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.

 

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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!

 

Everything Wrong with This Caja Show

In 2012, I visited Argentina for the first time and I was fascinated when Mara Ferreya, a puppeteer from Cordoba, described a kind of street puppet show that took place in a box. She showed me a photograph, with three people all wearing headphones and looking through their own peephole at some invisible show inside a cardboard box. It didn’t look that hard to make.

Later that summer I made my first attempt at a similar show. I called it the Personal Puppet Show and performed it at farmer’s markets and community events. People liked it, but it was only after I went back to Argentina two years later and took a workshop with Mendoza puppeteer Gabriela Céspedes that I realized all of the things I had done wrong. Here is a list of them.

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1. The box is too shallow. I could only see one side of the box in Mara’s photo and I didn’t realize it had to be a certain depth. Part of the magic of caja lambe-lambe is that the tiny peephole creates a forced perspective for the viewer. This gets ruined, however, if the box isn’t deep enough and the puppets end up too close to the eye. My box is only about 6-8 inches deep which is great for transport, but not for creating a forced perspective.

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2. There are two eyeholes instead of one. This was purely me trying to be fancy. I thought two eyeholes would make it easier to see inside, but it’s actually the opposite. Because everyone has a slightly different distance between their eyes, some people find it much harder to focus, looking through two holes. One peephole per viewer works the best.

3. There is no viewfinder for the puppeteer. Another detail that I missed because I only saw a photo. There should be some kind of window in the back or the top of the box so that the puppeteer can see what they are doing. Otherwise, movement becomes imprecise and easy to mess up. Without a viewfinder, my puppeteering isn’t as good as it could be.

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4. There is a curtain at the back, instead of holes for the puppeteers hands. Another mistake that causes practical problems for puppeteering. Trying to smoothly move my hands (and puppets) between pieces of fabric is difficult and it’s easy for the cardboard puppets to get stuck. This creates a jerking motion as they enter the scene, which ruins the illusion of movement. Most boxes have holes for the puppeteer’s hands either at the back or the side, with a curtain over the top to block the light spill. It is much easier to place a puppet in front of this curtain and then enter the box, rather than trying to do both those movements at once. Another option if your puppets are on vertical rods is to cut the holes in the top of the box and bring the puppets in from above.

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5. The box isn’t created with a single show in mind. This is the biggest mistake I made, and it’s arguably the one that takes the Personal Puppet Show out of the category of caja lambe-lambe. A true caja show is a miniature world, one that is constructed for the purpose of telling one short, 1-3 minute story and that story alone. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the puppets, the soundtrack–all of these should combine to create the illusion of a complete setting. My box, with its one-color walls, black curtain background and plain floor does not do this.

Despite (or perhaps because of) my many mistakes, I enjoyed building my Personal Puppet Show and felt very much at home with the style of puppetry. After studying with Gabriela Céspedes and building a second show as part of the 2015 Fringe project I Thought the Earth Remembered Me I was only more convinced. This year, I’m looking forward to premiering my third caja show, called Library Love and demonstrating how much I’ve learned since I first built the Personal Puppet Show.

Summer Days at the Studio

IMG_4225It’s been four years since we started Wit’s End Puppets and for all that time, we’ve been operating primarily out of a house in the southwest quadrant of Washington DC. Each person on the team had her own workspace at home, but meetings and large building projects, from covering flats with recycled paper, to gluing together a 60ft cranky, happened in the living room of that house.

This summer, we said goodbye and moved our boxes, puppet sets and building materials to a new studio in the Brookland neighborhood. At first, the space looked like it does in the photo above. It took a lot of time and effort, but we’ve finally made progress and everything is (mostly) organized. Here you can see the two sides of the room, with materials and tool storage and plenty of surfaces to work on. Here’s to another four years of creativity and passion, collaboration and puppet magic!img_4530

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Stars and Space Creatures

We are nearly done with objects for Arts on the Horizon’s new baby theater show Space-Bop. We are thrilled to be collaborating again with Tia Shearer-Bassett and working for the first time with Christylez Bacon and Seamus Miller. Back in the summer of 2015 we participated in a workshop of this piece and now rehearsals start in just a few days! Meanwhile, here are some photos from the building process.

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A new star pattern, with one of our light-up gadgets in the background.

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A rather bumpy planet surface.

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The somewhat messy beginnings of another planet.

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Pieces of the astronaut helmet, before being put together.

Hand Puppets in Central America

Students in El Salvador show off their sock puppets.

Students in Ilobasco show off their sock puppets.

After traveling to Canada and Armenia, my final adventure of the summer season was heading to two different countries in Central America to teach puppet workshops. Under the auspices of the non-profit Co-partners of Campesinas, I was invited to teach puppetry to students in the towns of Ilobasco in El Salvador and Chichicastenango in Guatemala.

A teen from El Salvador with his hand puppet. The head is a gourd that grows locally.

A teen from Ilobasco with his hand puppet. The head is made from a gourd that grows locally.

These two workshops were structured very differently. In Ilobasco, students ages 6-25 were grouped by age for a week long art and conflict resolution workshop during a school holiday. Due to changing school schedules, transportation challenges and family obligations, there were different numbers in the classes each day and not all students were able to stay for the entire workshop. Despite this, the younger students built sock puppets and used them to invent short scenes while the older students experimented with constructing hand puppets that used local gourds as heads.

A student in Guatemala sews her puppet's body.

A student in Chichicastenango sews her puppet’s body.

In Chichicastenango, the workshop was hosted by a community organization called ASDECO and lasted for five days. I had a class of about 20 students, mainly teens and young adults, with some older participants, who made paper mache hand puppets. Unlike in El Salvador, where the focus of the workshop was creative expression, this one was intended to further the cultural goals of ASDECO who are dedicated to preserving and sharing the indigenous Ki’che culture of the region. Magdalena, an ASDECO staff member, led discussions about the traditional Ki’che stories of the Popol Wuj, which the students then turned into a short puppet play. I taught the group to construct hand puppets of the play’s characters with paper maché heads and cloth bodies. The finished piece was shared with the center’s staff and other community members on our final day.

Puppetry is not a very common art form in Central America. Few of my students in either Ilobasco or Chichicastenango had ever seen a puppet show and usually it was on TV rather than live. It was wonderful to see the students making creative decisions as they built their puppets and sometimes using other skills such as embroidery or beadwork to add to puppet clothing. I’m looking forward to seeing what else these artists create in the future.

The class in Chichicastenango, with their puppets.

The class in Chichicastenango, with their puppets.