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. 

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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.

Black Annis Returns

We are very excited to be hard at work again on our show Malevolent Creatures! We first workshopped this piece in the summer of 2014, but it got put on hold for awhile as we focused on building and then performing Saudade. Now we are back at it, exploring the layers of meaning in stories featuring supernatural characters from British folklore.

The first segment of the show, which focuses on a witch from Leicestershire called Black Annis was developed and shown as part of a puppet slam at Black Cherry Puppet Theater in Baltimore this past month. Here are a few photos from rehearsals and the performance. Photos are by Cecilia Cackley and Bill Haas.

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Peacocks and Puppets

Although we mainly work with puppets for the theater, last month we had the opportunity to work on a short film project with She Monster Productions up in New York City. It was a video for the song ‘The Waltz’ by Ian Axel and featured several Muppet-style puppets alongside human actors. The puppets were provided by us and the New York based puppet company Puppetsburg. Set partly in the city and partly in an afterlife with a decaying, ornate feast, the video follows two women as they find each other, are separated through death and then find each other again.

Puppetry for film is very different than for the stage, and although our arms got tired, it was fun to try moments over and over again, with no thought for an audience’s patience or sight lines. Everyone connected with the project was creative and eager to try new things. And we got to meet a peacock! His name was Dexter and he wasn’t all that thrilled with tons of people and puppets invading the apartment where he lives, so while it would have been fun to have the puppets try and interact with him, we resisted. Here are some photos of the shoot. We will share the video when it is finished!

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Emily and Cecilia resting between shots.

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The feast table, set with all kinds of odd objects.

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Cecilia taking a quick nap behind the table.

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Puppets with one of the actors. They  look cute, but they can be dangerous!

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Peacock! Say hi to Dexter.

Puppets and Clowning

Some of my colleagues from this trip to Armenia.

Some of my colleagues from this trip to Armenia.

After getting back from Winnipeg, I had just a short break before leaving on another international trip, this time to Yerevan, Armenia with a group of clowns and artists led by Patch Adams. Adams, the founder of the Gesundheit Institute, is a clown, activist and speaker. He saw our show Cabinets of Kismet in 2013 and we have been in touch since then, talking about the possibility of using puppetry on one of these trips.

It was a new and different experience to be working with puppets in an entirely improvised setting, without words (I don’t speak any Armenian) and usually without story. Our group visited hospitals and orphanages in four different Armenian cities, encountering children of all ages. I found that the puppets usually worked best in a hospital setting, or where children had limited mobility. In these kinds of places, we were moving from room to room, often on our own or with just one other person. The intimacy of small numbers meant I could take the time to introduce the puppet, play and let the child try it out for themselves.

Clowning and puppetry have a lot in common. An emphasis on physicality, over the top reactions and wordless interaction are hallmarks of both art forms. Just as the children laugh at the surprise of an adult in a colorful wig or giant false bottom, they laugh at the surprise of a puppet appearing out of a bag or box. I had never worked as a clown before and so I didn’t have as many familiar ‘bits’ or planned interactions to fall back on, but I found that the puppets worked well as an introduction to many kids, especially those who were shy at first.

I brought only hand puppets on this trip–a sock puppet, basic glove puppet and tiny mouse finger puppet–thinking that they would be easiest for the kids to understand and manipulate. If I have the opportunity to do this kind of work again, I’d like to bring some object puppets (similar to what we created for Kismet) and see if kids respond to that. Part of the fun of puppetry is often taking familiar objects and turning them into personalities, with or without words. It would be great to see what kids in other places come up with using that style of puppet.

Winnipeg Photos

Some photos of our trip to Winnipeg this month for the Winnipeg International Storytelling Festival:

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The entire show of Saudade. Everyone was very impressed by our packing abilities!

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The poster for the festival.

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Genna sorts control rods before a show.

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The puppets (60 in total) laid out ready for a show.

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We performed in the gym at the NEEDS center, a community space for newcomers. Our fantastic sound guy, Hassaan is at the computer.

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Talking with the kids at the NEEDS Center after the show.

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The rivers of Winnipeg are beautiful in the sun.

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Cecilia and Genna at the opening dinner of the festival.