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.

Top 5 Reactions to the Word ‘Puppet’

Puppets are not for the faint of heart.

Puppets are not for the faint of heart.                Photo by Patricia Germann.

We discovered over the course of Malevolent Creatures rehearsals that we’ve all gotten pretty similar reactions when the word ‘puppet’ comes up in ordinary conversation. Here are the top five comments we’re used to hearing. Have you made one or more of them when meeting a puppeteer?

1. “Oh like the Muppets!” Well, um, not always. In fact, we’ve never created a show with hand-and-rod style puppets before, although we’re in the planning stages for one with GALA Hispanic Theatre.

2. “So you do stuff like on Sesame Street!” No, not really. Not too much counting or alphabet songs in our shows. Not all puppets are intended for children, despite the ubiquity of Big Bird and Bert and Ernie in our culture.

3. “Um…like Pinnochio?” Aside from Jim Henson, this is probably the only other named puppet character that most people can come up with.

4. “How cute!” Yes, very….until the puppet starts to go on a rampage and eat the audience. Wait, what? Oh right. NOT ALL PUPPETS ARE FOR CHILDREN. OR SQUEAMISH ADULTS.

5. “Is that a real job?” As a matter of fact, it is! Aren’t we lucky?

A Brief History of Puppets and Social Justice

Oxford Dictionaries defines social justice as “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities and privileges within a society.” In honor of Dr. King, who fought for equal opportunities for so many, this week we have a short overview of how puppets have contributed and continue to contribute to the fight for social justice.

Giant puppet from the Million Puppet March in DC. November 2012.

Giant puppet from the Million Puppet March in DC. November 2012.

In his 1990 essay “The Radicality of the Puppet Theater,” Peter Schumann calls puppetry “…conceptual sculpture…uninvited by the powers-that-be.” Over the centuries, the low status of puppets in the art hierarchy has allowed them to be agitators for justice, the perfect mouthpiece for complaints about the government. Today puppets are used by  theaters and activist groups across the US as an essential visual component of protests as well as a way to empower communities for fight for necessary change. While this is far from a complete picture (read this essay for more information), here is a short overview of the history of puppetry and protest.

Puppetry has always been a transient art form. From medieval times through the nineteenth century, puppeteers moved from place to place, often performing outdoors rather than inside theaters. As Italian commedia characters such as Pulcinella travelled from country to country, these archetypal figures took on local characteristics and became distinct. However, whether they were named Kasperle (in Germany), Karagioz (in Turkey) or Punch (in England), all of these puppets entertained by breaking rules, upsetting authority and sometimes commenting on local issues and problems of the day. In early nineteenth century France, an out of work silk worker and dentist named Laurent Mourguet created the character Guignol, who became a voice for the working people of France disenfranchised by the combination of industrialization and economic depression. Later in the twentieth century, as protests multiplied in the 1960’s, puppets (especially giant ones) became a widespread part of the action.

The most famous puppet theater associated with protest is probably Bread and Puppet Theater, located in Glover, Vermont and formed in 1963 by Peter Schumann. Originally based on the Lower East Side of New York City, Schumann began by creating shows about local problems and eventually moved on to deploring unchecked capitalism, the Vietnam War and other national issues. Bread and Puppet still takes their puppet and circus shows (always with live music) on tour each year and creates massive community circuses each summer at their farm in Vermont.  Two other companies that provide puppet support to activists on a range of issues are the People’s Puppets of Occupy Wall Street, in New York City and Puppet Underground, in Washington DC. Run by volunteers, they hold workshops in puppet-making and create large and small scale puppets and artwork for protests.

Over the years, several groups that began by working on protests and activism have started to also provide educational resources and community arts support in various cities around the country. Wise Fool Puppet Intervention began as an arts group adding visual impact to activist events in California, and artists with the group later founded Wise Fool New Mexico, which seeks to empower people through puppetry and circus arts. In Philadelphia, Spiral Q Puppet Theater provides arts programming to schools, support for communities trying to express a vision of change, and leadership training for young people. Across the country, puppets are still speaking for those with no voices; still part of a movement toward change for the better.

Puppets Support Early Literacy

Workshop performance of UNDER THE CANOPY. Photo by Arts on the Horizon.

Workshop performance of UNDER THE CANOPY. Photo by Arts on the Horizon.

Whenever I see an article like this one (and they pop up pretty frequently), I start thinking about how puppets and theater fit into the push to get kids reading and talking at an early age.

Puppets are a staple of library storytimes and preschool classrooms. Librarians and teachers use them to tell simple stories, teach children songs and introduce topics such as a particular kind of animal. Many classrooms also have puppets the students can play with themselves. Making a puppet talk is one step on a journey to abstract thinking. If a child can imagine an object like a puppet talking, that’s preparing them for the idea that pictures of characters on a page might ‘talk’ with words–and eventually when the pictures disappear, it’s the words themselves that allow us as readers to imagine characters and their actions.

Puppets and theater are also valuable for very young children because they give parents something to talk about with their kids. Taking care of babies and toddlers too young for school is a huge job. Yes, we encourage parents to talk to their children as much as possible, but it’s understandable that it gets tiring after awhile. I taught school full time and often ran out of things to discuss with my students–and I only had to deal with them for part of the day! Experiencing the magic of a theater or puppet show allows parents and children to talk about something new and to discover the world together in a different way. The new vocabulary, ideas and questions prompted by these experiences is what will help our children grow and develop into bright thinkers, ready for school and whatever other challenges life throws at them.

Puppets and Problem Solving

How do you turn a cardboard tube into a bird? Into a man?

How do you turn a cardboard tube into a bird? Into a man?

It was great to see the latest Education issue of The Washington Post Magazine devoted to arts education, with a lead article by Anne Midgette. I found it encouraging to read about the many efforts by various arts organizations to bring their work to students, either during the regular school day or through after-school programs, especially because education is such a big part of what I am trying to do with this company. Midgette brings up some great points in the article and a later addendum, among them the value of arts as a motivator for students who struggle academically, as a means of teaching focus and the struggle for some organizations to balance creating art with teaching. I had some further thoughts on the value of puppetry in arts education, and specifically the challenge of teaching problem solving.

Problem solving is a huge part of learning and it can be an incredibly frustrating skill to learn, especially for younger students. Authentic problem solving is the sort of skill that easily gets pushed to the side in favor of memorization and rote drill when the classroom culture is based around standardized tests, as I know from personal experience. However, this only makes things harder for kids when they are asked to make decisions on their own. When you are used to every task having a specific answer and every assignment needing to be done ‘right,’ facing an activity without a certain set of steps and no guarantees can be intimidating.  Students are used to the answer being in the back of the book or in their teacher’s head. But what if your teacher doesn’t know the answer? What if no one does?

Puppets require lots of problem solving and there is no ‘right’ answer to be found–only what works for you and what looks right to your eyes as the artist. How can you make your puppet walk? Which yarn is the best hair? Does your puppet have arms or legs? Puppetry is an ideal low-cost way to introduce students to the concept of making decisions and solving problems. After all, even if math problems and grammar rules have set answers, not everything in life is laid out in perfect patterns and students need to learn to make decisions that are best for them. Why not give them the opportunity to problem solve with a puppet, rather than waiting until they are so set on getting everything perfect that one challenging task reduces them to tears? Flexibility and creativity are skills that are important and I hope that as Wit’s End Puppets continues to grow as a company, we will have the opportunity to encourage them in many more students.

Chuck Close Gets it Right

Chuck Close with the tapestries he created of President Obama. CC licensed photo via Flickr.

Chuck Close with the tapestries he created of President Obama. CC licensed photo via Flickr.

In an article recently published in the New York Times, famed portrait artist Chuck Close gave students some advice that I loved: “Break the rules and use limitations to your advantage.”

Ah, limitations! There can be so many of them when you are a puppeteer. Puppeteers are constrained by the limits of their materials–a wooden hand clearly is not going to move like a fabric hand. Joints are always a challenge–which way do they need to bend? How do you construct them so they don’t break easily? Puppeteers also have to consider their own limits–there are only so many shadow puppet rods you can hold in one hand. But other limits for normal human beings simply don’t apply to puppets. Want a character to fly? Easy! Need a character to have its head chopped off, die and come back to life? No problem! Puppets are an art form that constantly push against limitations and break rules.

In many schools today, following the rules is heavily emphasized. Students are taught to value finding the ‘right’ answer to all questions, rather than asking the questions themselves. Children as young as age eight have come to me, worried that a B grade on a third grade report card will ruin their college chances (I’m not joking). In this kind of stressful environment, I believe that as Mr. Close says, breaking rules can be valuable, and that children need to learn to recognize their limitations and play to their strengths rather than expect themselves to be equally good at everything. Hopefully, the art of puppetry as we share it through performances and workshops, will help some students learn to find their own strengths and break some rules.