Revisiting Saudade

As part of our preparation for this tour of Saudade (which starts on Friday!) we were able to bring in photographer Liza Harbison to take some shots of the shadow puppets. Here are a few:


Adventures in Interviewing

IMG_1962We have a busy year ahead of us! Along with remounts of several collaborative projects and our ongoing development of Malevolent Creatures, we are creating a new shadow puppet play called Saudade. 

It’s a project based on stories of the immigrant experience and right now I’m doing lots of interviews with people in Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland. I’ve heard many different perspectives, but everyone seems to agree that the two things that make us long for the places we come from are family and food. I’m looking forward to working on assembling the many moments I’m hearing about into a beautiful shadow play experience!

An Interview with Amelia Gossman

This week Wit’s End Artistic Director Cecilia Cackley interviewed artist Amelia Gossman about her experience working as an illustrator on Malevolent Creatures, our upcoming project based on British and Celtic folklore.  

Cecilia Cackley: When did you first learn about the character of Black Annis (aka Black Agnes)? What drew you to her?

Black Annis, artwork by Amelia Gossman

Black Annis, artwork by Amelia Gossman

Amelia Gossman:  As a kid, I was really into folklore and faeries. My best friend and I would look at Brain Froud books when we were eight and run around the woods looking for and trying to lure the creatures we read about. I believe in his book, “Good Faeries/ Bad Faeries” he gives a brief description of her. For my senior thesis in college, I wrote an analysis of Welsh/English folklore and I learned more about her in depth. I chose to write about her because bot only is her back story is really interesting, the added creepiness of cannibalism makes her, for me, one of the scariest creatures. And being scary is intriguing.

CC:  I know you did a project on her in art school. Can you describe it and talk a little about what it entailed?

AG:  I mentioned that I wrote about her for my senior thesis. My minor at MICA was Creative Writing, and for our final project we were given the freedom of writing about whatever topic we wanted. The analysis covered the origin of certain folktales and how those stories related to the current culture (i.e. faeries had kings, queens, and knights much like the British monarchy). I spent the entire school year gathering information from various sources and condensing that information in an organized way. A big challenge was targeting ONE area, so I stuck to the British Isles. It was just too much to include all the creatures I wanted to (that meant no Minotaurs, fauns, or kappas, just to name a few!)

Amy getting set with the rehearsal puppet of Black Annis. Photo by Patricia Germann.

Amy getting set with the rehearsal puppet of Black Annis. Photo by Patricia Germann.

CC:  What was the most interesting thing you learned about Black Annis in your research?

AG:  Here’s an excerpt of the paper [that I wrote] that focused on her!

The Scots also believe in Wicked Wichts of the Unseelie Court. These bogies were fearsome and inflicted many ills upon both man and beast. They were much more malevolent than the mischievous house spirits. Devilish monsters like Black Agnes would prey upon children. A hag of the Dane Hills near Leicester, England is a blue-faced crone with long claws and yellow fangs, sometimes taking the shape of a cat-demon. She is said to live inside of a cave she personally clawed out from the rocks. She eats the children who stray into the Dane Hills after dark, skinning them and devouring them, later scattering their bones around the hills and hanging their skins from the trees to dry. If children are in short supply, she snatches lambs from the pasture or even babies from the open windows of houses. 

I think her connection to cats was incredibly interesting. It’s not mentioned in the paper, but I remember reading about how a nearby town, lead by its mayor, would drag a dead cat through out the woods near her cave – I think as a warning to her. That’s a great example of folklore being incredibly ensconced in a town’s culture! I should’ve added that!

CC:  Did you approach the illustration for us differently than for your school project?

AG:  Definitely – while I had done research on her, I was able to add some of my own personal ideas to the illustration. I chose to add scarring to her mouth, her large hands and long body, and her ominous clothing – including a crown of bones. I liked having that freedom.

CC:  What was it like seeing the rehearsal puppet based on your illustration?

AG:  Amazing!! She had such a spooky presence because she was so large. I think I had an idea that the show would be almost Punch and Judy scale, and that she might be a little marionette, but I was thrilled to see that she was enormous!

CC:  Was there anything unexpected or surprising about what you saw in the rehearsals for Malevolent Creatures?

AG:  The integration of the audience and the performance was really cool, something I haven’t seen before. I don’t want to give too much away, but I liked thinking I would see a traditional show and being surprised by unexpected visitors. The performers are so talented and the puppets came to life, even though they weren’t finished. It was great!

Carol and Amy demonstrating with the Black Annis rehearsal puppet. Photo by Patricia Germann.

Carol and Amy demonstrating with the Black Annis rehearsal puppet. Photo by Patricia Germann.

CC:  Are there any other folklore characters you think you’d like to illustrate or write about?

AG:  Oh gosh, where do I begin?? I’ve used a lot of creatures in my work in the past (especially fauns, but those are Greek rather than English!). However I would love to illustrate more selkies, will-o-the-wisps, and kelpies.

The Wit’s End project Malevolent Creatures is currently in development for Fall 2015.  Get the latest updates by joining our mailing list or connecting with us on Facebook and Twitter.

Workshop Photos

Puppets are not for the faint of heart. Photo by Patricia Germann.

Puppets are not for the faint of heart. Photo by Patricia Germann.

We had a fantastic two showings of Malevolent Creatures a few weeks ago. If you were unable to join us, here are some photos of the puppets and the process. Check back soon for more information about the next development stage of this show!

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Not-So-Malevolent Rehearsals

Since we are devising this show rather than working from an existing script, rehearsals are a mix of discussion, improvisation and lots and lots of laughter.  A reminder that our work-in-progress showings are June 26/27 at 7pm at GALA Hispanic Theatre! Tickets are free and you can reserve your spot here. A few photos of the team in action:


Improvising a set with items in the room.

Carol reacts to a rehearsal puppet.

Carol reacts to a rehearsal puppet.

Sometimes you think better when everyone is on the floor.

Sometimes you think better when everyone is on the floor.

Rehearsal puppet in pieces.

Rehearsal puppet in pieces.

Rehearsal puppet put together and strung on a control!

Rehearsal puppet put together and strung on a control!

Our Folklore Project has a NAME!

Names, as anyone familiar with myth and supernatural creatures will tell you, have great power. So we are beyond excited to be able to announce the name of our next devised theater piece:


Selkie, artwork by Jordis Brier

Selkie, artwork by Jordis Brier

Inspired by traditional fairy beliefs of the British Isles, we are creating puppets of various malevolent creatures based on designs by artists from across the US and beyond. We will be inviting audiences to interact with supernatural creatures of legend and mythology in the spirit of a choose-your-own-adventure book.

Follow this blog (or Facebook and Twitter) for more updates and mark your calendars for our work-in-progress showing on June 26 & 27 at GALA Hispanic Theatre!

Sneak Peek

A description of the bean-nighe, one of the folklore characters we're researching.

A description of the bean-nighe, one of the folklore characters we’re researching.

Our next devised piece is inspired by the vast treasure trove of British and Celtic folklore and especially the supernatural creatures usually known as fairies. Thanks to a number of cultural factors (most prominently, Disney), we have a tendency to think of fairies as tiny and pretty, with sparkles, wings and magic wands. According to tradition however, they are far stranger and more dangerous. For centuries, people feared the fairies, calling them a number of euphemistic names (the Good Folk, the gentry, the Little Poeple) to avoid drawing their attention. To be suspected of dealing with fairies or being related to them led to persecution and on occasion, injury and death. Where did these beliefs come from? What are the rules for dealing with fairies and what happens when we break them? What does that say about our fears, hopes and wishes as humans? These are all questions we will be exploring as we begin to build puppets and create performance material in preparation for a workshop in June. We hope you will join us for the journey!

February Grab Bag

A round up of links and news we highlighted on Twitter this month: 

#1: Still from the documentary THE MAN WHO MADE ANGELS FLY.

#1: Still from the documentary THE MAN WHO MADE ANGELS FLY.

1. The Washington Jewish Film Festival has a documentary about puppeteer Michael Meschke called The Man Who Made Angels Fly playing March 1 & 2! We posted an interview with the festival director earlier this week and will be introducing the screenings, so come see some amazing marionettes!

2. Benedict Cumberbatch gets some counting help from the Count. I think the show Sherlock could use a few puppets.

3. A thought-provoking interview with Cheryl Henson about the potential pitfalls of being labeled a puppeteer.

4. Genna is working with Imagination Stage on their production of Rumplestiltskin for young audiences. We ran into some similar characters in our folklore research this year.

5. Our friend Ashley Hollingshead from Portland OR is raising money for a new devised theater show called Independent Women. Support new theater and make a contribution HERE.

Research, Research, Research

So here’s a little secret: I love research. It’s definitely not the most glamorous part of puppetry and doesn’t provide as many fun photo or video opportunities. But lately I’ve been spending lots of time in this room, and you have to admit, it’s beautiful:


That’s the Main Reading Room at the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress and it’s a pretty fun place to do research. You have to request books ahead of time and show a special card to get them (yes, it feels like belonging to a secret club). There are desks with little lights and numbers on them and there’s a huge echo every time someone drops a pencil. The books often have special labels in the front and if I need a break from reading, I can stare up at lots of statues and paintings all around the ceiling. What’s not to love?

We are deep in Phase 1 of our next devised piece, which is inspired by British folklore and in particular, Katherine Briggs’ seminal work A Dictionary of Fairies. Genna and Amy and I, as well as several other collaborators, have been reading all the folktales, fairy traditions, and stories of fairy encounters we can get our hands on. We’re not entirely sure what kind of puppet piece we will end up with, but it’s going to be lots of fun getting there!

Sculpting a Story

One of the most common questions from audiences after seeing Cabinets of Kismet is “Where did you get the idea for the story?” While I’ve talked a little about Shaun Tan before on this blog, I’m going to try and outline the process of creating the story for this play, because it was a rather unusual journey.

Genna and Amie with Lightbulb Head. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Genna and Amie with Lightbulb Head.             Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The initial seed of the story came from conversations between Genna, Lisi, Nikki and myself about Tan’s work. We all read various books and stories by him and came to the conclusion that the themes we were most interested in exploring were those of alienation and outsider status, as well as the journey of accepting change and dealing with fear. We each created prototype puppets with various objects and paper and somewhere along the line, I think I came up with the initial idea of having a character who escaped from one world into a very different other one. We called him Kismet and based his look on a magnifying glass photo holder with alligator clips that Lisi had.

Most of the puppets were created before the specific moments of the story, which is the reverse of how we usually work. Once we had a cast of puppeteers, we ended up doing a few sessions of improvisation with the object characters, to figure out what each could do best, and how they could express various emotions and states of being. Then our director Carmen Wong put those various segments in order or arranged them on the set and we worked out the timing so that everyone had a sequence. We ended up each taking 2-3 principal characters, although we also switch off a lot to make things easier. With object puppets like this, it doesn’t work as well to say “Be sad” because the features of the puppets don’t change. They have to move or perform an action to express that sadness, and that of course is different for each object. Breaking down all the emotions and reactions of each character into tiny specific actions for the puppets was a long and very time-consuming process.

Kismet escaping across the drawers. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Kismet escaping across the drawers.                  Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In the end, I think we probably could have benefited from having more audience input. Because of scheduling and various cast changes, we didn’t have a chance to ask people to come and give feedback during rehearsals and I think that would have been very helpful. Object world was much intentionally much busier than Paper world, and therefore a little harder to follow (especially if you came in late). Just for fun, here is an excerpt of a ‘script’ written by puppeteer Amie Root, detailing her movements just before the destruction of Object world. I think it gives a good sense of our approach to our movements and characters.

When Genna perches over Cecilia, enter with Demon Bird to terrorize Mophead. Fly off SL around the garage unit and hover by the theater unit until Amy is set for handoff of bird. IMMEDIATELY pull swirl dancer from her drawer behind theater unit. Quietly as possible, unwrap the jingle chain, set her and the telephone cord on top. QUICKLY strike the jingle chain. IMMEDIATELY go to nurse at garage unit and enter when Kismet calls. Freak out over zoom. Hand off to Genna.