Puppets and Clowning

Some of my colleagues from this trip to Armenia.

Some of my colleagues from this trip to Armenia.

After getting back from Winnipeg, I had just a short break before leaving on another international trip, this time to Yerevan, Armenia with a group of clowns and artists led by Patch Adams. Adams, the founder of the Gesundheit Institute, is a clown, activist and speaker. He saw our show Cabinets of Kismet in 2013 and we have been in touch since then, talking about the possibility of using puppetry on one of these trips.

It was a new and different experience to be working with puppets in an entirely improvised setting, without words (I don’t speak any Armenian) and usually without story. Our group visited hospitals and orphanages in four different Armenian cities, encountering children of all ages. I found that the puppets usually worked best in a hospital setting, or where children had limited mobility. In these kinds of places, we were moving from room to room, often on our own or with just one other person. The intimacy of small numbers meant I could take the time to introduce the puppet, play and let the child try it out for themselves.

Clowning and puppetry have a lot in common. An emphasis on physicality, over the top reactions and wordless interaction are hallmarks of both art forms. Just as the children laugh at the surprise of an adult in a colorful wig or giant false bottom, they laugh at the surprise of a puppet appearing out of a bag or box. I had never worked as a clown before and so I didn’t have as many familiar ‘bits’ or planned interactions to fall back on, but I found that the puppets worked well as an introduction to many kids, especially those who were shy at first.

I brought only hand puppets on this trip–a sock puppet, basic glove puppet and tiny mouse finger puppet–thinking that they would be easiest for the kids to understand and manipulate. If I have the opportunity to do this kind of work again, I’d like to bring some object puppets (similar to what we created for Kismet) and see if kids respond to that. Part of the fun of puppetry is often taking familiar objects and turning them into personalities, with or without words. It would be great to see what kids in other places come up with using that style of puppet.

June Grab Bag

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

See Item #1. Photo by John Overholt.

See Item #1. Photo by John Overholt.

1. We were alerted via Twitter to this gorgeous, wood-bound book in the Harvard Library by John Overholt. Upon closer inspection of the library record, we realized it’s an edition of Heinrich von Kleist’s essay ‘On the Marionette Theater.’

2. We dare you to watch this video and not smile at least once.

3. Chicago-based company Manual Cinema is a big inspiration to us. Read this article and you’ll see why.

4. Great interview here with Max Humphries, an artist from England.

5. If you happen to be in Bennington, Vermont this summer, keep an eye out for these giant puppets.

Summer Collaborations

It is finally SUMMER! We are thrilled to be working on several collaborative projects this month with other companies in and around DC. We will be updating this space with process photos and information on public performances, so check back often!

IMG_2727Our first project is called Drift, and is a caja lambe-lambe show created by Cecilia as part of I Thought The Earth Remembered Me, a promenade piece by banished? productions. We have been friends with the banished? team for quite some time (artistic director Carmen Wong directed our show Cabinets of Kismet in 2013) so we’re thrilled to get to play with this new show of theirs for the Capital Fringe Festival. Comprised of five separate segments that run the gamut from dance to music, to storytelling and food, the show is a reflection on belonging within tangible or invisible kingdoms in our environment. This piece will take be presented at the ARTillery in the Brookland neighborhood of DC and opens July 12. Check out the Fringe website for more details.

Our second project of the summer reunites us with friends at Arts on the Horizon in Alexandria for the workshop of a brand-new baby theater piece called Space-Bop. Created by Tia Shearer-Bassett and with music composed and performed by Christylez Bacon it brings our youngest theater goers into the world of outer space. We are excitedly researching rocket ships and astronaut suits right now, along with stars and comets. If you have children under the age of two, keep an eye out for an announcement of workshop performance dates when you can bring them to see our space-inspired puppets.

Sharing Stories of SAUDADE in Winnipeg

This is a guest post from Genna Davidson about our visit in May to Winnipeg, Canada. You can see more photos from the trip here.

This bentwood box by Luke Marston was commissioned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Photo is from TRC website.

This bentwood box by Coast Salish artist Luke Marston was commissioned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. It is a tribute to all Indian Residential school survivors. Photo is from TRC website.

At the beginning of May, Cecilia and I were warmly welcomed to Winnipeg, Manitoba for the 10th Annual International Storytelling Festival. Our days were spent touring Saudade, our shadow puppet and crankie show, about the immigrant experience in DC. We met a range of artists, storytellers and advocates of conflict resolution and peace, and we learned a lot about the local issues. We performed for college students, child and adult refugees, and staff at several community centers, places which help newly arrived refugees and immigrants to Canada. The children, particularly the Muslim girls, were excited to see a character in our show wearing a headscarf. One girl remarked “I liked the last character the best because she looks like me.” It was affirming and reassuring to hear the members of our audiences relate to the show and identify with the characters.

Many of the local issues facing Canadians in Winnipeg surround the dark legacy of what they call residential schools. These were boarding schools for First Nations children, used until the 1990s to attempt assimilation of the indigenous Canadians into the mainstream white Canadian culture. Many of these places had rampant incidences of abuse. The victims are now sharing their stories through a truth and reconciliation process. It’s a hard reality to look at, but from what I could see it was clearly important that people are heard. So many families were broken up and destroyed by the practices of assimilation. As one could guess, there are higher levels of alcohol and drug abuse in the indigenous population too.

It was particularly interesting to me that we repeatedly encountered stories of First Nations people (Inuit, Crees and Metis to name a few groups) and at the same time heard stories of refugees from countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia among others. For many immigrants it is a struggle to keep family together. As I was talking to a friend recently about the juxtaposition of these stories, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what struck me as so apropos about the parallel stories. He pointed out that it is striking because the indigenous Canadians are refugees in their own home. “Yes! That’s exactly it!” I remarked. Their land was taken from them as well as their culture and many were forced to take on the culture of European immigrants. It’s a story that I don’t like looking at, but again, it’s important we give voice to these stories and give these storytellers room and space in which to be heard.

When I think about our region’s own history of the American Indian genocide, I feel sad. I also think that most of us don’t get to hear those stories much because the people are gone, scattered or simply not given enough space to share their stories. These stories are an important part of our history, however shameful and horrifying, and like in Canada, they should be part of our national conversation in art.

~Genna Davidson

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has been working for many years to gather statements on the residential schools. They published their findings and held closing events this month. For more information on this important work, please visit their website

May Grab Bag

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

See # 4.

See # 4.

This month, we’re highlighting puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who stars in a  new documentary called I Am Big Bird. If I’m being totally honest, one of my favorite movies of all time is Big Bird in Japan. So this month, here are some of the links we found about Spinney, an incredibly inspiring artist. Enjoy!

1. An article from Linda Holmes at NPR about the documentary.

2. A brief item from the New York Times Magazine.

3. Spinney did an Ask Me Anything over on Reddit and shared some great stories.

4. The trailer for the documentary.

Winnipeg Photos

Some photos of our trip to Winnipeg this month for the Winnipeg International Storytelling Festival:

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The entire show of Saudade. Everyone was very impressed by our packing abilities!

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The poster for the festival.

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Genna sorts control rods before a show.

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The puppets (60 in total) laid out ready for a show.

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We performed in the gym at the NEEDS center, a community space for newcomers. Our fantastic sound guy, Hassaan is at the computer.

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Talking with the kids at the NEEDS Center after the show.

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The rivers of Winnipeg are beautiful in the sun.

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Cecilia and Genna at the opening dinner of the festival.

 

Seasons of Puppets

IMG_2307Here at Wit’s End Puppets, we build and create puppets all year long. The weather has recently become hot and muggy in DC, making me wish I had planned a little better and scheduled the spray painting for now, rather than back in January when it was 18 degrees out! Just for fun, a quick rundown of our preferred times for specific puppet-making activities.

Winter: It’s certainly not 20 inches of snow kind of weather in DC but it does get pretty cold out. Great time for staying inside and doing some wood carving, maybe sewing puppets with fabric. So why do we always seem to be spray-painting in the backyard during these months?

Spring: This is a much better time for sawing, spray-painting or anything that involves the outdoors. Due to limited space, we’re often going back and forth between the upstairs studio, downstairs living room and outside patio and this is a nice time to keep the doors open and let the dog run around (though not in the paint).

Summer: Ugh. Summer in DC is the WORST. Hot and humid, with bugs and pollen galore, there are many days when we just don’t want to move. Summer should be a time for sketching, painting a little and generally daydreaming, but that isn’t how it always works out.

Fall: Another good in-between time, fall is a season for working on paper-mache heads and cutting out shadow puppets. If we have lots of down-time while waiting for hot glue to set on pieces of polyfoam, there are all the new fall TV shows to distract us.

All kidding aside, puppet making is our passion and no matter the weather, we’re not quitting any time soon. We hope you’ll join us for one of our shows and see what we’ve created!