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.


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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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!


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.


  • 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.

We’re Gonna Eat Their Trash: Making and Wasting Art

This post was written by Nina Budabin McQuown and was originally posted on their blog Yes We Have No

On the Bread and Puppet tour bus this spring, my young company-mate and I made up a song about our experience traveling. It started with woe over the aching back and stunted dreams of the traveling puppeteer, then abruptly switched styles: "Just kidding! My back doesn’t hurt at all, / we’re going to the mall, / and we’re gonna eat their trasht; The line refers with jubilation to dumpster diving in upstate New York, an enterprise that netted us, after alchemical transformation, an enormous pot of butternut squash soup and a pan of bread pudding. 

It could, however, as easily be a reference to puppetry in general. Puppets, at least the kind I find myself most often behind, under, and within, are made of trash. My own car is filled with broomsticks, bits of stiff wire, and other likely materials. At Bread and Puppet, the foundational political puppetry theater of 1960s New York City and twenty-first century Vermont where I apprenticed last summer, the workshop is lined with boxes of reclaimed wire, bike tires, rope ends, bottle caps, scrap wood and, of course, all-important cardboard. Most of the puppets at Bread and Puppet are made of this most versatile material soaked, separated, and layered with cornstarch glue onto clay forms covered with more recycled plastic. They’re finished with paint much of which has, notoriously, gone bad, its oils rancid enough to smell sort of like raw beef but still good for making faces and bodies, buildings and landscapes of abstract capitalist destruction and transgressive revolutionary joy.

We were performing Faust 3, a show written by Peter Schumann and developed by his vast, amorphous company over the course of 2016 and 2017. Its series of scenes take up motifs of light, the movements of refugees in crisis, the surveillance state, the strange emotional relationships we as observers have to international crises, the idea of vacation and play as banal or revolutionary responses to capital’s exploitation of workers, and other stuff. In the show I was a door, a refugee, a two-dimensional horse, a snob, a gargoyle, a proletarian hand puppet, two gods, and a lower-middle- class un-employee.

I especially liked being a gargoyle. It’s pure rough kinetic pleasure. In Faust 3, the gargoyles are figures for state surveillance and law enforcement. On stage, I shielded my body with the giant cardboard face and comparatively little naked cardboard body of a big-eared, bright-eyed, lump-featured fellow, jumping, screaming, and body checking at full-speed the gargoyle trainer, who informs the audience that gargoyles are “excellent fearmongers,” ideal for instilling in the populace “manageable, custom-tailored satisfaction” during times of unrest. At the end of the scene we drop our faces on the stage for later. Painted side down, the gargoyles become a pile of trash: sticks, staples and wires, leprous layers of cardboard torn and patched and re-patched every afternoon with cracked grey pools of wood glue and staples that glint like piercings at the
corners of their torn mouths in the lights.



As trash, even when they’re piled center stage, the audience doesn’t see them anymore. Most of the time it seemed to genuinely surprise the crowd when we lifted and flipped the faces and became gargoyles again, hooting and jumping behind the gathered masses and terrorizing everyone off the stage. 

The difference between a puppet and a pile of trash is movement and sound. As you create that movement and sound day to day, learning the subtle difference between demure gliding and sluglike trailing, or real horse and mechanical horse in your muscles if not in your mind, you get deeply familiar with your puppets—the angle at which you must hold the head so that the eyes are looking at something, the weight distribution of this gargoyle, the place not to put your hand on that one if you want to avoid arm-slicing wires, the heft and sightlines. In the show, for example, the blue mama was an enormous and regal or sometimes ragged and silly six-person puppet who carried us all offstage repeatedly in her healing arms. For the blue mama, the difference between a tower of rags that set the audience giggling and the compassionate world mother who made people cry was all about wing span and movement.

Then sometimes the difference between trash and art is lighting and space. I saw a lot of
transformed trash on our tour of the east, which was also incidentally a tour of east coast college art-school student shows. A barrel of bottles and electronics glued together with spray-foam in Maine, for example, reminded me of WEE Man, the giant tech creature at the Eden Project in Cornwall. It had a similar understory about the abundance of trash we produce, its plastic barrel spilling up bottles and foam, the art transforming the valence, but not the sheer material there-ness of the trash.


The RSA WEE Man gazing out at the Cornwall hills

But trash art also creates a striking awareness that when we’re talking metal and especially plastic, this iteration of objects doesn’t stop the cycle. What will this student do with their art when the exhibition is over? Keep it in storage for a while? Decide it’s too huge and chuck it? Chip off the detritus and spray foam and turn it back into a rain barrel? What happens to the WEE man when Cornwall is under water? Art doesn’t suddenly create a final and coherent meaning out of an assemblage of trash. It’s a rephrasing. Trash art gives trash identity, but like a body made of immortal molecules, the art will eventually break apart. The bottles and rain barrels and computer monitor cases that make it up keep circulating forever, making new assemblages that may have to be interpretable—as shelter, as tool, maybe again as art, by other eyes after the human ones are gone.


This futurist hermit crab, for example, wins boggiest ensemble for it’s mini-jam-jar look.

Of course, there’s nothing new about art as an inadequate tool for self-preservation. The
relationship between art and immortality is one of those great themes. Shakespeare’s sonnets are all about it, following an artist’s effort to preserve in language the beauty and selfhood of a love-object who is ultimately completely eclipsed by the artist and his art. “The young man” as he’s often known in scholarly essays, ends up going down in history as an object without a name.

Shakespeare’s sonnets undo the self at the center of the idea of immortality—they’re concerned with what it means to represent a self in the first place, let alone preserve it forever: “Thou in this shalt find thy monument” he insists in 107, right after admitting in 106 that the artist has already failed to preserve the object’s beauty: “these present days, / Had eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise” At least Shakespeare lived in a moment when there was probably some chance of a human future. Even allowing for the apocalypse (always popular), there was still supposed to be some universal interpreter, a God that sees us and preserves us in his eye/I. Art right now is grappling with an end of interpretation altogether. What’s the point if there is no posterity at all?  In that context, the stakes for making work out garbage that will ultimately just turn back
into garbage seem higher. A barrel of bottles and tech things and foam feels like an exercise in pointlessness. Just circulating stuff. Like breathing.
In her most recent performance art piece, “The Ship is Sinking” Emma Sulkowicz asks a
basically identical question inspired by Berthold Brecht, and maybe also by the great twentieth-century film Titanic: What’s the point of art if it’s hanging on the walls of a sinking ship?


No taste, Billy Zane, no taste at all

 Our world is the ship of course, sinking under the weight of people, carbon, plastic, capitalism, fascism. In her performance, she combines the imagery of the ship’s female figurehead with the practice of BDSM. And if you watch the video, you see that as much as it’s concerned with a coming apocalypse, it’s also about a more immediate kind of endurance: what it means to the body to be a figurehead and representative for women in art. Sulkowicz’s art (she first became well known for “Mattress Performance,”  her performance/demonstration against Columbia’s handling of her rape complaint) is masterful at projecting shame all around it. It makes viewers squirm: “Is she bothering you” asks the dom Master Avery (playing “Mr. Whitney” in the show) of audience members who try to talk to her. They do shameful things—Master Avery’s looking
away when an audience member asks to slap Sulkowicz on the face. She requires bodily
endurance of herself and her audience, who have to figure out what to do with their bodies in the demanding space of the real-world room. So there’s the endurance of the artist’s person and personhood in the real world then there’s the endurance of the artist’s personhood as art, and that brings up the big Brecht question—why bother enduring so much when the ship is sinking and there’s no future to preserve you? “Aw you can’t take it? She can’t take it, she’s had enough. You don’t want to be an artist?” he lets her down.

Performance art exacerbates that question. Time-based and ephemeral, for most of us,
performance art only exists as leftovers—bits of video, stills, online discussions and anecdotes from those who were there in the room as they process their own immediate experience into a narrative they can hold and tell. It’s an art form that’s recirculating as new gatherings of reassembled bits and pieces even as it’s created. The people who were there walk away with some version of it in their minds. The rope and rig come down—a group of people, interestingly including the slapper, untie her body. The rope and rig go—somewhere else, too. Midway through the video, we see Sulkowicz arranging them, her eyes going over them with the confidence and experience of a person who has chosen these pieces to practice with, has been through this with them many times, knows how they work.


At the end of the tour, we unpacked the bus. Everything must go. The show was essentially being retired, the frenetic ever-changeful pace of productions at Bread and Puppet means it will rarely if ever be performed again in spite of all the meaning we’d packed into it. If you saw Faust 3, you are one of the few hundreds of people who ever will, no matter its creator’s storied centrality to modern political performance. No matter the show’s implicit grandiloquent claim to pick up where Goethe left off. Last year as we began the process of performing it, I remember another apprentice telling me that this was Peter’s opus, the work that draws a straight line between Peter Schumann and Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe as unsatisfiable makers of light. But like all Bread
and Puppet shows it was written in a couple of weeks, performed for a year, and scattered.

Late the final night of tour we executed our last duties for the theater, helping to vet potential summer apprentices ahead of the deadline for acceptances. Essentially, we were upcycling ourselves, performing one more act towards the theater’s future before the touring company disassembled. In one letter, a potential apprentice delighted me by describing her art, in which she rearranges trash on the streets and then leaves it there. Sometimes it’s recognizably altered into art, sometimes, she said, it still resembles trash. There was a time when I would have considered those methods pretentious. Why make art no one knows is art? I remember, for example, feeling moved to enraged derision in an artist’s retrospective at the Whitney when a tour guide paused to discuss the meaning of a partially inflated balloon affixed to a wall some feet above a vertical line drawn in pencil. That didn’t feel like art to me. You couldn’t even see it if nobody pointed it out.

But now I know that interacting with things enlivens them, and leaves something behind—not a trace, not your name, not immortality, just a new assemblage. The garbage artist who rearranges and then leaves piles of trash is only acting as another anonymous agent. And while we could read her intervention, if we wanted to, as a kind of desperate human ploy to insert our agency everywhere, including into the apparently random distribution of objects on the street, I can also see it as an acknowledgment that human acts aren’t fundamentally different from other kinds of forces. In the long, long game we don’t control the effects of our arrangements any more than wind or water do.

How do we see ourselves as agents? That’s a central concern of protest art. I missed the climate March in April for the tour, but I hear it was a glorious event, especially as far as art, trash, and paper go. Enormous paper mâché puppets, masks, mobile parachute performances, and our now-requisite hordes of witty signs tweeting analogically at the lenses and the heavens. After the march, apparently, marshals went around with bullhorns encouraging people to throw their trash away, but as always, not everyone did. Part of this response, very likely, is that people are not quite ready to see their statements slough their meaning. An attribute of the ephemeral, singular and repetitive nature of protests, which like new cars, depreciate the moment they’re off the lot, is that their participants rarely seem prepared for this moment of abandonment. Hence shoals of
placards and stranded mobile sculptures left speaking out in national mall spaces zoned for more durable monuments expressing more sanctioned sentiments.


Like this guy, at the Treasury Building: something about a bored-looking Swiss moderate/ overseeing one of the most active spaces of performative American democracy just strikes me as peak neo-liberal shade. 

And in response to all this matter out of place, like the dark twin of my mother in law (who always, every time, comes in with the “lettuce eat” pun whenever we have salad), right wing news outlets trotted out their perennial response. There were pictures of overflowing garbage cans and signs arrayed on the street. There were articles about how hypocritical leftists want somebody else to come clean up their mess. Indeed, the strategy itself is recycled, from as recently as the raids on the camps at Standing Rock, and as distantly as the first big climate march in New York City in 2014. Back then, Jeff Spross, writing for Thinkprogress.org, took note of the right-wing garbage angle by drawing a parallel between it and right-wing attitudes toward climate change. Spross wrote that,

“This line of reasoning is basically individualist: it says that combating climate change and moving to an ecologically sustainable society requires adding up hundreds of millions of changes in individual habits and values. Under this frame, when the People’s Climate marchers demand policies to combat climate change, they’re seen as demanding more virtuous behavior from their fellow citizens as individuals. Which makes all their trash evidence of their hypocrisy.” 

On the contrary, Spross continues, it is the fossil-fuel embedded systems that Americans inhabit that need to change, not so much the individual Americans. Even the least thing-dependent American has a greater carbon footprint than a wealthy European. Not littering can’t change the trajectory of climate change. Switching away from fossil-fueled agriculture and methane producing beef, from dirty engines and fracking as a society, can. This is not something that individual human agency can accomplish, no matter how virtuous the doer, except by insisting on a changed system overall.

That offers a little moral solace in its way, right? We ourselves did not travel particularly light on tour. After the suitcases, sleeping bags, food, books, knitting projects, games, instruments, and set pieces came off the bus, we unpacked the puppets. I had a gargoyle over one arm, the other holding one end of the blue mama’s central pole, with her cloth body and long hair wrapped around it. “She goes up in the loft,” our tour director told us, “you’ll see the place for the gargoyles. The blue mama goes with the other blue mamas. You’ve seen the brown papa, right?” 

I hadn’t. Indeed, I’d always thought of her as a single mom, totally directed towards the nurture of frail humans, no time for a mate of her own kind. We carried her huge body as a series of sticks, mâché and rags—two other puppeteers having preceded with her great blue hands. We marched across the muddy springtime paths of the farm and back up through the winding stairs over the dirt-floor theater. There, sure enough, two other puppets in the same style leaned against the rafters. Back in the context of the storage spaces you can see it—a whole wooden rack of gargoyles, a colloquy of mamas and papas. There were some other shows for which these were conceived, their new context in Faust 3 was a reuse, another life. We broke them and put them back together again with salvaged boxes and paper bags from the co-ops and groceries we visited along the way. Some of these puppets have been around for twenty years or more, getting this treatment from generations of puppeteers. They aren’t trash up there, they’re honored configurations, waiting for their next context. Even here, it’s a matter of time. And if you’re imagining a wavering mountain of decomposing cloth and cardboard, clotted together, growing mushrooms, full of rat shit and mouse shit in the wind and rain, I am too, I am too, there’s nothing wrong.