My Traveling Library Show

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.

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Preview: Puppet Lobby #3

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Alex & Olmsted. Photo by Kintz. 

We are thrilled to welcome Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon of Alex & Olmsted as our guests at our next Puppet Lobby on January 29. Alex and Sarah  have been making puppets together since 2010.  In recent years, they have performed at LaMaMa NYC, The Puppeteers of America Festival, Bread and Puppet Theater, and two National Puppet Slams. They will be talking about their show Milo the Magnificent which was awarded a 2017 Jim Henson Foundation Grant and a Greenbelt Community Foundation Grant and was featured on the front page of the Hartford Courant. Milo is a show about a magician with a variety show of tricks and science experiments that don’t go quite as planned. You can watch a trailer for the show here.

In addition to Alex & Olmsted, Wit’s End artistic director Cecilia Cackley will be talking about her latest project in the Brazilian style caja lambe-lambe, which is a form of street puppetry. She recently took her latest work-in-progress, called Library Love to the Savannah Children’s Book Festival. We hope you can join us to hear about these puppet projects on January 29th at 7:00 at the Selman Gallery at the Artspace Lofts in Brookland.

Teaching Caja Lambe-Lambe

I believe you learn a lot about your own art when you take on the challenge of teaching it to someone else. By figuring out how to explain the steps, hit the important rules but also allow for creativity and experimentation, you come to a better understanding of how an art form works and how to make better art. When I teach puppetry,  I often fall back on styles and forms that are familiar and that I know are within the capability of the age groups I’m working with. Last spring, however, I was given an opportunity to do a puppetry residency with an entire grade level at a local public school and I decided to throw caution to the wind.

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Second grade students at Bancroft Elementary drawing puppets for their projects. 

I’ve been in love with the Brazilian style of puppetry called caja lambe-lambe ever since I first heard about it in Argentina three years ago. From my early flailing attempts, to slightly more sophisticated projects to interviews with my teachers, I’ve been exploring and experimenting with this form and trying to get better at it. I also want the style to become better known here in the US, as it is throughout most of Latin America. I wasn’t sure if three classes of second graders were quite ready to tackle developing a show, building it and performing it all in two months of art classes. However, they dived in with enthusiasm, eager to try it all.

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Cutting out a puppet. 

The hardest part of collaborative artwork for kids is usually decision-making and this project was no exception. As a teacher, I usually encourage my students to make compromises and find ways to incorporate ideas from everyone in the group. But with only three minutes to perform the entire show, some contributions had to be cut and choices made quickly. The students all began with choosing a poem, one of three by then-national Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. Most groups (somewhat predictably) chose the shortest poem, “Jackrabbits, Green onions and witches stew” which had a simple, bouncing cadence and a list of random fun objects. Several of the groups tried their very hardest to make puppets of every single thing mentioned in the poem, something I will try to discourage if I teach this workshop again. In the future, it would be interesting to give the students a wider range of story options, but I did like the way the project gave them a new way to explore poetry.

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Painting the boxes was messy, but fun. 

We discovered when the students began to work on their actual boxes that having four or five people painting the same box quickly gets messy. Using markers allowed for more flexibility, although it did take longer to complete. The most successful boxes included detailed drawing on both the inside outside of the boxes. Some groups painted a title on the front of the box and others added decorations around the peephole. They learned that the lid of the box would cover up the top inch of the sides and to take that into account when painting decorations. Color combinations were negotiated and compromises made when students ran out of one color or another.

Cardboard and paper were not the sturdiest materials to use in puppet making, and in retrospect, I should have given a little more explicit instruction on how to design and create the actual puppets. Working at that small scale is challenging for seven and eight year olds and their lack of experience meant that some puppets ended up being so tiny, it was hard to see them. I did give students the option of using clay, but that turned out to be too heavy for the pipe cleaners we were using for puppet controls. In the future, I would like to see what kind of small puppets the students can create using recycled materials, including fabric, plastic and wood.

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Practicing a caja lambe-lambe show. 

The most surprising and successful part of this experiment for me was the final presentation. Usually, caja shows are performed outside, or sometimes in a gallery space, where the audience walks around and watches them one by one. This is time-consuming, for both the audience and the performer and I was doubtful that second graders would be able to stay patient and wait their turn at each box. Likewise, I wanted to find a way to allow each member of the group to contribute to the performance, instead of having just one puppeteer. In order to save time and space, we came up with a solution involving technology–specifically, a document camera and projector. The lens of the document camera fit perfectly into the peephole, allowing us to project the view of the inside of the box onto a whiteboard for the entire class to see. One student read the poem aloud, while the others operated the little flashlights to light the inside of the box and the entrances and exits of puppets. The excited “Ohhhhhh!” of the class when the lights came on and the inside of the box was revealed was truly satisfying for everyone.

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The view of the inside of the box, projected via a document camera. 

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Students working together to perform their caja lambe-lambe show. 

Everything Wrong with This Caja Show

In 2012, I visited Argentina for the first time and I was fascinated when Mara Ferreya, a puppeteer from Cordoba, described a kind of street puppet show that took place in a box. She showed me a photograph, with three people all wearing headphones and looking through their own peephole at some invisible show inside a cardboard box. It didn’t look that hard to make.

Later that summer I made my first attempt at a similar show. I called it the Personal Puppet Show and performed it at farmer’s markets and community events. People liked it, but it was only after I went back to Argentina two years later and took a workshop with Mendoza puppeteer Gabriela Céspedes that I realized all of the things I had done wrong. Here is a list of them.

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1. The box is too shallow. I could only see one side of the box in Mara’s photo and I didn’t realize it had to be a certain depth. Part of the magic of caja lambe-lambe is that the tiny peephole creates a forced perspective for the viewer. This gets ruined, however, if the box isn’t deep enough and the puppets end up too close to the eye. My box is only about 6-8 inches deep which is great for transport, but not for creating a forced perspective.

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2. There are two eyeholes instead of one. This was purely me trying to be fancy. I thought two eyeholes would make it easier to see inside, but it’s actually the opposite. Because everyone has a slightly different distance between their eyes, some people find it much harder to focus, looking through two holes. One peephole per viewer works the best.

3. There is no viewfinder for the puppeteer. Another detail that I missed because I only saw a photo. There should be some kind of window in the back or the top of the box so that the puppeteer can see what they are doing. Otherwise, movement becomes imprecise and easy to mess up. Without a viewfinder, my puppeteering isn’t as good as it could be.

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4. There is a curtain at the back, instead of holes for the puppeteers hands. Another mistake that causes practical problems for puppeteering. Trying to smoothly move my hands (and puppets) between pieces of fabric is difficult and it’s easy for the cardboard puppets to get stuck. This creates a jerking motion as they enter the scene, which ruins the illusion of movement. Most boxes have holes for the puppeteer’s hands either at the back or the side, with a curtain over the top to block the light spill. It is much easier to place a puppet in front of this curtain and then enter the box, rather than trying to do both those movements at once. Another option if your puppets are on vertical rods is to cut the holes in the top of the box and bring the puppets in from above.

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5. The box isn’t created with a single show in mind. This is the biggest mistake I made, and it’s arguably the one that takes the Personal Puppet Show out of the category of caja lambe-lambe. A true caja show is a miniature world, one that is constructed for the purpose of telling one short, 1-3 minute story and that story alone. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the puppets, the soundtrack–all of these should combine to create the illusion of a complete setting. My box, with its one-color walls, black curtain background and plain floor does not do this.

Despite (or perhaps because of) my many mistakes, I enjoyed building my Personal Puppet Show and felt very much at home with the style of puppetry. After studying with Gabriela Céspedes and building a second show as part of the 2015 Fringe project I Thought the Earth Remembered Me I was only more convinced. This year, I’m looking forward to premiering my third caja show, called Library Love and demonstrating how much I’ve learned since I first built the Personal Puppet Show.

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Flashback time! Back in January, Cecilia was part of a delegation sent by Theater Communications Group to the Santiago a Mil theater festival in Santiago de Chile. As usual, Cecilia kept an illustrated journal of her travels, including encounters with puppets. These first two are from Mendoza, Argentina, where she spent a weekend catching up with Gabriela Cespedes and hanging out watching caja lambe-lambe shows in the plaza.

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An Interview with Gabriela Cespedes

When Cecilia was traveling in South America last year, she took a workshop with Argentine puppeteer Gabriela Cespedes in the art of caja lambe-lambe puppetry at the Convocatoria de Mujeres Titriteras (Convention of Women Puppeteers). The following is an interview with Cespedes about her work. It has been translated from Spanish and condensed for this blog post. 

Gabriela Cespedes, teaching a lambe-lambe workshop in Argentina.

Gabriela Cespedes, teaching a lambe-lambe workshop in Argentina.

Cecilia Cackley: How did you become a puppeteer? When did you first become interested in puppetry as an art form? 

Gabriela Cespedes: My training comes from acting. I started doing theater in 1988, with Mariu Carreras, a great teacher. It essentially taught me that theater takes place when we are dealing with the public and that is why you always have to create and perform work for an audience. Puppetry came later, in 1996 when I start to do street shows with two colleagues and became forever trapped in the art of puppetry …my interest in this technique must have been born from playing with small things, making houses, staging and playing with friends to make characters.

CC: Are there projects that have changed in response to audience comments? How do you maintain a balance between other people’s criticism and your own vision? 

GC: At first audience comments about a work they had seen affected me a lot and I always tried to change small things … but after a while I realized that art is intimate and solitary, that one can not meet the whims of each viewer … so when someone makes any criticism I take it with respect and affection, and on the other hand I still respect my artwork as I conceived it.

One of Gabi's lambe-lambe shows, set up for spectators.

One of Gabi’s lambe-lambe shows, set up for spectators.

CC: Do you work alone or in collaboration with other puppeteers? Why or why not? 

GC: At this moment all my works are solo … by choice or because it has been easier to move from one place to another by myself with my puppets !!!!
There are plans to work in groups … but we are always organizing activities in conjunction with other puppeteers.

CC: What project are you working on right now? 

GC: At the moment I am researching miniature drawings to use in both stop-motion animation and lambe-lambe theater or caja magica.

CC: What advice do you have for people who want to work with or learn more about puppets? 

GC: The art of puppetry is an ancient technique, captivating, trapping, that allows us to travel into unsuspected worlds … but mostly it is hard work and a lot of research, and that is fundamental to puppetry … and as they say in Japanese “give life to the wood” in that is everything, be able to give life to everything that comes into our HANDS !!!!!