Puppet Homecoming 2018

In September, Wit’s End company members Cecilia Cackley and Genna Beth Davidson went up to Brattleboro, Vermont for Puppet Homecoming. This Puppeteers of American regional event was held in conjunction with Puppets in the Green Mountains, an international puppet festival organized by Sandglass Theater. In this post, Cecilia and Genna Beth have a conversation about their experiences at Puppet Homecoming. 

Cecilia: Puppet Homecoming was a great experience. What shows did you find the most inspiring or interesting?

Genna Beth: Can I say all of them? Haha, each one was so different, and all were virtuosic. A Hunger Artist was just my cup of tea. I loved the cleverness of all the different puppetry styles (toy theatre, hand and rod, shadow, pure object manipulation); each one used to it’s full potential and perfectly chosen for that part of the story. And who doesn’t love the strangeness of a Kafka story? The performer was also just so amazing! Jonathan Levin basically did a one man show. So much talent! Which show was your favorite?

Cecilia: I really loved Meet Fred by Hijinx Theater in association with Blind Summit. I’ve really enjoyed the work by Blind Summit that I’ve seen in the past, but the collaboration with Hijinx and the themes of how a person with a disability navigates the world were extra powerful. I was laughing the whole time, just on the edge of crying. It really made me think.

Besides seeing the shows, we also went to some different workshops. Which ones did you do and which were the most helpful?

Genna Beth: I learned about silicone, writing grants for funding puppetry, and about race, gender, and sexuality in puppetry. Learning about silicone opened me up to new possibilities for crafting puppets, but I think the one that stimulated my mind the most was the one on race, gender and sexuality. I think everyone in the workshop was white and many talked about mistakes they’ve made with appropriation. Who should be telling what stories? And for me it raised a questions about taking on work to build puppets for stories that aren’t mine to tell. You were going to come to that workshop too but hung back at the writing grants one to talk more with that presenter individually. What did you learn?

Cecilia: I felt a lot better after that workshop, because I learned that my frustration at writing grants for puppet work is something a lot of people share! The presenter, Roxie Myhrum  from Puppet Showplace Theater in Boston, had a lot of concrete tips for how to think about describing puppets in grant applications and marketing materials. I was just sorry that we took so long to get started with that one that we didn’t get through all her slides!

It sounds like we both got a lot out of this weekend in Vermont. Do you think we should go back next year? What other things would you like to try if we return?

Genna Beth: I definitely want to go back next year! We didn’t get to check out the marketplace, so next year I want to make a point of that. Also I got to speak with a few people from across the region but it was hard to find time to get to know more people. So I’d like to find a way to make more friends next year too. You?

Cecilia: I agree with all of that. I wonder if it would be easier to make friends if we performed in one of the showcases or slams. Maybe that would give us a starting point for talking to people?

Genna Beth: YES! Good idea. I think we can have something prepared for the slam next year. I’d really like to make that a goal. Perhaps my lightbulb heads puppet show about depression. But who knows, we have a whole year to figure it out.

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The puppet Mr. Ruraru from the show Mr. Ruraru’s Yard by Puppet and It’s Double from Taiwan. 

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A Summer of Shadow Art

Last summer, we went on our first out-of-state tour, taking the shadow show Saudade to six different venues in Minneapolis. This summer, we haven’t performed any shadow work, but I did have the opportunity to see three very different shadow and silhouette based pieces of art in DC and New York City.

Back in the spring, we performed Saudade at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, for the opening of a new exhibit of contemporary and historical silhouettes called Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now. While I knew a little about the history of silhouettes, mainly that they were an inexpensive form of portraiture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was interesting to see more complicated compositions, such as this depiction of a magic lantern show by Auguste Edouart.

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A silhouette of a magic lantern show in the 1800’s cut by Auguste Edouart.

One of the contemporary artists featured in the exhibit is Kristi Malakoff. Much of her work involves the transformation of two-dimensional objects into three-dimensional artwork and her piece in the exhibit is this beautiful three-dimensional silhouette sculpture of children around a maypole.

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Kristi Malakoff’s silhouette sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In 2016, we had the opportunity to perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an annual event that presents artists from all over the world. We performed as part of a section of the festival about migration, titled On the Move, but most of the festival focuses on particular regions or countries around the world. This year, the Smithsonian presented artists from Armenia and Catalonia, including several kinds of puppet artists. The Ayrogi Shadow Theater is a group of performers who travel around Armenia performing shadow puppetry. They trace their traditional storytelling back to the 1830’s and in contrast to more complex and colorful shadow puppets found in the region, use a simple style of puppet made from cardboard or leather.

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Shadow puppets by Ayrogi Shadow Theater from Armenia at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. 

Finally, I was able to visit the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City while I was there for work in early August. I’m very familiar with the DC museum but had never had an excuse to visit the Heye center in New York, housed in the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House downtown. I went primarily to see a new exhibit about Taino Heritage and Identity, but I also happened upon a set of rooms titled Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound. Of course transformation is at the heart of all puppetry, and I was especially moved by the piece The Harbinger of Catastrophe by Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka‘wakw). The box sits in the middle of the room and the shadows it casts stretch to fill the entire floor and walls so that the viewer walks through and disrupts them as they move around the space. It was an immersive experience that I’m still thinking about. If you have a chance to see the exhibit before it closes in January, I highly recommend it.

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The Harbinger of Catastrophe by Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka‘wakw) at the American Indian Museum, NYC. 

3 Caja Lambe-Lambe Videos

Living in the United States, I don’t have the opportunity to see very much caja lambe-lambe puppetry live. I mostly have to rely on the Internet to show me what other puppeteers are creating! Videos are not the best way to watch caja lambe-lambe, which really does depend on the forced perspective created by looking through the peephole, but they are better than nothing. Here are three I’ve recently found:

This caja lambe-lambe show has designs by Marcos Leal and was made by Brazilian puppeteers, if I’m reading the YouTube description correctly. I like the neon colors and the way it gets so much story out of very simple objects. I also think the movement really works with the ragtime soundtrack!

There are a couple similar versions of this show online, this one is by Rogério Pett. It includes one aspect of lambe-lambe that always fascinates me, which is how the puppeteer comes up with a costume for their hands, to better incorporate them into the scenario. It can be distracting, so it’s definitely a delicate balance, but it’s always interesting to see.

This video by Leonel Arregui, is probably my favorite of the three. It definitely has the most complicated design, and takes full advantage of the 2-D puppet form. The movement of the set and characters almost reminds me of Japanese theater such as dogugaeshi, with its many sliding screens.

Shows I’d Like to See

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A Heart at Sea. Photo by Half a String. 

The wonderful thing about social media is that it enables us to maintain connections with theaters in other parts of the country and the world, and find out about the shows they are performing. The frustrating thing about social media is that I see all these cool pictures of inspiring shows that I won’t get to see in person. Here are three shows either currently running or that have just closed that I wish I could magically teleport to go see.

JUNK at Little Angel Theatre in London.
This immersive kid’s show using recycled materials looks like a really fun way to learn about the recycling process! Some of the puppets look like they have a resemblance to some of our characters from Cabinets of Kismet and I’d love to hear what the voices sound like and see how the audience is encouraged to move from space to space during the show.

NO BLUE MEMORIES at Manual Cinema with the Poetry Foundation and Chicago International Puppet Festival.
I’m a huge fan of Manuel Cinema and their innovative ways of combining actors and overhead projector shadow puppets. I also like Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry, so this show looks amazing and I hope some day I’ll get to see it!

A HEART AT SEA by Half a String, currently touring the UK.
The live music and mechanical set is what attracted me to this show about a boy who bottles up his heart and throws it in the sea. I love puppetry that includes interplay between actors and puppets, especially if there’s a big variation in scale. The intricate workings of this tabletop set are fascinating and I hope in the future they bring it to the US and share it with audiences here.

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!

 

Puppets in Podcastland: A Podcast Roundup

By Nina Budabin McQuown

Puppetry and podcasting belong together. Both are having a moment, as the journalists like to say, edging in on the big stage of American media. But if you search for “puppet” in the itunes podcast app, your top hit will probably be a podcast with helpful tips on writing modules in “Puppet,” which is a code you can write modules in. I’m doing that thing where you define a word with the same word like a beekeeper is a person who keeps bees or a puppet coder is a person who codes in Puppet and not a member of our secret sororal order with rings and cowls and handshakes and stuff. Anyway, it’s disappointing unless you’re super excited about software development. Which the ads targeting me on Facebook tell me I should be, but I am not.

I do however, like both puppetry and podcasts. So this week for our Wit’s End blog, I’m rounding up the few puppetry podcasts out there on the digital airwaves. As it turns out, the vast majority of shows with puppet in their name have nothing to do with actual puppets, so I’ve sifted them for you here, and I’ll be leaving out the defunct and disingenuous. Sadly, there’s no longer a Jim Henson Company Podcast, and Pension Plan Puppets is a hockey podcast about the Toronto Maple Leafs and not a puppet show taking place in a zany Nordic retirement community like I thought it would be. Ah well.

Part I: Puppetry Podcasts

The top of the list here is Grant Baciocco’s interview show Under the Puppet. Baciocco has wUnder the Puppetorked with the Jim Henson Company, Sesame Street, and Mystery Science Theater 3000, and his guests display similarly impressive accolades.  Produced by Saturday Morning Media, the show sounds good, with clean production values and good editing. The real pleasure here however is in Baciocco’s interview style. He manages to be both intimate and unobtrusive. He encourages puppeteers to get personal about their art, then lets them talk, so the great majority of the show is their stories. Guests also know they’re speaking to a peer audience, since this show is aimed at discussing the “art and business of puppetry” with “working puppeteers.” Guests are often generous—in the most recent interview, with Dan Milano of Greg the Bunny, for example, subjects range from the relationship between character and voice acting to the perils of puppet plastic surgery. Under the Puppet is a relatively young podcast, and it updates about once a month, so you’ll get through all of the episodes thus far fairly quickly. I’ve enjoyed every episode I’ve listened to, so far, and learned a lot about puppets on American television.

 Getting Felt Up is another interview podcast featuring professionals in the big time of feltAmerican puppetry—its hosts Nate Begle and Dan Becker interview puppeteers hailing mainly from Sesame Street and the Jim Henson Company, but also discuss stop motion animation and voice-over acting among other arts. It’s been going a while, with episodes mainly clustered in the Spring, so there are plenty to download. Unfortunately, in episodes I’ve listened to, the podcast tends to live up to its awkward and creepy name. If Under the Puppet is the Terry Gross style interview, with its sonic implications of intense eye-contact across a table, Getting Felt Up has the atmosphere of a morning show, with a bro-y bluster that makes it a tough listen despite the interesting work the guests do.  Production values are also uneven—sometimes they’re studio quality, other times it can feel like you’re listening in on a three (or more!) way skype conversation between a bunch of people who are all talking at once and also making dinner at the same time. This is a favorite of Muppet and Sesame Street fans, since it often allows for a behind-the-scenes conversation with builders and puppeteers on these seminal shows. These dudes would definitely giggle because I used the word seminal.

Part II: Puppet Shows on the Radio: Before we even get to the podcasts, let’s admit that the idea of puppets on the radio rocks the very conceptual foundation of puppetry which is object theater is it not? With objects? How do you hear an object? I think it’s an interesting and not all that silly question for puppeteers who’ve spent their careers thinking about the ways that sound and voice give conviction to their object performances. Play on, puppets on the radio.

Lolly Lardpop’s Radio Playdate! I learned about Lolly’s podcast from an interview with lollycreator Leslie Carrara-Rudolph on Getting Felt Up. It’s a podcast for children, and Carrara-Rudolph performs it for live audiences who sound like they’re having an excellent time singing and dancing. Lead by sock-puppet Lolly, this show emphasizes acts that work in both audio and visual forms simultaneously and does it well. Carrara-Rudolph does a lot of great voice acting and her years of experience as Abby Cadabby on Sesame Street definitely show in the strong production values, kid-friendly writing, and far-too-catchy-for-my-own-good songs (the theme music’s been playing on an endless loop in my head for twenty-four hours now). There’s lots of great stuff in these, but there’s also the occasional thing I think I’d want to discuss with my kid if I had one. I’ve only listened to a few of these, but there’s a character named Madam Velveeta, for example, who’s described as a “gypsy” in episode one, and while I’m sure my imaginary child would enjoy all the singing and dancing, I wouldn’t want them to come away thinking that was an alright thing to call somebody, or that Roma people are here to be our scarf-covered-stereotype friends. That’s what Stevie Nicks fans are for.

Radio Free Puppets is a radio variety show built in loving parody on the format of A Prairie Home Companion and performed as part of the Kansas City Fringe Festival. A neat radioidea, in practice this show feels incomplete. It’s kind of like being seated behind a really, really big pillar at the theater in question. As I mentioned above, I think the idea of a radio puppet show is a cool one, but these seem to be written with their live audience far more in mind. Audio production values are low, and punny conversations that might work if delivered by a physically interesting puppet aren’t enough to hold my attention when they’re all I have to focus on. That said, it’s a cool way to disseminate your show to audiences outside the theater. I’d rather hear more from host and puppeteer Justin Howe about creating his puppets, or hear a production from him designed only for audio.

huntFinally, in a class by itself is Puppet Hunt. It’s not a puppet show, it’s not exactly about puppetry. Instead, it’s a pastiche on golden-era radio series like Johnny Dollar and Dragnet, led by two detectives solving puppet-crimes in the burg of Large Neck, a town overrun with ventriloquists who frequently meet grisly ends. Like a lot of fictional podcasts here in the early days of the medium, this one has a framing device, where Puppet Hunt is supposed to be real old radio, recovered by a pair of archivists. It’s an enticing conceit, especially since the noir in these episodes is so much more feminist-friendly than 1940s radio generally was, but the sound quality ultimately gives it away. If you’re a Big Broadcast listener on WAMU, you’ll get all the forties radio references, but even if you’re just a connoisseur of stupid jokes about ventriloquists, this one is definitely worth checking out.

That’s it for puppet podcasts according to my searches—there isn’t much. If you know of puppet-focused podcasts that I’ve missed in the list above, definitely tell us about them here! In the meantime, happy listening.