Our Favorite Puppet Films

Since the film Muppets Most Wanted is opening this week, it seems like a good moment to talk about some favorite films that include puppets. 

Labyrinth_ver2Genna remembers seeing Jim Henson’s Labyrinth for the first time in elementary school, at a friend’s house. What made the biggest impression on her at the time was the variety of the puppets and how they ranged in dimension. from the giant Ludo to the much smaller Sir Didymus and Hoggle. Genna also liked the way that the human actors (Jennifer Connolly and David Bowie) got to interact with the puppet characters. Today of course she is more interested in trying to understand how each puppet was made and manipulated, and given a choice, she would like to try performing either Ludo or one of the Fire Gang.

file_164905_2_underworld_2_posterThe other film series that Genna has been inspired by is Underworld, a trilogy of movies about vampires and werewolves. Like Labyrinth, many of the characters wear full body costumes with animatronic puppet heads that are manipulated with radio controls by multiple puppeteers. The mechanics of the legs, which have extensions inside the foam latex skin, and the details in the features and hair are all amazing. You can see some of the work it took to produce this in videos here and here.

Cecilia on the other hand, was first introduced to puppets on film with the ‘Lonely Goatherd’ marionettes in the classic musical The Sound of Music. The sequence was performed by Bil Baird and Cora Eisenberg, and the catchy tune, with puppets similar to a set from Mexico that she had, made a big impression on her as a kid. Labyrinth also became a favorite later in college, but the film that was an inspiration as she first started creating and performing puppets in high school was Fool’s Fire, an adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story Hoptoad which was created by Julie Taymor and shown on PBS in 1992. Cecilia came across it as part of a retrospective of Taymor’s work that was shown at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 2000. The story of a jester who takes revenge on the cruel king and court that enslaves him, it uses full body puppets to establish the difference between Hoptoad and his captors.

Hopefully some kids will see Muppets Most Wanted this weekend and be inspired to pick up puppets! What other puppet films do YOU love?

December Grab Bag

Puppets at the Smithsonian. Photo from www.si.edu

Puppets at the Smithsonian. See Item #2.        Photo from http://www.si.edu

A round-up of events, exhibits and shows we’ve highlighted on Twitter this month:

1. Will you be up late on Christmas Eve, wrapping gifts? Turn on CBS at 11:35 pm to see this Nativity show with puppets from the late Jane Henson. Remounted by Cheryl and Heather Henson as a tribute to their mother, it looks like it will be an amazing performance.

2. If you’re showing family around DC this holiday, be sure to stop by the American History Museum on the National Mall and check out the puppetry exhibit on display. With a whole group of famous puppets, it should be fun for puppeteers or anyone interested in pop culture.

3. I’ve spent many hours watching The Muppet Show, but somehow I missed this lovely segment with puppeteer Bruce Schwartz animating a ballerina that was part of a show with guest star Cleo Laine. Start at about 3:30 to see the dance (or just begin at the beginning if you want some quality time with Dr. Julius Strangepork).

4. Puppets have been sadly lacking in American television since The Muppet Show ended in 1981. Fortunately, for those of us who prefer talking puppet heads to talking human heads when it comes to politics, Fusion is now producing No You Shut Up, a topical news show hosted by comedian Paul Tompkins and a panel of four puppets.

5. And finally, Pat came across the Irish theater company Branar through a local film festival. With magical wordless shows for children and elegant, minimal sets, this is our type of theater. Fingers crossed we get to visit Ireland one day and see their work in person.

Library Connections for Fabulas Mayas

Many of the stories in the show came from this collection.

Many of the stories in the show came from this collection.

I wrote the show Fabulas Mayas because I wanted to share some of the rich oral traditions among the Maya people of Mexico and Central America. While these stories are nowhere near as widespread and familiar as European folktales, they often follow similar patterns and are humorous and entertaining. Most of our work at Wit’s End Puppets is inspired by stories and artists that you can find easily at any library or bookstore. If you saw Fabulas Mayas and are interested in learning more, or if you just like stories and sharing them, here are some resources to look for at the DC Public Library.

Source for some of the stories of Fabulas Mayas:

The Monkey’s Haircut and other stories told by the Maya by John Bierhorst

Other Latin-American stories and story collections:

People of Corn by Mary-Joan Gerson

Tales our Abuelitas Told by F. Isabel Campoy & Alma Flor Ada

The Hungry Woman: myths and legends of the Aztecs by John Bierhorst

Señor Cat’s Romance by Lucia Gonzalez

Just a Minute by Yuyi Morales

Once Upon a Time/Habia una vez by Reuben Martinez

Meet Puppeteer Cecilia Cackley

Last in our series of short interviews with the puppeteers of The Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet. All photos are by Sarah Gingold.  

Cecilia operating the Lightbulb puppet.

Cecilia operating the Lightbulb puppet.

Bio: Cecilia Cackley has been experimenting with puppets for more than ten years. As a puppeteer, she has worked with GALA Hispanic Theatre, the O’Neill Puppetry Festival, the Avignon Off and the Source Theater Festival. Cecilia has directed for the Capital Fringe Festival, Young Playwright’s Theater, Rorschach Theatre and The Inkwell. She taught third grade in the public schools for six years and currently works as a teaching artist in Washington DC. Cecilia is a proud company member of GALA Hispanic Theatre and Young Playwright’s Theater.

When did you first become interested in puppetry?

My mother actually collects puppets as art, so they were always around the house and I could play with them. I remember making up little shows with marionettes from Mexico when I was 8 or 9. I started taking puppet workshops when I was about 14 and when I got to college I tried to find ways of incorporating them into plays I wrote or directed.

Cecilia and Mophead.

Cecilia and Mophead.

What is the most unusual puppet or puppet show you’ve worked on?

I made a puppet of a giant mouth out of poly-foam when I was 14 and part of a teen puppet troupe. It was part of a set of puppets that formed a massive face when we all stood together. We created it for an outside community event and I got to run through the crowd asking “Where is my nose? Where is my eye?” It was lots of fun.

Which is your favorite puppet to perform in Cabinets of Kismet? 

I’ve been getting more and more interested in marionettes lately, so I really like the paperfish, who hang from multiple strings. I’ve never seen a marionette made from paper before, so it’s been fun to figure out how to attach them and make them move. In general, I love all the paper puppets; they are so quiet and calm.

In Memory of Maria Tallchief, a puppet dance

Maria Tallchief

Maria Tallchief

My first love in performance has always been dance. I studied ballet for about five years before turning to music and then theater as career goals. However, the dedication and lyricism of ballet dancers has stuck with me as inspiration for all of my artistic work. Maria Tallchief was a dancer whose story I found especially inspirational as a kid and I was sad to hear of her death this week at age 88. In tribute, here is a short video of one of our characters from Cabinets of Kismet, the Swirl Dancer, dancing to the Berceuse from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, probably Tallchief’s most famous role. Thank you for adding beauty to the world, Maria Tallchief.

Meet Puppeteer Genna Davidson

Third in our series of short interviews with the cast of The Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet. All photos are by Sarah Gingold. 

Genna with King Lamp and Swirl Dancer.

Genna with King Lamp and Swirl Dancer.

Bio: Genna Davidson is a Washington DC based actress, puppeteer and musician. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2008 with a BA in Theatre. In addition to Wit’s End Puppets, she has performed with The Hub Theatre, dog & pony dc, Deviated Theatre, The Bay Theatre Company, as well as workshop productions with the Rude Mechanicals (Austin, TX), 500clown (Chicago) and various local devised-theatre ensembles.

When did you first start working with puppets?

I was nineteen, in college at the University of Maryland. There was a show being done with Bunraku style puppets and they knew no one would have any experience so they held an audition and taught us what to do. It was a very in-depth process, which was nice.

Genna with Nurse and Kismet.

Genna with Nurse and Kismet.

What is the most unusual puppet or puppet show you’ve worked on?

This one! Actually, in high school I didn’t realize it, but I did a puppetry production of Flatland with my best friend at the time. We had to turn a  book into an interactive presentation and we had wanted to just release a bunch of butterflies (for A Hundred Years of Solitude) but butterflies were too expensive so we did Flatland instead with cardboard and a basketball. Looking back I realize that they were actually puppets.

Which puppet is your favorite to perform in Cabinets of Kismet? 

King Lamp, because I think he’s challenging and I just love the fact that he thinks he’s a king and therefore he is. But he really doesn’t have power over any other puppet. He gets to hitch a ride on another puppet.  And he can do cartwheels!

Meet Puppeteer Amy Kellett

Second in our series of short interviews with the cast of The Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet. All photos by Sarah Gingold. 


Amy operating the paper puppet Frank.

Bio: Amy is delighted to be puppeteering with Wit’s End Puppets in this production! Some of the other companies/festivals she has performed with as a puppeteer or human in the MD/DC area include The Puppet Co., Source Festival, Landless Theater, Madcap Players and Bay Theatre Company.

When did you first become interested in puppetry?

I don’t know…I guess the first time I really thought about performing puppets was when I auditioned for The Puppet Co. in Glen Echo, MD. It was a big learning experience and my first interaction with people who were professional puppeteers and knew how to build cool things.


Amy and Kismet.

Probably this one. Most of the other stuff I’ve done has been more straightforward. This is the first devised puppet show I’ve ever worked on; other shows have been already written before we started. This is also the first time I’ve ever worked with found object puppets in a show.

Which is your favorite puppet to perform in Cabinets of Kismet? 

Bully is my favorite because he can do lots of things with his arms, which are magnets. He can pick up and hold lots of things, which I find useful. He’s also fairly mobile, so he can move lots of places.

Meet Puppeteer Heather Carter

The first in a series of short interviews with the cast of The Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet. All photos are by Sarah Gingold


Heather and Kismet.

Bio: Born helpless, nude and unable to provide for herself, Heather Carter eventually learned to overcome two of those three problems. Preferring to refer to herself not only in the third person but also as a ‘theater-maker’ she works on developing a type of theater that is holistically informed: that is, everybody does everything. A puppet maker, physical theater performer and erstwhile lighting designer and electrician, she loves the spectacle of theater and introducing the improbably and imaginative into Everyday LIfe. Formal training includes: The Center for Movement Theater (DC), Sandglass Puppetry Institute (VT), Commedia Dell-Arte with Antonio Fava (Reggio Emilia, Italy), Shakespeare and Co. (MA), Yale School of Drama (CT) and Marlboro College (VT).

When did you first get interested in puppetry? 

Apparently I used to pull the tongue out of a crocheted cow hand-puppet when I was a three year old. Later I went to a college in Vermont where puppetry was a really big deal and I really hated it for my first year and a half there. But then I saw Autumn Portraits, a famous show by my advisor Eric Bass and I finally understood why some stories can only be told by puppets.


Heather and the Lightbulb puppet.

When I was at the Sandglass Institute for puppet training, one of my first practice ensembles had a puppet that looked like a giant blue sun head, some sort of fabric and a plumb line in it. We spent a huge amount of time trying to figure out when the plumb line should drop out of the head and I still don’t know what that show was about, exactly.

Which is your favorite puppet that you perform in Cabinets of Kismet? 

Kismet! As I discover more about how the puppet is built and his specific movement qualities, he’s become a very sweet, clumsy, myopic and steadfast creature. He has a lot of character and fidelity, who’s the kind of person I would be friends with.

Under the (Artistic) Influence

A shadow box by Joseph Cornell.

A shadow box by Joseph Cornell.

Shaun Tan is clearly our biggest influence in creating The Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet. However, now that we have been working on this story and these characters for a year and a half, we are recognizing other artistic influences that have lingered in our minds and imaginations. Here are a few of them:

Joseph Cornell: Mainly an influence on me and Nikki; Genna doesn’t particularly like Cornell. For me though, his boxes evoke cabinets, the building blocks for Kismet’s world. His combinations of paper scraps, photographs and found objects are by turns whimsical, lonely, mysterious and chaotic, all moods that I hope to evoke at one point or another in Cabinets of Kismet. 

One of the dresses that inspired Genna.

One of the dresses that inspired Genna.

Alexander McQueen: When we first started discussing this story and the aesthetic we were hoping to create, everyone brought in art books and catalogues to page through, in hopes of discovering images that would inspire the look or sensibility of a puppet. I had the exhibit catalogue for Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty lying around and Genna was inspired by several of the outfits pictured. His use of materials such as animal bones and skulls as well as layers of translucent fabric is echoed in a couple of Genna’s puppets use similar treatments. She says she was drawn to McQueen’s work because “…I like the gothic and the macabre. I find darkness to be fascinating.” Look for puppets with those qualities when you come to see Cabinets of Kismet!

Figures by Kandinsky.

Figures by Kandinsky.

Wassily Kandinsky: By the time we started re-thinking Paper World this winter, the look had moved further away from reality and into the realm of the abstract. I started looking at the shapes in paper cutouts by Matisse, but soon focused on the work of Kandinsky. While his work is much more colorful than, well, anything really in Paper World, his lines and shapes have an energy and rhythm to them that I hope to emulate in the shadow puppets that appear and disappear in our show. Keep an eye out for similar creatures when you come see Cabinets of Kismet in April!