We had our last story meeting of the summer for Malevolent Creatures this past week and we are heading into the fall with many new ideas and renewed energy. If you missed our first workshop in June, keep an eye on this space for more info about our next one. We hope to see you there for some magical puppet encounters!
We discovered over the course of Malevolent Creatures rehearsals that we’ve all gotten pretty similar reactions when the word ‘puppet’ comes up in ordinary conversation. Here are the top five comments we’re used to hearing. Have you made one or more of them when meeting a puppeteer?
1. “Oh like the Muppets!” Well, um, not always. In fact, we’ve never created a show with hand-and-rod style puppets before, although we’re in the planning stages for one with GALA Hispanic Theatre.
2. “So you do stuff like on Sesame Street!” No, not really. Not too much counting or alphabet songs in our shows. Not all puppets are intended for children, despite the ubiquity of Big Bird and Bert and Ernie in our culture.
3. “Um…like Pinnochio?” Aside from Jim Henson, this is probably the only other named puppet character that most people can come up with.
4. “How cute!” Yes, very….until the puppet starts to go on a rampage and eat the audience. Wait, what? Oh right. NOT ALL PUPPETS ARE FOR CHILDREN. OR SQUEAMISH ADULTS.
5. “Is that a real job?” As a matter of fact, it is! Aren’t we lucky?
We had a fantastic two showings of Malevolent Creatures a few weeks ago. If you were unable to join us, here are some photos of the puppets and the process. Check back soon for more information about the next development stage of this show!
I created this rehearsal puppet for Malevolent Creatures about a month ago, with no idea that he would become such a fun tool for improvisation. Throughout our rehearsals, whenever there was a break, someone would pick him up, give him a funny voice and start a conversation. Eventually we decided that (outside of the world of the play) he was French. And since the World Cup is in full swing, it was inevitable that the puppet would get pulled into our many arguments about who was going to win the day’s games. Clearly, puppets love football just as much as people. Here is a short video of our puppet explaining his views, as performed by Elizabeth Dapo.
Names, as anyone familiar with myth and supernatural creatures will tell you, have great power. So we are beyond excited to be able to announce the name of our next devised theater piece:
Inspired by traditional fairy beliefs of the British Isles, we are creating puppets of various malevolent creatures based on designs by artists from across the US and beyond. We will be inviting audiences to interact with supernatural creatures of legend and mythology in the spirit of a choose-your-own-adventure book.
In addition to some fantastic puppet performances at the World Stages Festival, the Kennedy Center played host to several different art installations which could be enjoyed by the general public for free.
The first installation, Raw to Real, was a series of puppets by Handspring, the South African puppet company best known for the life size horses from the show War Horse. The main equine character from that play is Joey, and he greeted audiences entering the hall. Up close, it was easy to appreciate the complexity of the controls and joints, the care that went into the building and the strain that is put on the wood with the movements of the multiple puppeteers it takes to operate.
A series of video interviews with various people from Handspring gave insight into the construction process and their main material, which is wood. Additional screens played clips of shows featuring the puppets on display. While War Horse uses life size puppets, many of their other shows use smaller rod puppets, around 3 feet tall. There were many of them, arranged in groups so you could see the relationships between them, some of them in pieces to give a better sense of the research and construction process. The engineering behind each joint is just as detailed and specific as the aesthetic of the face and costume. I really appreciated the fact that the puppets were displayed out in the open, in strong light and with video support to give a better sense of how the puppets operate in performance. While I love seeing different kinds of puppets and museum exhibits are often the best way to find them, it occasionally feels odd to me to see puppets frozen in one position–like any instrument, they are meant to be manipulated and played.
The second installation, Pequeno Teatro (Little Theatre) was by Rosa Magalhaes, an award-winning designer from Rio de Janeiro. This one was puzzling to me. It was described as “puppets representing four theatrical writers from different time periods and regions of the world.” While it was fun to see which writers and works were selected, the objects themselves looked like dolls hung on cords, rather than puppets. There were no controls to be seen and it wasn’t clear at all how these ‘puppets’ might be manipulated. This of course begs the question “What makes it a puppet?” Is any object representing something else (in this case, playwrights and characters) a puppet? Even if they were not created for performance, are they still puppets? For me, what identifies a puppet is the intent to bring it to life, and that did not seem to be the case with this installation. The designs were displayed and they looked like costume designs, with no thought given to how to manipulate and move the object–a far cry from the detailed engineering diagrams and studies of the Handspring puppets also on display.
I’m very glad that the Kennedy Center chose to give such a prominent position to puppetry at this festival. I applaud the decision to encourage other theatrical designers to experiment with the form of puppetry. I just wish this installation had been pushed a little further, perhaps as a collaboration with actual puppeteers, rather than allowing the playwrights and their characters to simply sit in their theater, with no hint of life in them.
Life has been a little overwhelming of late, so it’s taken me a few weeks to be able to sit down and collect my thoughts about this year’s INTERSECTIONS festival. Performing there was a fantastic experience and I want to take the time to share a little of what made it such a special event.
Artists, even when working in groups such as orchestras, or dance and theater companies, can feel isolated. It is one of the ironies of being a working artist that you are often too busy with your own projects to have the time (and money) to see other people’s work. To that end, one of the best things about INTERSECTIONS is that it brings all the artists together in one building. Walking around before and after our show, you could hear snippets of music coming from different theaters, classical mixing with jazz mixing with flamenco. In the lobby between shows you could pick out dancers and musicians talking with audience members, everyone making space for the small children running around with their families. The free cafe concerts in the lobby and art activities for children made the space a welcoming one for audiences of all ages and fans of all kinds of art.
INTERSECTIONS takes place at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H St. NE and all the staff there worked incredibly hard to make us feel welcome and to encourage us to support each other’s work. While each performance was assigned one of the four ‘roadmaps’ (Sound, Movement, Story or Family) everyone was very enthusiastic and interested to hear about what was going on in other roadmaps and other theater spaces. Meetings, parties, and off site events were opportunities to make connections and learn about music, dance and other arts traditions that were unfamiliar. Serendipitous moments abounded (possibly my favorite was listening to Victoria Vox and Christylez Bacon improvising music together).
My one regret was that due to my crowded schedule, I was not able to see more performances by my fellow artists. A huge thank you to festival director Mary Hall Surface, and everyone at Atlas for making this such a wonderful experience. I hope to be back again another year!
Performing at the 2014 Atlas INTERSECTIONS Festival was an absolutely incredible experience. I’m hoping to write more fully about it soon, but in the meantime, here are some photos I took over the past two weekends.
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.
So here’s a little secret: I love research. It’s definitely not the most glamorous part of puppetry and doesn’t provide as many fun photo or video opportunities. But lately I’ve been spending lots of time in this room, and you have to admit, it’s beautiful:
That’s the Main Reading Room at the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress and it’s a pretty fun place to do research. You have to request books ahead of time and show a special card to get them (yes, it feels like belonging to a secret club). There are desks with little lights and numbers on them and there’s a huge echo every time someone drops a pencil. The books often have special labels in the front and if I need a break from reading, I can stare up at lots of statues and paintings all around the ceiling. What’s not to love?
We are deep in Phase 1 of our next devised piece, which is inspired by British folklore and in particular, Katherine Briggs’ seminal work A Dictionary of Fairies. Genna and Amy and I, as well as several other collaborators, have been reading all the folktales, fairy traditions, and stories of fairy encounters we can get our hands on. We’re not entirely sure what kind of puppet piece we will end up with, but it’s going to be lots of fun getting there!