The Limitations of Puppetry

By Genna Beth Davidson

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Genna Beth organizing puppet rods for Saudade.

Those of us at Wit’s End Puppets think about puppetry a lot. I’m always interested in materials and the characteristics and possibilities of those materials. It occurred to me recently that it might be helpful to think about the limitations of puppetry.  How limited or limitless is it really? 

I think of amazing puppet works I’ve seen across the globe. There’s Royale De Luxe with their giant puppets controlled by dozens of people as they move through the city streets telling magical and gigantic stories. I think of the animatronics of Hollywood especially my favorite puppets from Underworld that one would assume are computer generated images, but they aren’t; they’re extremely sophisticated puppets. I think of the most basic puppets like a folded sheet of paper turned flapping wings of a bird. 

Obviously there are physical and mechanical limitations, only so many solenoids are fit in an animatronic mask, but what’s not limitless is the imagination. The most basic puppet designs allow the mind to explode with ideas, and I want to know how to do it all. Personally I’m limited by skill and access to the machinery and materials of my small shop. I don’t have a drill press or a vacuum forming machine (Christmas presents? Hint, hint!). Even so you can do a lot with just a hot glue gun and cardboard. So am I really limited? It’s easy to say “well I could have done this or that if I just had the means.” My gut tells me that’s a cop out. 

In the world of puppet performance on stage, one of the biggest limitations is how many hands one has to control a puppet. It really doesn’t make sense to have too many hands on a puppet because the bodies of those performers overtake the space and obscure the puppet. But I fall easily into the trap sometimes of thinking that more hands create more nuanced puppetry. I know it’s skill that creates the nuance because I’ve seen it done. That’s why one must be dedicated to practice. There’s no excuse for not getting out the mirror and working those muscles.

I heard recently that over 600 muscles control the human body. TV shows like West World tell of how one day we will be able to create ourselves to such an extent that we can’t tell organic human from android. Honestly I like that we cannot replicate the human form so exactly yet, because the suggestive power of puppetry is what makes it so memorable. It’s a shared imaging between presenter and audience. We silently make a pact at the beginning of every show in which all agree to believe that the inanimate have life and story. I love this and fear we will lose that joy as technology brings us closer and closer to creating life itself.

These musings lead me to the conclusion that there are limits in puppetry; materials, tools, engineering, number of hands, and skill level of builder or puppeteer. These are all limitations I bump up against regularly, and it’s where my problem solving brain gets to take center stage. Oh, and gravity! We are all limited by gravity for now. But all of that doesn’t really matter because the imagination of your audience is limitless. A shoe box becomes a treasure chest. A shoe becomes an opera singer. A ticking clock becomes a beating heart. For those who care to follow, it’s all possible.

Re-Building Selkie

By Genna Beth Davidson

As we endeavor to mount Malevolent Creatures: What the Waves Bring as part of Space4 with CulturalDC, a big build is underway in my studio space. When we did a 20 minute section of the piece last year I had the main selkie puppet constructed enough for use, but she was far from finished, and I discovered some problems during that workshop. 

For one, the puppet has to be worn by our puppetress, Amy Kellett, who quickly discovered that the play we’ve written doesn’t have many “down” moments for Selkie. The lower legs of the puppet are Amy’s legs and the puppet is attached at the knees. Amy holds the puppets head and controls the movement of one arm, but it is actually taking A LOT of arm and back strength to keep the puppet from slumping down. This is a problem that my redesign/rebuild needs to address. I haven’t quite figured out yet how to handle it. I might reach out to a master designer in our area for some help.

Secondly I decided to put the puppet in a nude unitard because for some of the scenes she appears nude, but it didn’t end up looking like she was nude; it looked like someone wearing a nude unitard. In retrospect I think to myself “duh!” So I had to deconstruct the unitard and pull the material taut over each body part. This way it will look more like a nude woman. It’s very tricky pulling the fabric taut though. It wants to fold in ways that make it look like fabric. Learning to do this skin-job is a new challenge that I’m still figuring out too. 

Puppetry is full of problem solving. I never seem to anticipate all the challenges that come up, but that’s part of the fun for me. I remember working on a show a few years ago in which I built a puppet whose head didn’t move from side to side because of the way I designed the shoulders. It was a total accident, and then I had to quickly figure out how to adjust that design. I came up with a design in which I inserted the neck dowel into the hosing that was the spine. I kept them together with  elastic that ran the length of the spine and connected through the tubing and up to the top of the neck dowel where I had wired some loops around which I could sew the elastic (see image). It was pretty cool figuring that out. I love it when a problem comes my way. It’s the best part of building for me! 

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Genna Beth’s puppet head design. 

My dad is an engineer so sometimes I run things by him; he loves problem solving too. But on more than one occasion, he has wanted to take the design in a completely different direction. It’s at those times that I turn into a little kid again with the impulse to say: “No I want to do it by myself!” I have to remind myself it’s okay to learn from others and get more experience in the process. 

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.

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  • 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!

 

Planning a Puppet Slam

By Genna Beth Davidson

IMG_0585When I took on the endeavor to organize and produce a puppet slam (our first Puppet SlamNation!) this September, I was feeling ambitious and motivated in a way that I haven’t felt before in my life. It was a new and exhilarating leadership experience for me. You see, I was always the kid who took on leadership roles begrudgingly because no one else would step up to the plate. I think my peers have thought of me as a leader, but I’ve never really wanted to be one. I’ve also always felt crippling anxiety when it comes to the responsibilities of running the show. I think several factors helped me take on this recent endeavor and get beyond the anxiety.

First off, and this is the biggest thing, my mental health is finally under control. I thought for years that I just wasn’t as capable as others seem to be at getting projects underway and seeing them through to a successful end. I blamed myself and thought “I’m just not good enough.” But I now see that depression and anxiety were the problem, and those disorders are not really me. Planning the SlamNation, I still had anxiety, but it came and went and most days I felt positive and motivated, and thus I could send emails that needed to be sent and thought through logistics that needed thinking through.

The second factor pushing me to take on the role of producer was the relative invisibility of puppet artists in DC. I know so many fabulous, creative and inspiring artists who do puppetry not just for kids but for adults! I want their work to be shared because I know it will be valued, and it’s mind bending for adults to realize what puppetry offers adults. I want there to be a vibrant puppetry arts scene in the DC region. So I guess there was a little bit of the same thing I experienced as a kid: no one else is doing this, so I’m going to take it on. Only this time I didn’t do it begrudgingly.

Finally, I’ve always loved the way Black Cherry Puppet Theatre in Baltimore has given space to all sorts of puppet performance artists at various levels and stages of production. They put on their Puppet Slamwich shows pretty regularly (look out for the next one on November 11, 2017), and it’s always a wonderful and supportive environment for artists to join. The great thing about their puppet slams is that the audience gets a huge variety of skill, talent, vision and story to digest. If an artist is trying out a new piece, and parts of it don’t work, it’s okay. Some people have complete, solid, winning shows, and some people are just starting out. The novices among us are supported and encouraged. It’s all a chance to play and grow. So I wanted to bring this style to the Wit’s End Puppet SlamNation.

Now that I’ve organized one slam, I can’t wait to do another one. There are many things I’ve learned from the experience. Here are some of them. 1.) Always have a stage manager. Our very own Amy Kellett took on the role for me this time. I mistakenly thought I could do that, but it’s not my skill set AND I had too many other things to take care of. I thank her a thousand times for realizing I was in need of her skills and for stepping into that role without me having to ask. Next time, I’m booking a stage manager from the get-go. 2.) Trust that people will commit. So much of my anxiety was from this nagging thought at the back of my mind saying  performers will back out at the last minute. No one did! I will have more faith next time. 3.) Always ask questions to the venue manager and don’t worry about if you’re being a bother (again – the anxiety disorder). The We Are Takoma series who gave us a space and time for the slam handled things beautifully, but I could have asked more questions upfront to lessen my anxiety. 4.) Delegate as the event date draws near. This happened naturally because I work with awesome people who realized where they could help. Pat took care of programs. Cecilia and Nina managed front of house. Krista was back stage with me managing transitions between shows, and she brought snacks for everyone! And finally, 5.) People will underestimate how long their performances take. This was the only area that I really messed up. The show went on an hour longer than it was supposed to! How did I let that happen?!?! Well 5 mins extra here, 10 mins extra there…it all adds up. Next time I need to think that through more and have wiggle room.

There were also many things that we did right including booking an awesome band (check out Petty Indulgences), having a reception after the show, getting DVD footage of the shows, getting an awesome turn out, putting the more kid friendly shows in the first half of the program, having multiple ways of getting donations, and the list goes on. If you weren’t able to make it to our Puppet SlamNation this time, don’t worry. We’re sure to have another one in 2018. Not sure where. Not sure when. But I’m excited to figure that out early next year. So stay tuned!

DC Puppet SlamNation!

It was a real thrill to get to perform alongside so many friends and fellow puppeteers at the first DC Puppet SlamNation on September 23rd. Thanks to support from We Are Takoma, ten puppet performers and a local rock band were able to share their talents at the Takoma Park Community Center for a crowd of a hundred and fifty. Here are a few photos of the night, all by David Moss.

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Genna Beth Davidson introduces the DC Puppet SlamNation.

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Puppeteer Schroeder Cherry.

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Our fabulous guest rock band Petty Indulgences.

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Puppets by David Greenfieldboyce

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The company of Wit’s End Puppets and puppets from the show Cabinets of Kismet.

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Puppeteer Kuroji Patrick.

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The Baltimore puppet group String Theory.

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Performers and puppets after the show. 

Announcing The Puppet Lobby!

In comparison to other art forms, the puppetry world is quite small. There aren’t hundreds of museums devoted to it, or dozens of performance spaces presenting it nearly every week of the year. Many puppeteers work solo, and only see their fellow puppet artists at festivals–when they have the resources and time to travel.

In an effort to foster community and knowledge, we have decided to try and create a regular space for puppeteers to gather and learn from each other in Washington, DC. We are calling this series of conversations The Puppet Lobby, as they will take place in the Selman Gallery that is the lobby of the Brookland Artspace Lofts. Our first conversation will be Monday, September 18 at 7pm and we hope you will join us for what is sure to be a fun, informative evening.

We have two great speakers for this first edition of The Puppet Lobby; master puppeteer Ingrid Crepeau and our own Genna Beth Davidson. Ingrid is a longtime resident of the Washington area and has built puppets for a wide variety of theaters including her own children’s theater company DinoRock. On Monday she will speak about building body puppets and mascots, an expertise she provides to just about every professional DC sports team. For more about Ingrid Crepeau, this Washington Post article is a great read. Genna Beth will be talking about Selkie, the main puppet in the second part of our work-in-progress show Malevolent Creatures. Selkie is a character who has to change between being human and being a seal, and Genna Beth is in the midst of figuring out how to make that happen.

 

Organize It!

By Genna Beth Davidson

When it comes to building puppets, you must bring together many different crafting skills: sewing, woodworking, papier mache, foam construction, painting, etc. I dream of one day having a huge studio capable of housing all the different arts that come together to create my puppets. But for the time being, I’m making do with a tiny space. It’s amazing what you can do with a small space if organized well.

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I have my work table on wheels so that I can easily move it around and away from the wall for sewing. My fabric is stored by color in a closet along with foam and batting. I have a power tools and hand tools section (which is slowly out-growing the space), my woodpile corner, a shelf for projects I’m working on, a shelf for papier mache paper, and a file drawer with deep, short drawers for flat artwork and pattern storage. I keep my sewing machine stowed under my work table, even though it’s a bit annoying having to pull it out every time I want to use it. If I had the ultimate studio, I would have a large, high table for laying out patterns and a dedicated table for sewing. Right now I often have to use the floor for laying out large patterns. I also have the ultimate junk drawer because you never know what you might need.

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I quickly outgrew this small space so now some of my materials take up bookshelf space in the hallway. That’s where I keep my paint supplies, beads, elastic, and assorted other adornments for the puppets. And I’m lucky that I have a back porch off the studio. My friend made me a big wooden table that I use as a workbench out there. In the winter it’s a little cold, but I manage.

Finally it’s really important to have boxes, pegboard, and other inventive ways of separating materials. I use a shoe organizer on the back of a door for feathers, leather, foam scraps, rope, plastic bag storage, etc. I use lots of large tupperware bins too, and a pegboard is great for easy access to tools.

20170904_110647If you are thinking about setting up a space for your crafting habit, a great place to look for organization ideas is Pinterest of course! But I recommend taking time to let things get organized as you go. It can be good to invest in top of the line organization, but you don’t have to. Sometimes things just find their way into a nook without you intentionally putting them there, or you come upon some organizational device that was intended for one thing but works perfectly for the storage of something else like my shoe organizer.

For me, organizing is fun! I think I’m lucky in that I inherited my mom’s need to organize and my dad’s habit for recycling and storing materials that could be useful at a later date. Thanks Mom and Dad!