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.

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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!

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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.

Preview: Puppet Lobby #4

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Puppets made by Lisi Stoessel.

We’re excited to welcome puppeteers Lisi Stoessel and Francisco Benavides to the Puppet Lobby this month, along with Wit’s End company member Amy Kellett. It’s especially meaningful because Lisi worked with us on the very first project that Genna Beth and I created together back in 2011, a show for the Capital Fringe Festival called The Malachite Palace. While the company wasn’t fully formed back then, we did use the name ‘Wit’s End Puppets’ for our family show about a princess and a little golden bird. Lisi designed beautiful shadow puppets for that project and later worked on some of the early material that would eventually become our first fully produced show, The Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet. Lisi lives in Baltimore where she designs sets and puppets and works in a variety of theatrical and creative roles, for Submersive Productions, among other companies. With Francisco Benavides, she created puppets for Submersive’s recent production H.T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum and they will be showing us some of those puppets on Monday March 19th. We hope you’ll join us at 7:00pm at the Selman Gallery at Brookland Artspace Lofts for some great conversation!  

My Traveling Library Show

I am slowly coming to the realization that I can complete about one solo puppet project a year. That’s about what my brain and imagination and over-scheduled life can handle. Since I have quite a long list of ideas, I’m set for about the next ten years in projects, thank you very much. The project I completed this year is one I’ve had in mind since 2014, when I studied the art of caja lambe-lambe with Gabriela Céspedes. It’s a three minute long street theater show called Library Love.

I’m not going to say too much about it, because if you ever see me performing it at a festival, farmer’s market or other event, I’d like you to be at least a little surprised! I will tell you that the story takes place inside a library and includes both human and non-human characters. It is wordless, like most caja lambe-lambe shows and I am working very hard to construct a version that is both sturdy enough to hold up to wear and tear, but light enough to travel internationally without costing a fortune in baggage fees. Here are some photos of an early tryout I did in November at the Savannah Children’s Book Festival.

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Preview: Puppet Lobby #3

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Alex & Olmsted. Photo by Kintz. 

We are thrilled to welcome Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon of Alex & Olmsted as our guests at our next Puppet Lobby on January 29. Alex and Sarah  have been making puppets together since 2010.  In recent years, they have performed at LaMaMa NYC, The Puppeteers of America Festival, Bread and Puppet Theater, and two National Puppet Slams. They will be talking about their show Milo the Magnificent which was awarded a 2017 Jim Henson Foundation Grant and a Greenbelt Community Foundation Grant and was featured on the front page of the Hartford Courant. Milo is a show about a magician with a variety show of tricks and science experiments that don’t go quite as planned. You can watch a trailer for the show here.

In addition to Alex & Olmsted, Wit’s End artistic director Cecilia Cackley will be talking about her latest project in the Brazilian style caja lambe-lambe, which is a form of street puppetry. She recently took her latest work-in-progress, called Library Love to the Savannah Children’s Book Festival. We hope you can join us to hear about these puppet projects on January 29th at 7:00 at the Selman Gallery at the Artspace Lofts in Brookland.

Hello 2018!

I will start by saying I’m not very good at New Year’s resolutions. My own tend to lean towards the kind of vague (Write a play. What kind? I don’t know…) to the very specific (read four books in translation). Hard and fast rules don’t usually work for puppetry, to be honest. You might plan to create a puppet using a specific design and five different materials…and then realize that your design is inherently flawed and one material doesn’t bend the way you expected it to (yes, this has happened to me a lot.) As a result, making specific resolutions can be tough.

2017 was a bit of a dumpster fire for much of the world. Who knows what 2018 will bring? Who knows how we will need to respond, creatively or otherwise? So I’m not going to give you a list of specific resolutions for Wit’s End in the new year. Instead, here are a few hopes I have for what may happen in the next twelve months:

  • I hope we get to work with someone new that we’ve never met before.
  • I hope we are able to teach someone a new skill that they never thought they would try.
  • I hope we can be the first experience of puppetry for someone out there who sees our work and thinks about it for awhile afterwards.
  • I hope we try something new–whether that is a puppet podcast, or a new building technique or a show made entirely out of moss–I don’t know. The surprise brings the joy.

Puppetry as an art form always has more surprises for me. Any time I think I’ve seen it all, that there’s nothing new out there, I discover a performer, a story, or a kind of puppet that proves me wrong. I expect the same will be true in 2018. Onward!

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I did not expect that we would make an eel puppet out of cardboard in 2017. Or that Annalisa, demonstrating it here, would love it quite this much. 

Wit’s End Has a Patreon!

By Nina Budabin McQuown

Ah the holidays. The annual time of congressional spending bills and self-addressed envelopes in the mail from non-profits, when we look behind to make sure we’ve wrung every last cent out of our dental insurance (should we have it), and we look ahead to a new year and all the tax forms it will bring. And you know, gingerbread and egg nog and stuff. It’s the perfect time to introduce you to our brand new shiny Patreon, a place where Wit’s End Puppets supporters (you, dear reader), can go to help us make puppet theater, workshops, slams, and speakers happen here in DC. 

If you’ve never encountered Patreon before, it’s a platform for funding ongoing projects, artists, and creators. It works like this: we tell you about how to find our new Patreon (that is, here), you go, sign up, and decide on an amount to give monthly. Depending on your subscription level, we then send you a small token of gratitude for each time you donate. That means videos and photos, in-process shots of our puppets and shows as we build them, reflections on writing and research, and more. That more might include stuff like video of Amy’s kitten trying to eat a bird made out of repurposed hangers and break casings.

Patreon is different from more widely known funding platforms like Kickstarter or Go Fund me. Like them, it allows networks of people across the country to pool small donations in support of artists, but for theater companies like us, it’s a much better deal. Because they raise a lot of money at once and for one purpose, Kickstarter and Gofundme are usually best for single projects: a book, a therapy dog, an album, a surgery—all things I’ve seen on those two sites—but Patreon works for artists who make lots of content continuously over time and can really use support that keeps up. 

Wit’s End is currently asking for subscribers at either of our two tiers: $1 a month at the finger puppet level, or $5 dollars a month at the hand puppet level. We haven’t even yet begun to dream of marionettes or body puppets, or multi-operator horse puppets but hey, we’d love to get there. Meanwhile, you can sign up to get original content from the company geared specifically toward our subscribers. That’s in addition, of course, to the warm fuzzy feeling you’re guaranteed every time you support the arts, which is better even than watching this video of capybaras taking a bath.

In 2018, we’re hoping to commission new work as part of Malevolent Creatures, stage the full show, continue DC Slamnation and The Puppet Lobby, and maybe even start a puppetry podcast. If you’re interested in supporting work like this, and you have a buck or five a month that you might otherwise just spend on 36oz. bags of gummy worms (that’s me, is who does that), come join the illustrious ranks of our subscribers. Puppetry is better for your teeth.