Six Months of The Puppet Lobby

At our company meeting last summer, when I asked if there were any projects we wanted to start for the upcoming year, Patricia Germann mentioned that she’d like to curate a lecture series on puppetry, featuring local artists. She had noticed that we often had lots of people come up to us at our shows looking for more information about puppetry and puppet-building and realized that there might be an audience for a free event bringing artists and spectators together. One year later, we’ve had six great conversations with a wide range of puppet artists. Here’s Patricia, talking a little bit more about what has turned into The Puppet Lobby.

PuppetLobby

Michelle Valeri and Ingrid Crepeau, Genna Beth Davidson and Hamida Khatri presenting at the Puppet Lobby in 2017-2018. 

 

Cecilia Cackley: When did you get the idea for The Puppet Lobby?

Patricia German: I’d been thinking about an event series like this for about a year before we actually started it.  DC is such a networking town, and I often come across events like this in so many other industries.  Creating a space for artists to connect about puppet design, building, and performance felt like we were filling a gap.

CC: Has it gone the way you had hoped when you started? Is there anything you would change?

PG: I’m really happy with this first year, and the response from the community has been great.  We’ve had so many incredible speakers willing to share their work, and we’ve covered such a breadth of topics — stop motion, hand puppets, full body costumes, installation pieces… It’s really exciting to see how much talent we have in the area, both in DC and in Baltimore.  (And people from Baltimore have been willing to drive into DC on a weeknight for this! For me, that’s been wonderfully unexpected.)

I think the speakers have kind of surprised themselves with how much they have to share.  When we initially asked for a 15- to 20-minute presentation, some speakers were worried it was going to be a stretch to fill that much time.  But once we got going with the series, it started feeling like even at 20 minutes we were cutting off some great conversations. So over the year, we started setting aside more time for the featured speaker, rather than trying to fill out the agenda with several different topics.  I think that’s worked well.

CC: What are some of your favorite moments from this year’s conversations?

PG: Ha!  Each one has been different in its own way.  I loved playing around with Alex Vernon’s Fettig Project puppet mechanics.  They were so expressive, and I hadn’t seen anything like that before.  Hearing more of the story about Hamida Khatri’s mom as the inspiration for her short film was really great.  And pretty much any part of Ingrid Crepeau’s presentation could be a favorite moment.  She’s a hoot, and had so many great design tips to share!

CC: If you could invite any puppeteer to visit The Puppet Lobby, who would it be and why?

PG: Nicholas Mahon, who created the puppets for the Olympic Opening Ceremonies this past winter in Pyeongchang.  I’d love to hear about the process of creating those characters, actually getting them over to South Korea, and incorporating them into such a huge event with so many elements.  Also, I’d love to work on an Olympics opening ceremony, so I’m curious to hear how he got the gig!

CC: What can we expect to see in the upcoming year from The Puppet Lobby?

PG: More puppets!  More lobby! I have some ideas for panel discussions around a specific theme, like bringing together the three artists from this season who we discovered have all built large-scale dinosaur puppets.  And for the more typical presentations, we’re continuing to reach out to artists across DC and Baltimore. We’re hoping that with a little more lead time, some of the speakers who couldn’t make it last year will be able to join us in 2018-19.  But part of the idea of The Puppet Lobby is to connect artists who don’t normally work together — so if you have some great project you’ve been working on that you want to share with this community, send us an email and let us know!

ICYMI: Saudade Trailer!

Our March tour of Saudade is halfway done and it’s World Puppet Day! If you haven’t had a chance,  check out this new trailer and a few other blog posts about amazing puppetry and puppeteers from around the world.

An Interview with Gabriela Cespedes from Argentina

A Brief History of Puppets and Social Justice

Recycled Puppets by Ashley Bryan

A Few Puppeteers You May Not Know

 

 

An Interview with Gabriela Cespedes

When Cecilia was traveling in South America last year, she took a workshop with Argentine puppeteer Gabriela Cespedes in the art of caja lambe-lambe puppetry at the Convocatoria de Mujeres Titriteras (Convention of Women Puppeteers). The following is an interview with Cespedes about her work. It has been translated from Spanish and condensed for this blog post. 

Gabriela Cespedes, teaching a lambe-lambe workshop in Argentina.

Gabriela Cespedes, teaching a lambe-lambe workshop in Argentina.

Cecilia Cackley: How did you become a puppeteer? When did you first become interested in puppetry as an art form? 

Gabriela Cespedes: My training comes from acting. I started doing theater in 1988, with Mariu Carreras, a great teacher. It essentially taught me that theater takes place when we are dealing with the public and that is why you always have to create and perform work for an audience. Puppetry came later, in 1996 when I start to do street shows with two colleagues and became forever trapped in the art of puppetry …my interest in this technique must have been born from playing with small things, making houses, staging and playing with friends to make characters.

CC: Are there projects that have changed in response to audience comments? How do you maintain a balance between other people’s criticism and your own vision? 

GC: At first audience comments about a work they had seen affected me a lot and I always tried to change small things … but after a while I realized that art is intimate and solitary, that one can not meet the whims of each viewer … so when someone makes any criticism I take it with respect and affection, and on the other hand I still respect my artwork as I conceived it.

One of Gabi's lambe-lambe shows, set up for spectators.

One of Gabi’s lambe-lambe shows, set up for spectators.

CC: Do you work alone or in collaboration with other puppeteers? Why or why not? 

GC: At this moment all my works are solo … by choice or because it has been easier to move from one place to another by myself with my puppets !!!!
There are plans to work in groups … but we are always organizing activities in conjunction with other puppeteers.

CC: What project are you working on right now? 

GC: At the moment I am researching miniature drawings to use in both stop-motion animation and lambe-lambe theater or caja magica.

CC: What advice do you have for people who want to work with or learn more about puppets? 

GC: The art of puppetry is an ancient technique, captivating, trapping, that allows us to travel into unsuspected worlds … but mostly it is hard work and a lot of research, and that is fundamental to puppetry … and as they say in Japanese “give life to the wood” in that is everything, be able to give life to everything that comes into our HANDS !!!!!

June Grab Bag

A round-up of links, videos and articles we highlighted on Twitter this month. 

See Item #1. Photo by John Overholt.

See Item #1. Photo by John Overholt.

1. We were alerted via Twitter to this gorgeous, wood-bound book in the Harvard Library by John Overholt. Upon closer inspection of the library record, we realized it’s an edition of Heinrich von Kleist’s essay ‘On the Marionette Theater.’

2. We dare you to watch this video and not smile at least once.

3. Chicago-based company Manual Cinema is a big inspiration to us. Read this article and you’ll see why.

4. Great interview here with Max Humphries, an artist from England.

5. If you happen to be in Bennington, Vermont this summer, keep an eye out for these giant puppets.

An Interview with Katherine Fahey

Baltimore artist Katherine Fahey designed the puppets and crankie illustrations for SAUDADE. We asked her a few questions about her process and inspiration. Enjoy! 

Katherine's first crankie, made for Wye Oak video, Fish.

Katherine’s first crankie, made for Wye Oak video, Fish.

Cecilia Cackley: When did you start building crankies and what draws you to them as an art form? 

Katherine Fahey: I started making crankies in the beginning of 2011, when I was making a music video for Wye Oak called Fish. My first crankie was made as part of a larger shadow puppet piece. That was when I started to see for the first time that I could perform with my artwork. This was exciting and frightening to me. I have always admired the connection performers have with their audience, but I am a pretty shy person. I was excited to be able to combine my passions for shadow puppetry, paper cutting , music, and storytelling together, but wasn’t so excited about getting up in front of people.

CC: Who are some of the artists that inspire you? 

KF: My creative community mostly. All the folks at Black Cherry Puppet Theater (Valeska Pupoloh, Michael Lamason, Lisa Krause, Jenn Strunge, Kevin Sherry, and Porch Puppets),  Erik Ruin, Nanaprojects , William Schaff, Anna Robert Gevalt, Elizabeth Laprelle, and all of the other crankie makers, paper cut artists, story tellers, and puppeteers out there.

Katherine performing one of her crankies at the opening of her paper cut and shadow puppet exhibit at The Creative Alliance in Baltimore, with Anna Roberts Gevalt and Elizabeth Laprelle.

Katherine performing one of her crankies at the opening of her paper cut and shadow puppet exhibit at The Creative Alliance in Baltimore, with Anna Roberts Gevalt and Elizabeth Laprelle.

CC: What were some of the challenges in designing Saudade? 

KF: I have a lot of experience working with other artists, but have become accustomed to just coming up with a show on my own from start to finish. It was different to have to stop and ask Cecilia what she meant and try to see things through her eyes. We spent a good amount of time editing scenes together so that they could be translatable to shadow puppets and a crankie.

I was eager to cut things out and assemble things, so I had the get used to just drawing and coming up with ideas. I had to wait to see the final product, but then it was exciting to see the pieces finally come to life.

Puppets from SAUDADE on Katherine's sketchbook.

Puppets from SAUDADE on Katherine’s sketchbook.

CC: What was your favorite scene or character to draw and why? 
KF: I enjoyed exploring the aesthetics and folk art of the various cultures and incorporating this into the designs. My favorite puppets are the heads.

Large head puppets from SAUDADE, designed by Katherine.

Large head puppets from SAUDADE, designed by Katherine.

Katherine Fahey (right) and Cecilia Cackley at the opening of SAUDADE in D.C.

Katherine Fahey (right) and Cecilia Cackley at the opening of SAUDADE in D.C.

SAUDADE Audio Clip

 

Saudade7Saudade was based on a series of interviews with immigrants to the DC area from all over the world. Among other questions, I asked everyone about moments when they felt ‘saudade’–the feeling of longing for a place or person you once had that is now gone. Here is a very short audio clip in Portuguese of one of the interviewees from Brazil talking about times when she feels saudade.

January Grab Bag

A round-up of videos, links and articles that we highlighted on Twitter this month. 

# 2 Why don't I live in Chicago?

# 2 Why don’t I live in Chicago?

1. These gorgeous shadow puppet photos, based on various mythologies that explain the Northern Lights, were created for Kinfolk magazine.

2. We have fantastic museums here in DC, but I’ve been wishing I could get to Chicago to see this exhibit of puppets at the Art Institute of Chicago.

3. Puppets can illustrate real world issues as well as ancient mythologies. One of our Twitter followers called our attention to this article about Ebola, illustrated with two-dimensional puppets.

4. The creator of the puppets for that article is Jons Mellgren, a director, illustrator and writer from Sweden. Here are photos of one of his stop-motion puppet films, called ‘Paperworld.’

5. Sometimes I think that I must have read every single article and interview with illustrator Shaun Tan. I don’t think I’ve shared this one though, which is a conversation with Neil Gaiman, one of my other favorite writers. It is quite delightful and I hope you enjoy it!

Building a Puppet Ballet: Interview with Genna Davidson

This week, our managing director Patricia Germann spoke with Wit’s End artist Genna Davidson about her recent work constructing puppets for Pointless Theatre Company’s newest show, Sleeping Beauty: A Puppet Ballet, which is currently running as part of CulturalDC’s Mead Theatre Lab program.

Patricia Germann:  What puppets did you work on?

Genna Davidson:  I primarily worked on Sleeping Beauty, the Prince, and the Witch who turns into a dragon.  I worked on all of them, actually, but those are the primary ones.

Puppets in rehearsal. Photo by Genna Davidson.

Puppets in rehearsal. Photo by Genna Davidson.

PG: I recall that Pointless did a version of Sleeping Beauty before. Did they learn lessons from the last production, in terms of how they wanted them to move, or how they wanted them to be built?

GD: They needed the puppets to be way lighter.  Because for the first production of the show they had made them all out of papier-mâché and wood; they were super heavy.  They also wanted the puppets to have a lot of flexibility – but not limitless flexibility, because that makes them hard to control.  So I contributed the bodies, the structures, the new innards and forms of the puppets focusing on building with lighter materials.

PG: You had told me before that the company went to ballet classes.  Did that experience affect how you were building the puppets, or modifying them during the rehearsal process? 

GD: One thing we learned is that these puppets – because it’s ballet – they stand mostly in turnout. When I made the Prince, I made his legs with feet and knees pointed forward. At some point, we realized this means the puppeteer has to always be turning the feet out.  It would be much easier to just have them built in turnout, and then the puppeteer can turn them in as needed, which is almost never.  So I adjusted them on the Prince, and then when I made Sleeping Beauty, I made her legs in turnout. 

Sleeping Beauty in performance. Photo by Gene Carl Feldman.

Sleeping Beauty in performance. Photo by Gene Carl Feldman.

PG: Were the puppets pretty durable?  I’m thinking back to our own experiences with having to repair puppets over a run.

GD: From every project that we do, I learn more and more.  I’ve been very happy with some of the joints of these puppets, in particular the ones which I chose to make elastic from the get-go because of wanting to allow the puppeteers to extend through the ballet movements and then settle back; more breath.  So at important junctures, they have thick fabric-covered elastic joints.

Their spines are really cool. They’re made out of dishwasher drainer hose, which is connected to PVC with hose clamps and plumbing parts.  So there’s lots of plumbing inside!  The drainer hose allows for lots of flexibility, so that the spine can actually arch backwards and forwards.

I had to rig the head in such a way to allow for rotation to the right and left independent of the neck which can only get easy movement arching forward and backward.  Imagine a wooden dowel coming out of the  bottom of the head and inserting within a hollow cylinder, the spine. The heads can spin 360 degrees, but the reason that the head is staying inside of…or one part of the neck is staying inside the other part of the neck…is that I ran a piece of elastic along the outside of the spine all the way underneath the pelvis of the puppet and back up again to that dowel coming out of the head.  And that has been – knock on wood – really pretty durable.

PG: We haven’t really talked about the witch-to-dragon transformation.

GD: Basically you have to see it to understand it and I don’t want to give it away.

PG: Did they have a design for that going in, or did you come up with that transformation?

GD: No, I came up with the design.

The witch, built by Genna. Photo by Gene Carl Feldman.

The witch, built by Genna. Photo by Gene Carl Feldman.

PG: Wow, that’s really cool.

GD: Yeah, that one in particular was my feat of magic – but I wish we had had more time to rehearse the transformation.  It took me so long to construct that we were basically in tech and didn’t have long to choreograph it. [The transformation] works well, but I would have liked to suggest some other choreographed movement.  For a couple days, we were worried we’d have to cut the transformation onstage and leave it to happen offstage, which would have been really disappointing.

The one thing we couldn’t make happen was her face turning into a dragon.  We ended up just bringing on this mask and putting it on her face, basically.  It’s done in a way that works, but we had wanted to have the mask incorporated somehow into her as a witch, so that when the transformation happens, it would be like, “Oh, it was there the whole time!”  That was something we had to let go.

I do want to mention Kyra Corradin, who did the sculpting of all the heads.  Even the puppets who were primarily mine in body, she did those heads, and they’re really beautiful.

PG: You were telling me earlier about the challenges of trying to fit a controller into a head that was already built.

GD: Kyra had built these heads and made them hollow because it would make them lighter…but because she has built these kinds of puppets before, she didn’t think about how to build the head control mechanisms into the puppets.  But actually it worked out well because these heads are really well shaped, beautiful and completely hollow. Though it was tricky to get the mechanisms inside and not damage the sculptural work, it was worth it.  If we had had to build the head around the control mechanism, I’m not sure we would have been able to achieve that hollow, light head that she created. So not knowing is a benefit sometimes.

Pointless Theatre Company’s Sleeping Beauty: A Puppet Ballet runs through May 3, 2014, at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint.  For tickets and more information, visit www.culturaldc.org

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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.

Puppets & Film: An Interview with Ilya Tovbis

poster2wik

Puppeteer Michael Meschke’s life and work are the focus of the recent documentary The Man Who Made Angels Fly (2013), which will be in DC this weekend as part of the 2014 Washington Jewish Film Festival.  Patricia Germann, Wit’s End’s Managing Director, caught up with Festival Director Ilya Tovbis to learn more about the film and its selection for the festival.

Patricia Germann: What led you to select this film for the festival?

Ilya Tovbis: The base qualifier to be in the festival is purely quality and diversity of vision.  So on that characteristic it really stood out.  I think it’s a tremendous documentary, and a unique one at that.  It’s done without almost any interviews, and very little sound that’s not coming directly from what’s happening.  A lot of the film is just the puppeteering happening on stage, and you’re meant to gather that the weighty subjects being discussed, or the Greek tragedies, or the philosophy that’s on stage… You gather what importance they are to Michael Meschke himself.  At times he and his wife talk, but it’s kind of a prime example of the “show, don’t tell” mentality and of a documentary where – especially for me, who’s not a subject matter in puppeteers or the craft – it allowed me to understand it from a very human perspective, and that was immediately attracting.  I think the cinematography is tremendous, the use of light and air, and just space and the pacing of the whole documentary is absolutely fabulous.

PG: It really did come across in the trailer that the puppetry and the puppets support the storytelling aspect of the film.

IT: More so than that, they’re really the prime characters, and I think the reason he agreed to be on film was that he’d be allowed to sort of speak through them and speak through his art more than one-to-one with a moderator before the camera.

PG: You mentioned that you’re coming from a background that is not in puppetry, and I’m wondering what in particular non-puppeteers would get out of this film.

IT: For me, it piqued my interest in puppetry and is something that I hope to look into more post-festival.

PG: That’s wonderful to hear!

IT: A lot of what I saw on screen I would love to see in person, and I just had never considered going to such a show.  So in terms of piquing interest, it’s amazing. Also, his life is a fascinating account.  It’s certainly not exclusive to him, but it is a pretty unique story in that he grew up thinking that he was Christian.  He had some nominal notion of his past and heritage, but he actually found out that he was Jewish as he was being set upon by a mob of people.  He and his mom hid in a church, and he asked her, “Why are these people after us?” and she said, “Well, you happen to be Jewish.” And that’s informed a lot of his artwork.  From a Jewish Film Festival perspective, that’s a tremendous story of finding one’s identity and doing with it something unique. I think that’s why he does the puppetry and why he takes on the stories that he does.  A lot of these stories are grand myths, and it’s evil fighting good, and it’s getting at the root of what humans are and what our universal struggles are.  I think that’s clearly rooted in his personal history.

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Michael Meschke, puppeteer.

PG: Is there anything else that you wanted to share about this film, or that you think would be of particular interest to the puppetry community?

IT: One thing that’s important for us about this film within the context of the festival is that it’s part of our spotlight on Polish cinema and where that particularly intersects with his stories – Again, this notion of finding out you’re Jewish a little bit later on.  That was quite common in Poland, which is just beginning to grapple with its Jewish history, and it’s become a real topic of conversation recently.  You’re seeing that again in cinema, and a lot of that is about the ‘hidden’ identity and people discovering that they’re Jewish and that their family hid it from them as a means of perseverance and moving forward.  So from that standpoint, it’s in a larger framework of films, but it also is very unique and set apart from the other ones that we have like Mamele and Ida and Aftermath, that all make up that Polish focus.

PG: I’m remembering now from the description that there are a number of different countries credited in the production of this film.

IT: Yes, so it’s a co-production: the filmmaker is Polish and quite a number of the crew are Polish, and also the UK and France – the subject lived there [in France] for a while and much of it happens there.  When you have a number of countries credited, it means that considerable funding or cast/crew (in this case crew, since there isn’t really a cast, being a documentary film) come from those countries, and as film has been globalizing, you notice more and more that those list are getting longer.  It used to be a huge deal if 2 countries collaborated on a film, but it’s becoming increasingly common as the borders come down.

The Man Who Made Angels Fly screens March 1-2 as part of the 2014 Washington Jewish Film Festival. Tickets $12 each. Learn more at www.wjff.org.

Interview edited for length and clarity.