Re-Building Selkie

By Genna Beth Davidson

As we endeavor to mount Malevolent Creatures: What the Waves Bring as part of Space4 with CulturalDC, a big build is underway in my studio space. When we did a 20 minute section of the piece last year I had the main selkie puppet constructed enough for use, but she was far from finished, and I discovered some problems during that workshop. 

For one, the puppet has to be worn by our puppetress, Amy Kellett, who quickly discovered that the play we’ve written doesn’t have many “down” moments for Selkie. The lower legs of the puppet are Amy’s legs and the puppet is attached at the knees. Amy holds the puppets head and controls the movement of one arm, but it is actually taking A LOT of arm and back strength to keep the puppet from slumping down. This is a problem that my redesign/rebuild needs to address. I haven’t quite figured out yet how to handle it. I might reach out to a master designer in our area for some help.

Secondly I decided to put the puppet in a nude unitard because for some of the scenes she appears nude, but it didn’t end up looking like she was nude; it looked like someone wearing a nude unitard. In retrospect I think to myself “duh!” So I had to deconstruct the unitard and pull the material taut over each body part. This way it will look more like a nude woman. It’s very tricky pulling the fabric taut though. It wants to fold in ways that make it look like fabric. Learning to do this skin-job is a new challenge that I’m still figuring out too. 

Puppetry is full of problem solving. I never seem to anticipate all the challenges that come up, but that’s part of the fun for me. I remember working on a show a few years ago in which I built a puppet whose head didn’t move from side to side because of the way I designed the shoulders. It was a total accident, and then I had to quickly figure out how to adjust that design. I came up with a design in which I inserted the neck dowel into the hosing that was the spine. I kept them together with  elastic that ran the length of the spine and connected through the tubing and up to the top of the neck dowel where I had wired some loops around which I could sew the elastic (see image). It was pretty cool figuring that out. I love it when a problem comes my way. It’s the best part of building for me! 

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Genna Beth’s puppet head design. 

My dad is an engineer so sometimes I run things by him; he loves problem solving too. But on more than one occasion, he has wanted to take the design in a completely different direction. It’s at those times that I turn into a little kid again with the impulse to say: “No I want to do it by myself!” I have to remind myself it’s okay to learn from others and get more experience in the process. 

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Hello 2018!

I will start by saying I’m not very good at New Year’s resolutions. My own tend to lean towards the kind of vague (Write a play. What kind? I don’t know…) to the very specific (read four books in translation). Hard and fast rules don’t usually work for puppetry, to be honest. You might plan to create a puppet using a specific design and five different materials…and then realize that your design is inherently flawed and one material doesn’t bend the way you expected it to (yes, this has happened to me a lot.) As a result, making specific resolutions can be tough.

2017 was a bit of a dumpster fire for much of the world. Who knows what 2018 will bring? Who knows how we will need to respond, creatively or otherwise? So I’m not going to give you a list of specific resolutions for Wit’s End in the new year. Instead, here are a few hopes I have for what may happen in the next twelve months:

  • I hope we get to work with someone new that we’ve never met before.
  • I hope we are able to teach someone a new skill that they never thought they would try.
  • I hope we can be the first experience of puppetry for someone out there who sees our work and thinks about it for awhile afterwards.
  • I hope we try something new–whether that is a puppet podcast, or a new building technique or a show made entirely out of moss–I don’t know. The surprise brings the joy.

Puppetry as an art form always has more surprises for me. Any time I think I’ve seen it all, that there’s nothing new out there, I discover a performer, a story, or a kind of puppet that proves me wrong. I expect the same will be true in 2018. Onward!

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I did not expect that we would make an eel puppet out of cardboard in 2017. Or that Annalisa, demonstrating it here, would love it quite this much. 

A Look Back at 2017

It’s been a year when I look back and many things blur together in my memory. So much happened–in the world, in our city, in our personal lives–that it’s hard to remember specifics. I know we did a lot of work. I remember the stress, the late nights, the many emails back and forth. But sometimes the accomplishments disappear in hindsight, so I think it’s important to think back and list the highlights of the year.

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  • Minneapolis tour! This adventure from last June was definitely the project that took the most planning, organization and money. It has been a goal of mine to go on tour with Saudade pretty much since I conceived the idea of the show, so this was truly a dream come true.
  • Welcoming a new company member! Nina Budabin McQuown has added so much to our team this year. From their research and script-writing on Malevolent Creatures, to their thoughtful blog posts about trash and podcasts here, Nina has brought ideas, energy and enthusiasm to the party, getting us all more excited about our next projects. FullSizeRender copy
  • A focus on community! In our conversations as a company after Nina joined us, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to re-focus our time and energy not just on creating our own work, but on engaging and connecting with other artists as well. Pat came up with the idea of the Puppet Lobby as a way of facilitating those connections and along with the Puppet SlamNation organized by Genna Beth, it has  been a great way to meet other artists, share ideas and learn more about our craft. IMG_6341
  • Page to Stage! This is another milestone I’ve been wanting to hit for awhile. The Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival is a great way for local companies to try out new work in front of an audience. Our problem has always been that most of our work is wordless, and therefore not an easy fit for a staged reading. It was great to be able to share Selkie’s story with a sold-out house in the Israeli Room and get their feedback on the story. With any luck, we’ll be able to build on that experience as we go back to Selkie to prepare for our next workshop in March.

Despite it’s many challenges, 2017 has had good moments. As our politicians focus their energy on tearing down structures of equality and safeguards to the environment, we will focus our energy on serving our community, connecting with other artists and making the best puppet theater we can. If you were able to join us this year, thank you for your support! If you’re just finding out about our work, welcome and we looking forward to sharing puppets with you in 2018. Happy New Year!

 

Wit’s End Has a Patreon!

By Nina Budabin McQuown

Ah the holidays. The annual time of congressional spending bills and self-addressed envelopes in the mail from non-profits, when we look behind to make sure we’ve wrung every last cent out of our dental insurance (should we have it), and we look ahead to a new year and all the tax forms it will bring. And you know, gingerbread and egg nog and stuff. It’s the perfect time to introduce you to our brand new shiny Patreon, a place where Wit’s End Puppets supporters (you, dear reader), can go to help us make puppet theater, workshops, slams, and speakers happen here in DC. 

If you’ve never encountered Patreon before, it’s a platform for funding ongoing projects, artists, and creators. It works like this: we tell you about how to find our new Patreon (that is, here), you go, sign up, and decide on an amount to give monthly. Depending on your subscription level, we then send you a small token of gratitude for each time you donate. That means videos and photos, in-process shots of our puppets and shows as we build them, reflections on writing and research, and more. That more might include stuff like video of Amy’s kitten trying to eat a bird made out of repurposed hangers and break casings.

Patreon is different from more widely known funding platforms like Kickstarter or Go Fund me. Like them, it allows networks of people across the country to pool small donations in support of artists, but for theater companies like us, it’s a much better deal. Because they raise a lot of money at once and for one purpose, Kickstarter and Gofundme are usually best for single projects: a book, a therapy dog, an album, a surgery—all things I’ve seen on those two sites—but Patreon works for artists who make lots of content continuously over time and can really use support that keeps up. 

Wit’s End is currently asking for subscribers at either of our two tiers: $1 a month at the finger puppet level, or $5 dollars a month at the hand puppet level. We haven’t even yet begun to dream of marionettes or body puppets, or multi-operator horse puppets but hey, we’d love to get there. Meanwhile, you can sign up to get original content from the company geared specifically toward our subscribers. That’s in addition, of course, to the warm fuzzy feeling you’re guaranteed every time you support the arts, which is better even than watching this video of capybaras taking a bath.

In 2018, we’re hoping to commission new work as part of Malevolent Creatures, stage the full show, continue DC Slamnation and The Puppet Lobby, and maybe even start a puppetry podcast. If you’re interested in supporting work like this, and you have a buck or five a month that you might otherwise just spend on 36oz. bags of gummy worms (that’s me, is who does that), come join the illustrious ranks of our subscribers. Puppetry is better for your teeth.

One Small Change

Sometimes I wonder what I would have done as a freelance art and puppetry teacher before Pinterest. Whenever I am stuck for ideas, wondering what new project three year olds can do using cotton balls, paint and paper plates, all I have to do is type a few keywords into a search box and the wonders of teaching blogs, mommy blogs and other artists are there for my perusal.

Because I’m teaching different groups of kids in different settings, sometimes I will repeat a project, and in the process, learn how to improve it. Here is a small case study: a penguin puppet.

I found this project (from the blog Confessions of a Teaching Junkie), attractive because of it’s simplicity. I also liked that it used paint, which is useful for stretching a project out to two lessons, because we have to let it dry. My students in an after school arts program, who are nearly all 6 or 7, were able to paint a plastic cup, cut out wings and eyes (I cut out the feet, as cardboard cutting skills are still a bit beyond them) and glue everything together. They turned out quite charming, as you can see. And they all looked pretty much the same, with some slight variations in the eyes.

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Then I decided to repeat the project with a different after school class. These are 7 and 8 year olds, so a little older, a little more assured with scissors and glue and paint. However, I made a major mistake, which is that I didn’t realize our paint was tempera, not acrylic and in no way designed to bind to the slick plastic of the cups. I didn’t take a picture, because it was slightly humiliating, but all the paint the kids piled on the cups simply shriveled up and flaked off.

So we had to try something else, which turned out to be paper collage. In the process of re-doing the project with paper instead of paint, I noticed something interesting. Perhaps because my students felt more assured with paper, scissors and markers, they started really putting their own stamp on the project. They added hats, hair, and accessories. Signs that read ‘I Love Penguins’. Their creativity was inspiring.

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I have no doubt that my students at the first program are just as creative and could have produced their own unique penguins. But instead, they followed my directions and example and made puppets that all looked pretty much alike. I am always interested in how to gently push my students to let their puppets reflect their own personalities, rather than making something they think will please me or their friends. For this project, it turned out that tissue paper was the magic ingredient.

2017 Puppet Lobby Photos

We’ve had a great time this year getting our Puppet Lobby series started. These events bring puppeteers together for conversations about different aspects of puppetry, from methods for building body puppets, to the challenges of writing a puppet show. Here are a few photos from our first two events.

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Michele Valeri and Ingrid Crepeau of Dinorock Productions show off their dinosaur body puppet.

 

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Ingrid’s baby dinosaur meets Patches, a character created by Kuroji Patrick. 

 

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Hamida Khatri explains her process of creating a stop-motion animated short film. 

 

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Kuroji Patrick and Hamida Khatri show off their stop-motion puppets. 

Preview: Puppet Lobby #2

By Cecilia Cackley

Our next Puppet Lobby event is scheduled for Monday, November 6 at 7pm. We hope you’ll join us at the Brookland Artspace Lofts for some great conversation and community-building. We are excited to start talking about a subject our company has been interested in from the beginning–stop-motion animation using puppets. 

Stop-motion animation has a long history of artists using puppets very effectively from Jan Svankmajer to the Brothers Quay. At the Puppet Lobby we will hear from local artists Hamida Khatri and Noa Heyne about their experiences studying stop-motion at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). 

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Art installation by Hamida Khatri

Hamida Khatri works in a variety of mediums — from figurative drawings, to photography, to sculptural puppets, to animation. As well as an artist, she is also a writer, curator, arts educator, community activist, and a creative arts therapist. We were lucky enough to screen her stop-motion short film, Mom & Me as part of our Puppet SlamNation back in September. 

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Sculpture by Noa Heyne.

Noa Heyne holds an MFA in Sculpture from MICA and has also studied in New York, Italy and Jerusalem. Her work has been exhibited in Baltimore, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and she will have an installation in CulturalDC’s Space4 mobile gallery next year. 

In addition to a presentation on stop-motion animation, this Puppet Lobby will also include a conversation between Cecilia Cackley and Nina Budabin McQuown, both Wit’s End Puppets company members, about the challenges of writing plays specifically for puppets. Whether you are a puppeteer yourself or an eager audience member, the Puppet Lobby will give you a chance to ask questions, meet artists and find out more about this infinitely varied art form. See you on November 6th!