We’ve been extra busy working on the next phase of Malevolent Creatures, so not much time to write a long post, but here are some photos of rehearsal as we get closer to refining the story of the Selkie. Enjoy and we hope you come see our workshop performance on March 2!
I believe you learn a lot about your own art when you take on the challenge of teaching it to someone else. By figuring out how to explain the steps, hit the important rules but also allow for creativity and experimentation, you come to a better understanding of how an art form works and how to make better art. When I teach puppetry, I often fall back on styles and forms that are familiar and that I know are within the capability of the age groups I’m working with. Last spring, however, I was given an opportunity to do a puppetry residency with an entire grade level at a local public school and I decided to throw caution to the wind.
I’ve been in love with the Brazilian style of puppetry called caja lambe-lambe ever since I first heard about it in Argentina three years ago. From my early flailing attempts, to slightly more sophisticated projects to interviews with my teachers, I’ve been exploring and experimenting with this form and trying to get better at it. I also want the style to become better known here in the US, as it is throughout most of Latin America. I wasn’t sure if three classes of second graders were quite ready to tackle developing a show, building it and performing it all in two months of art classes. However, they dived in with enthusiasm, eager to try it all.
The hardest part of collaborative artwork for kids is usually decision-making and this project was no exception. As a teacher, I usually encourage my students to make compromises and find ways to incorporate ideas from everyone in the group. But with only three minutes to perform the entire show, some contributions had to be cut and choices made quickly. The students all began with choosing a poem, one of three by then-national Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. Most groups (somewhat predictably) chose the shortest poem, “Jackrabbits, Green onions and witches stew” which had a simple, bouncing cadence and a list of random fun objects. Several of the groups tried their very hardest to make puppets of every single thing mentioned in the poem, something I will try to discourage if I teach this workshop again. In the future, it would be interesting to give the students a wider range of story options, but I did like the way the project gave them a new way to explore poetry.
We discovered when the students began to work on their actual boxes that having four or five people painting the same box quickly gets messy. Using markers allowed for more flexibility, although it did take longer to complete. The most successful boxes included detailed drawing on both the inside outside of the boxes. Some groups painted a title on the front of the box and others added decorations around the peephole. They learned that the lid of the box would cover up the top inch of the sides and to take that into account when painting decorations. Color combinations were negotiated and compromises made when students ran out of one color or another.
Cardboard and paper were not the sturdiest materials to use in puppet making, and in retrospect, I should have given a little more explicit instruction on how to design and create the actual puppets. Working at that small scale is challenging for seven and eight year olds and their lack of experience meant that some puppets ended up being so tiny, it was hard to see them. I did give students the option of using clay, but that turned out to be too heavy for the pipe cleaners we were using for puppet controls. In the future, I would like to see what kind of small puppets the students can create using recycled materials, including fabric, plastic and wood.
The most surprising and successful part of this experiment for me was the final presentation. Usually, caja shows are performed outside, or sometimes in a gallery space, where the audience walks around and watches them one by one. This is time-consuming, for both the audience and the performer and I was doubtful that second graders would be able to stay patient and wait their turn at each box. Likewise, I wanted to find a way to allow each member of the group to contribute to the performance, instead of having just one puppeteer. In order to save time and space, we came up with a solution involving technology–specifically, a document camera and projector. The lens of the document camera fit perfectly into the peephole, allowing us to project the view of the inside of the box onto a whiteboard for the entire class to see. One student read the poem aloud, while the others operated the little flashlights to light the inside of the box and the entrances and exits of puppets. The excited “Ohhhhhh!” of the class when the lights came on and the inside of the box was revealed was truly satisfying for everyone.
We are very excited to be hard at work again on our show Malevolent Creatures! We first workshopped this piece in the summer of 2014, but it got put on hold for awhile as we focused on building and then performing Saudade. Now we are back at it, exploring the layers of meaning in stories featuring supernatural characters from British folklore.
The first segment of the show, which focuses on a witch from Leicestershire called Black Annis was developed and shown as part of a puppet slam at Black Cherry Puppet Theater in Baltimore this past month. Here are a few photos from rehearsals and the performance. Photos are by Cecilia Cackley and Bill Haas.
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.
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.
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 !!!!!
I was lucky enough to take a workshop with shadow puppet artist Gabriel von Fernandez when I was in Argentina back in November. Based in Buenos Aires, Gabriel performs his own shadow puppet shows and teaches workshops to artists at all levels. Here is a page from my journal about my experience working with him.
In the past month, we’ve had several different workshops in DC and Virginia, teaching students ages 4-16 to design, build and perform their own puppets. Here are some pictures of what they created. As always, if you are interested in learning more about our workshops or bringing us to your school, check out our Education page.
The photo to the left was taken at the American Immigration Council’s Take Your Child to Work Day event. The puppets below were created in a workshop with the 2nd and 3rd grades at Tuckahoe Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia.
I was thrilled to be able to return this month to Tuckahoe Elementary, where I used to teach full time, to do a three session arts residency with the 5th grade. Their social studies curriculum covers various world cultures, and I collaborated with their classroom, library and art teachers to give the students the opportunity to delve more deeply into Ancient Egyptian society through research, writing and puppetry.
Each student was assigned a particular Ancient Egyptian social group and spent time in the library researching the work, lifestyle, dress and family structure of that group. I then led each class through the steps of creating a puppet character and writing a monologue for them to speak, focusing on the hopes and dreams of their particular person. Some students chose to go dramatic, with generals plotting to kill the pharaoh. Others wrote about characters wishing to move up in status or social group. The students demonstrated their knowledge about the time period and their social group through the details they included in their writing.
In art class, each student created a ceramic head for their puppet, which was fired and decorated. In social studies class with me, they designed and then built a basic rod puppet structure of dowels and a costume of fabric. Again, students were expected to use their research to create a costume and if possible, props for their particular puppet character. When the puppets were all assembled, the students each performed their puppet monologue for the group. They did a wonderful job! Among the comments and feedback we got from the students were “I liked getting to decide how my character reacted to things,” “I liked learning more about all the different social groups by watching everyone” and “I liked making the head and costume of my puppet!” proving that the arts are the perfect way to build a love of learning in students of all ages. If you would like us to bring this or a similar workshop to your classroom, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.