We had our last story meeting of the summer for Malevolent Creatures this past week and we are heading into the fall with many new ideas and renewed energy. If you missed our first workshop in June, keep an eye on this space for more info about our next one. We hope to see you there for some magical puppet encounters!
A roundup of articles, links and videos that we highlighted on Twitter this month.
1. The first book on puppetry I ever bought was by John Wright of The Little Angel Theatre in Islington, London. His wife Lyndie still carves puppets for them and this article about her is just lovely. If you go to London, try to see a show there.
2. As we continue to work on Malevolent Creatures, this website looks intriguing and will hopefully help out our research.
3. At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, the show The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant took a look at the upcoming Scottish independence referendum through the eyes of four Scottish fairies, including Selkie. Read a review here.
4. Yet another amazing interview with one of the giants of contemporary illustration and a special hero of ours, Shaun Tan.
5. And because really, most things should end with the Muppets, here is Bookriot with a roundup of literary-related Muppet antics. Enjoy!
One of our central principles in creating puppets is to be sustainable wherever possible. We source our materials carefully, using recycled or second-hand supplies as much as we can and we teach others to do the same in our Puppets From Recycled Materials workshop. However, the master of creating puppets this way has to be author-illustrator Ashley Bryan, who just published the book Ashley Bryan’s Puppets with Simon & Schuster.
Bryan, who is 91 years old, lives on one of the Cranberry Isles off the coast of Maine. On his walks on the beach he collects debris and shells, which he turns into intricate puppets in his studio. Ashley Bryan’s Puppets is a large picture book that combines photos of the puppets by Rich Entel with poems by Bryan introducing them to the reader. It opens with a brief author’s note and a picture of Bryan in his studio, which helps to communicate that these puppets are intended as performance, rather than being solely art objects. This is followed by a photo spread of shells, driftwood and sea glass from the beach. The puppets are first shown in groups of around eight, with their names printed below. Then each one is given a spread of close up photos, along with their own poem.
The puppet names are all African in origin and the poems sometimes cite a particular job or character– “I am a cow” “I apprenticed as a printer” –while also specifying the materials used in the creation. “I’ve trained my wishbone whiskers” “My acorn husk eyes” “Head bone, bone face, laughing metal jaws”–all of these lines give the reader a better understanding of the photograph (and the puppet). All of the poems are fun to read aloud and give a good sense of the puppet’s character in performance. This is a beautiful book that will provide inspiration to artists and environmentalists of every age; a celebration of Bryan’s unique artistic vision. I’m looking forward to sharing it with our puppet-making students as part of our workshops!
It’s a project based on stories of the immigrant experience and right now I’m doing lots of interviews with people in Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland. I’ve heard many different perspectives, but everyone seems to agree that the two things that make us long for the places we come from are family and food. I’m looking forward to working on assembling the many moments I’m hearing about into a beautiful shadow play experience!
Where do you think the average person has seen puppets most recently? At the movie theater, courtesy of the film Muppets Most Wanted? On television, as their kid watches Sesame Street? Or how about in passing, as part of a commercial?
Puppets have been used for commercials for nearly as long as television has been around. Back in the 1950’s, Jim Henson got his start in commercials creating short segments promoting Wilkins Coffee. You can see his two puppets Wilkins and Wontkins here in this set of spots on YouTube:
The two characters were so good at persuading the public to buy coffee, Henson put them to work promoting a whole bunch of different products:
Doing a Google search on puppets in commercials today, however, brings up somewhat less madcap and instead, more creepy clips, such as this DirecTV commercial:
While the punch line about ‘no wires’ makes sense in comparison to the marionette, it’s still pretty weird and not that clever. This article in The Guardian highlights other puppets in creepy commercials while this one from Mental Floss rounds up more successful examples, including this more recent Muppets spot:
Henson’s ads for Wilkins were wildly successful, as well as groundbreaking for the time period. Do you think puppets can still persuade us to buy things? Or are we too cynical about having our strings pulled to go along with it?
Ana Cackley is a rising senior at the University of Virginia. She is an English and Drama major and served as dramaturg for the initial workshop of MALEVOLENT CREATURES this summer. Here are some of her thoughts on being in the rehearsal room for the piece.
When I got asked to be the dramaturg for Wits End Puppets’ devised piece Malevolent Creatures, I was both thrilled and terrified. I’d never worked as a dramaturg before, let alone on a devised piece of theater. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. The only thing I really had to go on was that it was then called “The Fairy Project” — and fairies are a subject that I can and will research happily for any length of time. The sheer creativity of the project — a theater piece devised around the ways that humans interact with fairies, or mythological creatures — grabbed me instantly, along with the excitement and eagerness of the other researchers in the beginning stages of development.
After we had done the research on various creatures and chosen the three that we would be focusing on for the first workshop, I thought that my role in the show was done. I didn’t expect to be needed at rehearsals, or have things to contribute. I was surprised and excited to learn that there was a lot more for me to do and work on. Rehearsals were some of the most fun parts of my week, as I took notes, looked things up, and gave opinions on the work that was being developed in front of me. The happiness and sense of play among the actors was inspiring and fun to watch, particularly once the rehearsal puppets began to be used and things got a little crazy. The willingness to explore that I saw in rehearsals only made me want to find out more and more about such weird and interesting characters, and research obscure details like what Orkney seals smell like, and the weather in Lincolnshire during the 18th century.
With the help of Google, anyone can be their own dramaturg. But most of us don’t get to trawl through the Internet endlessly about such a fascinating topic, and with such amazing people to support and add to the process. Working on Malevolent Creatures was always an interesting, funny, and occasionally terrifying experience. I’m really grateful that I got to fill a somewhat arcane position for such a new and exciting a piece. I’m literally counting down the days until we get to do it again.
This week Wit’s End Artistic Director Cecilia Cackley interviewed artist Amelia Gossman about her experience working as an illustrator on Malevolent Creatures, our upcoming project based on British and Celtic folklore.
Cecilia Cackley: When did you first learn about the character of Black Annis (aka Black Agnes)? What drew you to her?
Amelia Gossman: As a kid, I was really into folklore and faeries. My best friend and I would look at Brain Froud books when we were eight and run around the woods looking for and trying to lure the creatures we read about. I believe in his book, “Good Faeries/ Bad Faeries” he gives a brief description of her. For my senior thesis in college, I wrote an analysis of Welsh/English folklore and I learned more about her in depth. I chose to write about her because bot only is her back story is really interesting, the added creepiness of cannibalism makes her, for me, one of the scariest creatures. And being scary is intriguing.
CC: I know you did a project on her in art school. Can you describe it and talk a little about what it entailed?
AG: I mentioned that I wrote about her for my senior thesis. My minor at MICA was Creative Writing, and for our final project we were given the freedom of writing about whatever topic we wanted. The analysis covered the origin of certain folktales and how those stories related to the current culture (i.e. faeries had kings, queens, and knights much like the British monarchy). I spent the entire school year gathering information from various sources and condensing that information in an organized way. A big challenge was targeting ONE area, so I stuck to the British Isles. It was just too much to include all the creatures I wanted to (that meant no Minotaurs, fauns, or kappas, just to name a few!)
CC: What was the most interesting thing you learned about Black Annis in your research?
AG: Here’s an excerpt of the paper [that I wrote] that focused on her!
The Scots also believe in Wicked Wichts of the Unseelie Court. These bogies were fearsome and inflicted many ills upon both man and beast. They were much more malevolent than the mischievous house spirits. Devilish monsters like Black Agnes would prey upon children. A hag of the Dane Hills near Leicester, England is a blue-faced crone with long claws and yellow fangs, sometimes taking the shape of a cat-demon. She is said to live inside of a cave she personally clawed out from the rocks. She eats the children who stray into the Dane Hills after dark, skinning them and devouring them, later scattering their bones around the hills and hanging their skins from the trees to dry. If children are in short supply, she snatches lambs from the pasture or even babies from the open windows of houses.
I think her connection to cats was incredibly interesting. It’s not mentioned in the paper, but I remember reading about how a nearby town, lead by its mayor, would drag a dead cat through out the woods near her cave – I think as a warning to her. That’s a great example of folklore being incredibly ensconced in a town’s culture! I should’ve added that!
CC: Did you approach the illustration for us differently than for your school project?
AG: Definitely – while I had done research on her, I was able to add some of my own personal ideas to the illustration. I chose to add scarring to her mouth, her large hands and long body, and her ominous clothing – including a crown of bones. I liked having that freedom.
CC: What was it like seeing the rehearsal puppet based on your illustration?
AG: Amazing!! She had such a spooky presence because she was so large. I think I had an idea that the show would be almost Punch and Judy scale, and that she might be a little marionette, but I was thrilled to see that she was enormous!
CC: Was there anything unexpected or surprising about what you saw in the rehearsals for Malevolent Creatures?
AG: The integration of the audience and the performance was really cool, something I haven’t seen before. I don’t want to give too much away, but I liked thinking I would see a traditional show and being surprised by unexpected visitors. The performers are so talented and the puppets came to life, even though they weren’t finished. It was great!
CC: Are there any other folklore characters you think you’d like to illustrate or write about?
AG: Oh gosh, where do I begin?? I’ve used a lot of creatures in my work in the past (especially fauns, but those are Greek rather than English!). However I would love to illustrate more selkies, will-o-the-wisps, and kelpies.
The Wit’s End project Malevolent Creatures is currently in development for Fall 2015. Get the latest updates by joining our mailing list or connecting with us on Facebook and Twitter.