We are thrilled to be welcoming Nina Budabin McQuown to the Wit’s End company this fall. Nina is a puppeteer and poet who first began working with us several years ago as a researcher on Malevolent Creatures. They also ran sound for part of the Saudade tour and have now started performing with us as well. Here is a short interview so you can get to know them!
Wit’s End Puppets: What is your earliest memory of puppets? Where did you first encounter them?
Nina Budabin McQuown: My mom was a storyteller, and there were always puppets hanging around my house. She used a method of telling stories with pieces of flannel that she’d layer on a board made of the same stuff. She’d build these pink-iced cookies and people and scenes out of flannel that were mesmerizing to me as a kid. I forgot all about them for years, and then a friend showed me a strange old early twentieth-century book on making hand puppets and I started making paper mache heads toward a giant ensemble show that I never ended up actually doing. All those little goblin heads I made make really good Christmas tree toppers though, particularly if you’re Jewish.
WEP: You’re a published poet and some of your poems have been turned into puppet pieces. Can you talk a little about the relationship between poetry and puppetry? What was the process like for turning your poetry into live theater?
NBM: There are plenty of models of good poetry puppetry integration out there, too–Theater Ooblek’s series of Baudelaire poem-crankie-song-shows, and the Alphabet Arts Poetry and Puppetry Series that Amber West ran for years in Brooklyn. Peter Schumann at Bread and Puppet uses loads of poetry in his work, and something that I read about his work once draws a connection between the ways that poetry and puppetry are both arts that expect audiences to participate in the making of meaning as they read or watch, rather than sitting back and receiving a story. As for the process of making shows, it’s wonderful. There’s nothing like watching a bunch of people you respect put in so much time and energy to create an interpretation of something you wrenched painstakingly out of your own head and make something new out of it. And it’s challenging. Puppetry is the art that enfolds all arts, so ultimately it works, but since it’s primarily movement and object based, where the capabilities and quirks of the objects do most of the making in the show, so many words can really slow things down. The challenge is to let the visuals be the show instead of just illustrating the words, I think. Anna Lublina, who with Lilly Kaplan and Ruthie Natanzon created this last show based on my poems called The Story of the Orca’s Silver Tongue as Told by the Manager of the Only Taco Bell in Juno did a wonderful job of letting the words be words and bringing in all kinds of other exciting visual and sonic elements.
WEP: Tell us a little about your time at Bread & Puppet.
NBM: Bread and Puppet is an enormous community of artists and organizers. I got to be an apprentice there and go on tour with them in the last year, and it’s been a privilege to witness how this vast network coalesces both to produce Peter Schumann’s vision, and to support connections between artists and the production of art all over the world. So much has been said about that theater and I don’t have much to add, but I suppose I’d say that the most resounding lesson for me, from my time there so far is that whatever you have in mind you should do it and do it now. I’ve always been a deliberate and slow sort of artist tending towards perfectionism, like a lot of artists I think, so the lesson of making it, finishing it, and putting it on the stage as fast as possible has been an essential one for me.
WEP: What are you most excited about creating or working on with Wit’s End Puppets?
NBM: I got involved with Wit’s End originally as a researcher and a writer for Malevolent Creatures, so I’ve gotten to prowl through libraries and archives looking for sources on folklore and other supporting material. I’ve loved having the opportunity to work on writing for puppetry, and building and performing with so many kinds of puppets. It’s also been a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with other writers and artists—I think that’s what I’m most psyched for, Wits’ End’s focus on drawing together the puppetry community in and around DC. There is so much for art to do in this city, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it.