A Midsummer Night’s Dream & Penny Plain

worldBoth of these shows were presented as part of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages Festival in March 2014. 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bristol Old Vic with puppets by Handspring Puppet Company.

Perhaps as a result of their collaboration with Handspring, Bristol Old Vic presented a version of Dream that connected the characters and their story to objects, humble materials and craftsmanship. The set was an immediate hint that this was not going to be your usual, run-of-the-mill Shakespeare production. Ladders, stools, lattice and paint drops gave the feeling of being in a workshop, and one actor wandered about onstage handling wood and tools with ease.The costumes were rough work clothes, with few differences between the mechanicals and the nobles, while the actors playing Oberon and Titania carried large sculpted masks and in Oberon’s case an oversized jointed hand. The mechanicals used large blocks of wood as props in their rehearsal, which by the final performance of Pyramus and Thisbe had been carved into rough representations of the doomed lovers. Even the woods of Athens were displayed literally–the actors held up planks of wood for the lovers to hide behind and travel through during their scenes.

In keeping with the rough aesthetic, the puppets used for Puck and the other fairies were somewhat motley in style and appearance. Puck was played by three of the mechanicals, each holding a different object (mallet, fork, metal can, etc) that they brought together to form the head, body and appendages of the character. The exact setup might be different each time, but the hobgoblin could move like lightning simply by having all the objects zoom off in different directions, which was very effective whenever Oberon called for his servant. Peaseblossm and company were slightly more grotesque, with exaggerated features and only one or two body parts made from objects similar to Puck. Bottom’s transformation, like the woods of Athens, took Shakespeare’s text quite literally, with an over-the-top visual gag that the actor pulled off with aplomb. The transformation mechanism, along with fully realized versions of Oberon and Titania used in the final dance, were the only puppets that seemed to be created in a woven cane style similar to the War Horse puppets.

There was one small mystery: in the publicity photos for the show, the lovers each had a small puppet of themselves. Onstage, these were nowhere to be seen. I didn’t miss them; it made sense that puppetry was used for the otherworldly characters, with rough imitations  by the mechanicals as part of their own play within the play. The large masks and hands made Oberon and Titania larger than life, while Puck’s transformative qualities were superbly created (and recreated) by his collection of objects. This production of Dream brought the audience fully into the darkness and strangeness of the woods and the fairies’ world.

Penny Plain, Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes.

In the Terrace Theater, a smaller scale, yet arguably more epic story was on display in Penny Plain, an original show by Ronnie Burkett from Canada. Set in a future world that is disintegrating fast, the story centers on Penny Plain, an old woman in a boarding house full of odd characters who has only her dog for company. But Geoffrey has decided that he wants to be a man, not a dog and at the beginning of the play heads out into the world, leaving Penny by herself. As news clips are heard that detail the food and money shortages, the environmental disasters and the desperation of humanity, Penny and the rest of the people in the house try their best to survive.

Burkett performed Penny Plain, solo, controlling over 20 marionettes alone or in pairs, around the two levels of the set that depicted the boarding house. Some characters had two different puppets, one to appear on the upper floor and one with longer strings to appear on the lower. The style of both the writing and the puppets was naturalistic, with brilliant touches of the macabre. Burkett switched voices expertly throughout the rapid-fire dialogue, punctuated by heavy pauses. The themes of change, human nature and survival are heavy, but satire helped to undercut the serious tone (a scene with two US refugees from the south was especially delicious). Burkett built the tension in the story expertly, alternating gruesomely funny sequences with poignant conversations until the entire audience was riveted. Directly after the final blackout, I heard someone behind me heave a sigh of relief, as though being released from a magic spell. This show was a brilliant example of the power of pure puppetry.

-Cecilia Cackley

A Few Puppeteers You May Not Know

So yes, technically March was Women’s History Month and now it is April. Too bad, we’re still going to highlight three women puppeteers from around the world that you may not have heard of before. These women worked in very different forms of puppetry but each was a trailblazer in her own way.

Hand Puppet by Lola Cueto from the International Puppetry Museum.

Hand Puppet by Lola Cueto from the International Puppetry Museum.

You’ve probably heard of the painter Frida Kahlo, but a less familiar artist from the same era is Maria Dolores Velasquez Rivas (1897-1978), better known as Lola Cueto. She studied at the Academy of San Carlos along with the muralist David Alfaro Siquieros but her education was interrupted by the Mexican Revolution. She eventually became one of the few prominent women artists in Mexico at the time, taking her inspiration from Mexican folk art such as ‘papel picado’ and wooden children’s toys. Cueto lived in Paris from 1927-1932 where she first began creating hand puppets. After returning to Mexico, she founded several different puppet companies that performed educational shows for children. Cueto’s work can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, the Brooklyn Museum and various puppetry collections.

This may surprise fans of Snow White, but Walt Disney was not the first person to create a full-length animated film. So far as we know, that was Lotte Reiniger, a German silhouette artist and puppeteer who created The Adventures of Prince Achmed in 1926. Born in Berlin in 1899, Reiniger combined her love of Chinese shadow puppetry and film into groundbreaking animated shorts and eventually feature length films that showcase her detailed shadow cutouts. She began by creating silhouettes for title cards and short sequences in live-action films and then gradually progressed to creating her own full-length work. Reiniger and her husband continued to create films even as they moved around Europe during World War II, eventually settling in England, where she died in 1981. You can see footage of Reiniger’s work, as well as an interview with her and a sequence she inspired in one of the Harry Potter films here. Below is her absolutely delightful short about Papageno, from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. 

Cueto created hand puppets and Reiniger silhouettes; now we turn to marionettes and Gretl Aicher, the artistic director of the Salzburg Marionette Theater from 1977 until her death in 2012. Aicher inherited the theater from her father Hermann, who in turn had taken over from his father Anton. Trained as a sculptor, Anton Aicher founded the theater in 1913, so Salzburg has been enjoying these marvelous performances for a century. Today the Salzburg Marionette Theater employs a staff of 12 puppeteers and over 500 puppets, and performs operas, ballets and children’s plays both in Salzburg and all over the world. Under the leadership of Aicher, they have collaborated with the Salzburg Festival, as well as various international festivals. When asked in a 2004 book about the theater why ‘a life with marionettes,’ Aicher replied “For me, it is the process of empathizing with mind and soul, of feeling at one with the music and movement that bring these much-loved creatures to life.” Cueto and Reiniger would probably agree.

Puppet Installations at World Stages Festival

Joey, the title character of WAR HORSE.

Joey, the title character of WAR HORSE.

In addition to some fantastic puppet performances at the World Stages Festival, the Kennedy Center played host to several different art installations which could be enjoyed by the general public for free.

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Rod puppets by Handspring Puppet Co.

The first installation, Raw to Real, was a series of puppets by Handspring, the South African puppet company best known for the life size horses from the show War Horse. The main equine character from that play is Joey, and he greeted audiences entering the hall. Up close, it was easy to appreciate the complexity of the controls and joints, the care that went into the building and the strain that is put on the wood with the movements of the multiple puppeteers it takes to operate.

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Animal and human puppets by Handspring.

A series of video interviews with various people from Handspring gave insight into the construction process and their main material, which is wood. Additional screens played clips of shows featuring the puppets on display. While War Horse uses life size puppets, many of their other shows use smaller rod puppets, around 3 feet tall. There were many of them, arranged in groups so you could see the relationships between them, some of them in pieces to give a better sense of the research and construction process. The engineering behind each joint is just as detailed and specific as the aesthetic of the face and costume. I really appreciated the fact that the puppets were displayed out in the open, in strong light and with video support to give a better sense of how the puppets operate in performance. While I love seeing different kinds of puppets and museum exhibits are often the best way to find them, it occasionally feels odd to me to see puppets frozen in one position–like any instrument, they are meant to be manipulated and played.

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Sondheim, with the cast of West Side Story.

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The Bard himself.

The second installation, Pequeno Teatro (Little Theatre) was by Rosa Magalhaes, an award-winning designer from Rio de Janeiro. This one was puzzling to me. It was described as “puppets representing four theatrical writers from different time periods and regions of the world.” While it was fun to see which writers and works were selected, the objects themselves looked like dolls hung on cords, rather than puppets. There were no controls to be seen and it wasn’t clear at all how these ‘puppets’ might be manipulated. This of course begs the question “What makes it a puppet?” Is any object representing something else (in this case, playwrights and characters) a puppet? Even if they were not created for performance, are they still puppets? For me, what identifies a puppet is the intent to bring it to life, and that did not seem to be the case with this installation. The designs were displayed and they looked like costume designs, with no thought given to how to manipulate and move the object–a far cry from the detailed engineering diagrams and studies of the Handspring puppets also on display.

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Puppet designs from Handspring Puppet Co.

I’m very glad that the Kennedy Center chose to give such a prominent position to puppetry at this festival. I applaud the decision to encourage other theatrical designers to experiment with the form of puppetry. I just wish this installation had been pushed a little further, perhaps as a collaboration with actual puppeteers, rather than allowing the playwrights and their characters to simply sit in their theater, with no hint of life in them.

March Grab Bag

See #3.

See #3.

1. Creature Shop Challenge!  We’ve had reality shows about losing weight and finding romantic partners–why not about building puppets? Syfy channel has created a show where ten designers compete for a job at the Jim Henson Creature Shop. It airs on Tuesdays at 10pm, but you can also watch the episodes online. I haven’t seen it yet but I’m hoping to get some building ideas from watching what they come up with.

2. A theatrical version of Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke from 2013 that uses puppets made from recycled materials. Seriously, there’s absolutely nothing you can’t love about that sentence. This show is currently in a Research and Development stage again, so maybe there will be more opportunities to see it in the future!  From the UK company Whole Hog Theatre. 

3. The World Stages Festival has been amazing and inspiring and we will be writing more about the performances we saw soon. If you can, stop by the Kennedy Center before the end of the weekend and see the fantastic puppet installations.

4.The Manipulate Festival is an annual celebration of visual theater in the UK that encourages visitors to ‘leave preconceptions at the door.’ Here’s an article highlighting several productions this year that included puppetry.

5.Muppets Most Wanted needs no explanation. A new feature length film with Kermit & Co–what are you waiting for? Go see it!

INTERSECTIONS: An Artist’s Perspective

On the way to Atlas for one of our shows.

On the way to Atlas for one of our shows.

Life has been a little overwhelming of late, so it’s taken me a few weeks to be able to sit down and collect my thoughts about this year’s INTERSECTIONS festival. Performing there was a fantastic experience and I want to take the time to share a little of what made it such a special event.

Artists, even when working in groups such as orchestras, or dance and theater companies, can feel isolated. It is one of the ironies of being a working artist that you are often too busy with your own projects to have the time (and money) to see other people’s work. To that end, one of the best things about INTERSECTIONS is that it brings all the artists together in one building. Walking around before and after our show, you could hear snippets of music coming from different theaters, classical mixing with jazz mixing with flamenco. In the lobby between shows you could pick out dancers and musicians talking with audience members, everyone making space for the small children running around with their families. The free cafe concerts in the lobby and art activities for children made the space a welcoming one for audiences of all ages and fans of all kinds of art.

Puppets and instruments on tables backstage.

Puppets and instruments on tables backstage.

INTERSECTIONS takes place at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H St. NE and all the staff there worked incredibly hard to make us feel welcome and to encourage us to support each other’s work. While each performance was assigned one of the four ‘roadmaps’ (Sound, Movement, Story or Family) everyone was very enthusiastic and interested to hear about what was going on in other roadmaps and other theater spaces. Meetings, parties, and off site events were opportunities to make connections and learn about music, dance and other arts traditions that were unfamiliar. Serendipitous moments abounded (possibly my favorite was listening to Victoria Vox and Christylez Bacon improvising music together).

The Fabulas Mayas team, toasting a sold out show with cupcakes!

The Fabulas Mayas team, toasting a sold out show with cupcakes!

My one regret was that due to my crowded schedule, I was not able to see more performances by my fellow artists. A huge thank you to festival director Mary Hall Surface, and everyone at Atlas for making this such a wonderful experience. I hope to be back again another year!

Our Favorite Puppet Films

Since the film Muppets Most Wanted is opening this week, it seems like a good moment to talk about some favorite films that include puppets. 

Labyrinth_ver2Genna remembers seeing Jim Henson’s Labyrinth for the first time in elementary school, at a friend’s house. What made the biggest impression on her at the time was the variety of the puppets and how they ranged in dimension. from the giant Ludo to the much smaller Sir Didymus and Hoggle. Genna also liked the way that the human actors (Jennifer Connolly and David Bowie) got to interact with the puppet characters. Today of course she is more interested in trying to understand how each puppet was made and manipulated, and given a choice, she would like to try performing either Ludo or one of the Fire Gang.

file_164905_2_underworld_2_posterThe other film series that Genna has been inspired by is Underworld, a trilogy of movies about vampires and werewolves. Like Labyrinth, many of the characters wear full body costumes with animatronic puppet heads that are manipulated with radio controls by multiple puppeteers. The mechanics of the legs, which have extensions inside the foam latex skin, and the details in the features and hair are all amazing. You can see some of the work it took to produce this in videos here and here.

Cecilia on the other hand, was first introduced to puppets on film with the ‘Lonely Goatherd’ marionettes in the classic musical The Sound of Music. The sequence was performed by Bil Baird and Cora Eisenberg, and the catchy tune, with puppets similar to a set from Mexico that she had, made a big impression on her as a kid. Labyrinth also became a favorite later in college, but the film that was an inspiration as she first started creating and performing puppets in high school was Fool’s Fire, an adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story Hoptoad which was created by Julie Taymor and shown on PBS in 1992. Cecilia came across it as part of a retrospective of Taymor’s work that was shown at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 2000. The story of a jester who takes revenge on the cruel king and court that enslaves him, it uses full body puppets to establish the difference between Hoptoad and his captors.

Hopefully some kids will see Muppets Most Wanted this weekend and be inspired to pick up puppets! What other puppet films do YOU love?

Intersections Photos

Performing at the 2014 Atlas INTERSECTIONS Festival was an absolutely incredible experience. I’m hoping to write more fully about it soon, but in the meantime, here are some photos I took over the past two weekends.

Setting up the screen in Lab 2.

Setting up the screen in Lab 2.

Puppets waiting on the floor.

Puppets waiting on the floor.

Puppets and instruments on tables backstage.

Puppets and instruments on tables backstage.

View of the pyramid and screen from the audience.

View of the pyramid and screen from the audience.

The Fabulas Mayas team, toasting a sold out show with cupcakes!

The Fabulas Mayas team, toasting a sold out show with cupcakes!