Peacocks and Puppets

Although we mainly work with puppets for the theater, last month we had the opportunity to work on a short film project with She Monster Productions up in New York City. It was a video for the song ‘The Waltz’ by Ian Axel and featured several Muppet-style puppets alongside human actors. The puppets were provided by us and the New York based puppet company Puppetsburg. Set partly in the city and partly in an afterlife with a decaying, ornate feast, the video follows two women as they find each other, are separated through death and then find each other again.

Puppetry for film is very different than for the stage, and although our arms got tired, it was fun to try moments over and over again, with no thought for an audience’s patience or sight lines. Everyone connected with the project was creative and eager to try new things. And we got to meet a peacock! His name was Dexter and he wasn’t all that thrilled with tons of people and puppets invading the apartment where he lives, so while it would have been fun to have the puppets try and interact with him, we resisted. Here are some photos of the shoot. We will share the video when it is finished!


Emily and Cecilia resting between shots.


The feast table, set with all kinds of odd objects.


Cecilia taking a quick nap behind the table.


Puppets with one of the actors. They  look cute, but they can be dangerous!


Peacock! Say hi to Dexter.

Hand Puppets in Central America

Students in El Salvador show off their sock puppets.

Students in Ilobasco show off their sock puppets.

After traveling to Canada and Armenia, my final adventure of the summer season was heading to two different countries in Central America to teach puppet workshops. Under the auspices of the non-profit Co-partners of Campesinas, I was invited to teach puppetry to students in the towns of Ilobasco in El Salvador and Chichicastenango in Guatemala.

A teen from El Salvador with his hand puppet. The head is a gourd that grows locally.

A teen from Ilobasco with his hand puppet. The head is made from a gourd that grows locally.

These two workshops were structured very differently. In Ilobasco, students ages 6-25 were grouped by age for a week long art and conflict resolution workshop during a school holiday. Due to changing school schedules, transportation challenges and family obligations, there were different numbers in the classes each day and not all students were able to stay for the entire workshop. Despite this, the younger students built sock puppets and used them to invent short scenes while the older students experimented with constructing hand puppets that used local gourds as heads.

A student in Guatemala sews her puppet's body.

A student in Chichicastenango sews her puppet’s body.

In Chichicastenango, the workshop was hosted by a community organization called ASDECO and lasted for five days. I had a class of about 20 students, mainly teens and young adults, with some older participants, who made paper mache hand puppets. Unlike in El Salvador, where the focus of the workshop was creative expression, this one was intended to further the cultural goals of ASDECO who are dedicated to preserving and sharing the indigenous Ki’che culture of the region. Magdalena, an ASDECO staff member, led discussions about the traditional Ki’che stories of the Popol Wuj, which the students then turned into a short puppet play. I taught the group to construct hand puppets of the play’s characters with paper maché heads and cloth bodies. The finished piece was shared with the center’s staff and other community members on our final day.

Puppetry is not a very common art form in Central America. Few of my students in either Ilobasco or Chichicastenango had ever seen a puppet show and usually it was on TV rather than live. It was wonderful to see the students making creative decisions as they built their puppets and sometimes using other skills such as embroidery or beadwork to add to puppet clothing. I’m looking forward to seeing what else these artists create in the future.

The class in Chichicastenango, with their puppets.

The class in Chichicastenango, with their puppets.

October Grab Bag

A round-up of links, articles and videos we shared on Twitter this month. 

See #2.

See article #2.

  1. If you’re in DC this week, check out this film festival. Like our show Saudade, it focuses on stories of immigration.
  2. If I ever make it to Vietnam, I’m definitely going to try and see some water-puppetry.
  3. Ten years ago, I met Marsian De Lellis at the O’Neill Puppetry Conference in Connecticut. This article he wrote on HowlRound is a great piece about reasons we do puppetry.
  4. There’s a puppeteer in this list of 20 Theatre Workers You Should Know!
  5. Next time I can’t get elementary students to focus, I’m definitely going to tell them about these Lego Ninjago puppets!

Puppets in the Berkshires

Company member Genna Davidson attended a two week puppet intensive up in New England this summer. Here is her account of the trip. 

This past August I spent two weeks in Williamstown, Massachusetts (okay, so it’s not really the Berkshires, but it’s just next door) at the New England Puppet Intensive. I worked alongside an incredible group of artists learning, playing, eating, and sometimes stargazing.

Genna and LindseyThe workshop was held at the Buxton School for the Arts and as the name forewarns, the workshop was intense. The two weeks felt more like two months because we were up at 8:00am and worked until 10:00pm or 11:00pm every day. In the morning we warmed our bodies and minds with yoga. Then we either had drawing or Suzuki (a Japanese approach to actor training). After lunch we would usually break into small groups and work on creating our final 10-minute puppetry piece to be presented at the end of the second week. The “puppet camp” counselors (David, Pete, and Nan) guided us on our journey and provided us with the inspiration for the final performances.

_untitled_ 058This year the theme they gave us to use as a springboard for our work was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I was very proud of the performance my group gave. Our exploration of Shelley’s work led to the creation of a puppet who trades her limbs for new ones only to find that she is haunted by the stories attached to each limb. Our piece ended up being somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes long. Ooooops. They didn’t make us cut it shorter though. There were two other small groups. One group meditated the importance of the ones connection to nature, and the other created a piece about creating feminine beauty through destruction of the self. It was inspiring to see how each group took the starting material and ran with it in different directions.

I think the most important thing I learned at the Intensive is that to create work you have to jump in even if things are half done and you can’t see clearly where you’re headed. You have to trust that the story will be what it needs to be and creation is always a journey into the unknown.

Outer Space and Baby Theater

Workshop moment with a rocket ship! Photo courtesy of Arts on the Horizon.

Workshop moment with a rocket ship! Photo courtesy of Arts on the Horizon.

Along with the Capital Fringe Festival and our one-night revival of Saudade, this summer was spent working with our friends at Arts on the Horizon to workshop a new baby-theater show called Space-Bop. It stars a clown and musician who travel into outer space, encountering planets, stars and space creatures. Among the objects we created for them is a colorful rocket ship, a tiny astronaut and a pet star.

One of the challenges of this show was coming up with ways to make objects light up, since light and darkness is important to our ideas of outer space and bright lights are engaging for very young audiences. It was very gratifying at the workshop performances to year tiny voices say “How does it DO that?” As we look ahead to the full production this winter, we are pulling inspiration from other environments to add to our imagined idea of this space-world.

One big inspiration for our work on this piece was the Australian puppet show The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik. Strangely enough, there are many connections to be made with underwater adventures and outer space. Other sources for visuals include classic moon landing photographs, early cinema such as this gem from Georges Melies and vintage design featuring rocket ships. We will post more process photos as we continue working and if you have a little one or just like wordless theater, be sure to put the show on your calendar for February.

September Grab Bag

A round up of links, videos and articles we highlighted on Twitter this month: 

See #1. Photo from The Independent.

See #1. Photo from The Independent.

  1. A huge animatronic bear appeared on the streets of London this summer to protest drilling in the Arctic.
  2. The living doll artist in this article loves it when people ask “Is he real or unreal?”
  3. The otherworldly sculpture of our favorite artist Shaun Tan will seen be on view in this new book. If only we were going to Australia sometime soon!
  4. In a perfect world, we would collaborate with artist Jonathan Latiano to make some puppet dolphins, along the same line as this exhibit.
  5. Fair warning, this video short from France about shadow puppet artist and animation pioneer Lotte Reiniger is profoundly moving and may make you cry. You can read more about Reiniger’s life and work on our blog.

An Interview with Gabriela Cespedes

When Cecilia was traveling in South America last year, she took a workshop with Argentine puppeteer Gabriela Cespedes in the art of caja lambe-lambe puppetry at the Convocatoria de Mujeres Titriteras (Convention of Women Puppeteers). The following is an interview with Cespedes about her work. It has been translated from Spanish and condensed for this blog post. 

Gabriela Cespedes, teaching a lambe-lambe workshop in Argentina.

Gabriela Cespedes, teaching a lambe-lambe workshop in Argentina.

Cecilia Cackley: How did you become a puppeteer? When did you first become interested in puppetry as an art form? 

Gabriela Cespedes: My training comes from acting. I started doing theater in 1988, with Mariu Carreras, a great teacher. It essentially taught me that theater takes place when we are dealing with the public and that is why you always have to create and perform work for an audience. Puppetry came later, in 1996 when I start to do street shows with two colleagues and became forever trapped in the art of puppetry …my interest in this technique must have been born from playing with small things, making houses, staging and playing with friends to make characters.

CC: Are there projects that have changed in response to audience comments? How do you maintain a balance between other people’s criticism and your own vision? 

GC: At first audience comments about a work they had seen affected me a lot and I always tried to change small things … but after a while I realized that art is intimate and solitary, that one can not meet the whims of each viewer … so when someone makes any criticism I take it with respect and affection, and on the other hand I still respect my artwork as I conceived it.

One of Gabi's lambe-lambe shows, set up for spectators.

One of Gabi’s lambe-lambe shows, set up for spectators.

CC: Do you work alone or in collaboration with other puppeteers? Why or why not? 

GC: At this moment all my works are solo … by choice or because it has been easier to move from one place to another by myself with my puppets !!!!
There are plans to work in groups … but we are always organizing activities in conjunction with other puppeteers.

CC: What project are you working on right now? 

GC: At the moment I am researching miniature drawings to use in both stop-motion animation and lambe-lambe theater or caja magica.

CC: What advice do you have for people who want to work with or learn more about puppets? 

GC: The art of puppetry is an ancient technique, captivating, trapping, that allows us to travel into unsuspected worlds … but mostly it is hard work and a lot of research, and that is fundamental to puppetry … and as they say in Japanese “give life to the wood” in that is everything, be able to give life to everything that comes into our HANDS !!!!!