

Something new, something local

Ashland is the home of the storied Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which put Ashland on the cultural map. But as Gross discovered, there’s a certain crowd that yearns for, well, anything different.

“In Ashland, because there’s so much classical theater, so much Shakespeare and stuff like that, and it takes up so much space, culturally, sometimes, when you live there, you get the feeling that you don’t really have a culture of your own,” he said. “Culture comes from somewhere else. Plays come from New York and London, or Europe in the 1400s, but we don’t have our own stories. We think people latched onto what we were doing, to some degree, because they felt it was a hyper-local thing, where they saw people they knew in the cast telling stories that they could relate to about the life that they lived rather than Denmark in the 1500s.”

Puppeteers for Fears began growing, as did the length and run dates of its shows.

“We did a full-length show, and we decided we’ll run it for a couple of weeks. And every one of those sold out,” Gross said. “We just kept adding more shows, and they just kept selling out.”

But there are only so many venues Puppeteers for Fears could play, so the troupe began going out on the road, performing on music stages rather than in theaters.

“We decided, ‘You know what? We’re based around this sort of old rock band mentality. Let’s just take it on the road like a rock band would,” Gross said. “It’s a very strange process emailing rock ‘n’ roll clubs going, ‘Hey, can we put on a puppet show in your bar?’”

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