We had a blast at the 2nd annual DC Puppet SlamNation on November 2nd at the Takoma Park Community Center. We were thrilled to welcome fellow puppeteers from Baltimore, as well as Takoma Park and Washington, DC for a great night of puppetry for all ages. If you missed the event or just want to relive the magic, here are a few shots of the acts.
In early March, we shared the full story of Selkie, titled What the Waves Bring at Source Theater in DC. It’s the first time we’ve had all the puppets and prop elements before an audience, and we were lucky enough to have David Moss taking photographs. Here are a few:
I am slowly coming to the realization that I can complete about one solo puppet project a year. That’s about what my brain and imagination and over-scheduled life can handle. Since I have quite a long list of ideas, I’m set for about the next ten years in projects, thank you very much. The project I completed this year is one I’ve had in mind since 2014, when I studied the art of caja lambe-lambe with Gabriela Céspedes. It’s a three minute long street theater show called Library Love.
I’m not going to say too much about it, because if you ever see me performing it at a festival, farmer’s market or other event, I’d like you to be at least a little surprised! I will tell you that the story takes place inside a library and includes both human and non-human characters. It is wordless, like most caja lambe-lambe shows and I am working very hard to construct a version that is both sturdy enough to hold up to wear and tear, but light enough to travel internationally without costing a fortune in baggage fees. Here are some photos of an early tryout I did in November at the Savannah Children’s Book Festival.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
By Genna Beth Davidson
When I took on the endeavor to organize and produce a puppet slam (our first Puppet SlamNation!) this September, I was feeling ambitious and motivated in a way that I haven’t felt before in my life. It was a new and exhilarating leadership experience for me. You see, I was always the kid who took on leadership roles begrudgingly because no one else would step up to the plate. I think my peers have thought of me as a leader, but I’ve never really wanted to be one. I’ve also always felt crippling anxiety when it comes to the responsibilities of running the show. I think several factors helped me take on this recent endeavor and get beyond the anxiety.
First off, and this is the biggest thing, my mental health is finally under control. I thought for years that I just wasn’t as capable as others seem to be at getting projects underway and seeing them through to a successful end. I blamed myself and thought “I’m just not good enough.” But I now see that depression and anxiety were the problem, and those disorders are not really me. Planning the SlamNation, I still had anxiety, but it came and went and most days I felt positive and motivated, and thus I could send emails that needed to be sent and thought through logistics that needed thinking through.
The second factor pushing me to take on the role of producer was the relative invisibility of puppet artists in DC. I know so many fabulous, creative and inspiring artists who do puppetry not just for kids but for adults! I want their work to be shared because I know it will be valued, and it’s mind bending for adults to realize what puppetry offers adults. I want there to be a vibrant puppetry arts scene in the DC region. So I guess there was a little bit of the same thing I experienced as a kid: no one else is doing this, so I’m going to take it on. Only this time I didn’t do it begrudgingly.
Finally, I’ve always loved the way Black Cherry Puppet Theatre in Baltimore has given space to all sorts of puppet performance artists at various levels and stages of production. They put on their Puppet Slamwich shows pretty regularly (look out for the next one on November 11, 2017), and it’s always a wonderful and supportive environment for artists to join. The great thing about their puppet slams is that the audience gets a huge variety of skill, talent, vision and story to digest. If an artist is trying out a new piece, and parts of it don’t work, it’s okay. Some people have complete, solid, winning shows, and some people are just starting out. The novices among us are supported and encouraged. It’s all a chance to play and grow. So I wanted to bring this style to the Wit’s End Puppet SlamNation.
Now that I’ve organized one slam, I can’t wait to do another one. There are many things I’ve learned from the experience. Here are some of them. 1.) Always have a stage manager. Our very own Amy Kellett took on the role for me this time. I mistakenly thought I could do that, but it’s not my skill set AND I had too many other things to take care of. I thank her a thousand times for realizing I was in need of her skills and for stepping into that role without me having to ask. Next time, I’m booking a stage manager from the get-go. 2.) Trust that people will commit. So much of my anxiety was from this nagging thought at the back of my mind saying performers will back out at the last minute. No one did! I will have more faith next time. 3.) Always ask questions to the venue manager and don’t worry about if you’re being a bother (again – the anxiety disorder). The We Are Takoma series who gave us a space and time for the slam handled things beautifully, but I could have asked more questions upfront to lessen my anxiety. 4.) Delegate as the event date draws near. This happened naturally because I work with awesome people who realized where they could help. Pat took care of programs. Cecilia and Nina managed front of house. Krista was back stage with me managing transitions between shows, and she brought snacks for everyone! And finally, 5.) People will underestimate how long their performances take. This was the only area that I really messed up. The show went on an hour longer than it was supposed to! How did I let that happen?!?! Well 5 mins extra here, 10 mins extra there…it all adds up. Next time I need to think that through more and have wiggle room.
There were also many things that we did right including booking an awesome band (check out Petty Indulgences), having a reception after the show, getting DVD footage of the shows, getting an awesome turn out, putting the more kid friendly shows in the first half of the program, having multiple ways of getting donations, and the list goes on. If you weren’t able to make it to our Puppet SlamNation this time, don’t worry. We’re sure to have another one in 2018. Not sure where. Not sure when. But I’m excited to figure that out early next year. So stay tuned!
It was a real thrill to get to perform alongside so many friends and fellow puppeteers at the first DC Puppet SlamNation on September 23rd. Thanks to support from We Are Takoma, ten puppet performers and a local rock band were able to share their talents at the Takoma Park Community Center for a crowd of a hundred and fifty. Here are a few photos of the night, all by David Moss.
We are thrilled to be welcoming Nina Budabin McQuown to the Wit’s End company this fall. Nina is a puppeteer and poet who first began working with us several years ago as a researcher on Malevolent Creatures. They also ran sound for part of the Saudade tour and have now started performing with us as well. Here is a short interview so you can get to know them!
Wit’s End Puppets: What is your earliest memory of puppets? Where did you first encounter them?
Nina Budabin McQuown: My mom was a storyteller, and there were always puppets hanging around my house. She used a method of telling stories with pieces of flannel that she’d layer on a board made of the same stuff. She’d build these pink-iced cookies and people and scenes out of flannel that were mesmerizing to me as a kid. I forgot all about them for years, and then a friend showed me a strange old early twentieth-century book on making hand puppets and I started making paper mache heads toward a giant ensemble show that I never ended up actually doing. All those little goblin heads I made make really good Christmas tree toppers though, particularly if you’re Jewish.
WEP: You’re a published poet and some of your poems have been turned into puppet pieces. Can you talk a little about the relationship between poetry and puppetry? What was the process like for turning your poetry into live theater?
NBM: There are plenty of models of good poetry puppetry integration out there, too–Theater Ooblek’s series of Baudelaire poem-crankie-song-shows, and the Alphabet Arts Poetry and Puppetry Series that Amber West ran for years in Brooklyn. Peter Schumann at Bread and Puppet uses loads of poetry in his work, and something that I read about his work once draws a connection between the ways that poetry and puppetry are both arts that expect audiences to participate in the making of meaning as they read or watch, rather than sitting back and receiving a story. As for the process of making shows, it’s wonderful. There’s nothing like watching a bunch of people you respect put in so much time and energy to create an interpretation of something you wrenched painstakingly out of your own head and make something new out of it. And it’s challenging. Puppetry is the art that enfolds all arts, so ultimately it works, but since it’s primarily movement and object based, where the capabilities and quirks of the objects do most of the making in the show, so many words can really slow things down. The challenge is to let the visuals be the show instead of just illustrating the words, I think. Anna Lublina, who with Lilly Kaplan and Ruthie Natanzon created this last show based on my poems called The Story of the Orca’s Silver Tongue as Told by the Manager of the Only Taco Bell in Juno did a wonderful job of letting the words be words and bringing in all kinds of other exciting visual and sonic elements.
WEP: Tell us a little about your time at Bread & Puppet.
NBM: Bread and Puppet is an enormous community of artists and organizers. I got to be an apprentice there and go on tour with them in the last year, and it’s been a privilege to witness how this vast network coalesces both to produce Peter Schumann’s vision, and to support connections between artists and the production of art all over the world. So much has been said about that theater and I don’t have much to add, but I suppose I’d say that the most resounding lesson for me, from my time there so far is that whatever you have in mind you should do it and do it now. I’ve always been a deliberate and slow sort of artist tending towards perfectionism, like a lot of artists I think, so the lesson of making it, finishing it, and putting it on the stage as fast as possible has been an essential one for me.
WEP: What are you most excited about creating or working on with Wit’s End Puppets?
NBM: I got involved with Wit’s End originally as a researcher and a writer for Malevolent Creatures, so I’ve gotten to prowl through libraries and archives looking for sources on folklore and other supporting material. I’ve loved having the opportunity to work on writing for puppetry, and building and performing with so many kinds of puppets. It’s also been a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with other writers and artists—I think that’s what I’m most psyched for, Wits’ End’s focus on drawing together the puppetry community in and around DC. There is so much for art to do in this city, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it.
Touring a puppet show is always challenging, but when the show in question involves shadow puppets, things become especially tricky.
Shadow puppetry depends on the interaction between light and objects (usually flat cutout puppets made of cardstock). This means that controlling light sources becomes even more vital than it would be for another kind of puppet show. In a theater, that is fairly easy. Most theaters are built without windows, so there’s no extra light spill to interfere with the shadows. But our show Saudade was intended from the beginning to be an outreach show; a piece that is shared in community spaces such as schools, churches, libraries and community centers. And almost all of these spaces have, well, windows.
When we get to a new performance space on tour that has windows, placing the stage becomes extra important. We’ve had lots of discussions as to how we can achieve the best lighting: do we worry more about light spilling onto the screen from the front and perhaps washing out the shadows? Or do we worry about light spill from behind, which could distort the shadows or reveal certain images before they are intended to be seen?
Sometimes we attempt to cut off the light with curtains, venetian blinds, or shutters and hope for the best. Often we are setting up the show a good hour before we start, which means that the sun can sink lower in the meantime, finding its way through cracks in the curtain or blind. We have fond memories of how various venues have gone the extra mile to try and block windows, including covering them with trash bags (at a transitional school in Winnipeg, Canada) or with large sheets of cardboard (at a church in Minneapolis). For the record, cardboard works the best.
In the end, not all light spill is terrible. It can be helpful to have just a little bit of light as we go through scene changes and prepare puppets for upcoming moments. It can also help the audience feel more comfortable. We did one show in Winnipeg at an after-school program where we were performing in a gym with no windows and it was pitch black when the lights first went out. Not only did that make several of the children scream (whether with fright or anticipation I’m not quite sure) but it meant we had no help whatsoever when trying to find the next puppet if one screen light had gone out and the next one wasn’t on yet. As a result, there were a few fumbles when the wrong puppet was picked up and had to be fixed quickly.
Light is essential to shadow puppetry and controlling it is a must when considering where and how to take a shadow puppet play on tour. We hope this post can help other people with these challenges when taking shadow puppets on the road.
We completed one of our long-time goals for the company this year, taking the show Saudade on an out-of-state tour to Minneapolis, Minnesota. We chose the city because of its strong local puppet scene, anchored by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, which was kind enough to put us in touch with one of our venues. After six shows in five days, we were tired, but very satisfied with our work. Here are some photos of the shows and our adventures.
We’re proud to have completed a tour of D.C. and Arlington, VA with our show Saudade this year, partially supported by a City Arts Project grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Below are some snapshots of the places we performed.