Overseas Adventures

This blog is going on (partial) hiatus for the next few months while artistic director Cecilia Cackley travels in South America and attends several puppetry festivals. While she is away, Cecilia is keeping a visual journal of her trip and will occasionally be posting pages. Here is a little map of where she is going: 

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Next Steps

Puppets have to wait patiently until we're ready to work with them again.

Puppets have to wait patiently until we’re ready to work with them again.

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!

August Grab Bag

#5 The website Bookriot has excited muppet arms for both books and Muppets!

#5 The website Bookriot has excited muppet arms for both books and Muppets!

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!

Book Review: Ashley Bryan’s Puppets

A new book from Ashley Bryan.

A new book from Ashley Bryan.

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!

Adventures in Interviewing

IMG_1962We have a busy year ahead of us! Along with remounts of several collaborative projects and our ongoing development of Malevolent Creatures, we are creating a new shadow puppet play called Saudade. 

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!

Persuasive Puppets

While this outspoken puppet might try to sell us on things, I don't think he would do too well in a commercial.

While this outspoken puppet might try to sell us on things, I don’t think he’s that convincing!

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?

Dramaturg’s Desk

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. 

Ana researching on her ever-present laptop.

Ana researching on her ever-present laptop.

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.

Ana getting attacked by one of the rehearsal puppets.

Ana getting attacked by one of the rehearsal puppets.

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.