Puppet Homecoming 2018

In September, Wit’s End company members Cecilia Cackley and Genna Beth Davidson went up to Brattleboro, Vermont for Puppet Homecoming. This Puppeteers of American regional event was held in conjunction with Puppets in the Green Mountains, an international puppet festival organized by Sandglass Theater. In this post, Cecilia and Genna Beth have a conversation about their experiences at Puppet Homecoming. 

Cecilia: Puppet Homecoming was a great experience. What shows did you find the most inspiring or interesting?

Genna Beth: Can I say all of them? Haha, each one was so different, and all were virtuosic. A Hunger Artist was just my cup of tea. I loved the cleverness of all the different puppetry styles (toy theatre, hand and rod, shadow, pure object manipulation); each one used to it’s full potential and perfectly chosen for that part of the story. And who doesn’t love the strangeness of a Kafka story? The performer was also just so amazing! Jonathan Levin basically did a one man show. So much talent! Which show was your favorite?

Cecilia: I really loved Meet Fred by Hijinx Theater in association with Blind Summit. I’ve really enjoyed the work by Blind Summit that I’ve seen in the past, but the collaboration with Hijinx and the themes of how a person with a disability navigates the world were extra powerful. I was laughing the whole time, just on the edge of crying. It really made me think.

Besides seeing the shows, we also went to some different workshops. Which ones did you do and which were the most helpful?

Genna Beth: I learned about silicone, writing grants for funding puppetry, and about race, gender, and sexuality in puppetry. Learning about silicone opened me up to new possibilities for crafting puppets, but I think the one that stimulated my mind the most was the one on race, gender and sexuality. I think everyone in the workshop was white and many talked about mistakes they’ve made with appropriation. Who should be telling what stories? And for me it raised a questions about taking on work to build puppets for stories that aren’t mine to tell. You were going to come to that workshop too but hung back at the writing grants one to talk more with that presenter individually. What did you learn?

Cecilia: I felt a lot better after that workshop, because I learned that my frustration at writing grants for puppet work is something a lot of people share! The presenter, Roxie Myhrum  from Puppet Showplace Theater in Boston, had a lot of concrete tips for how to think about describing puppets in grant applications and marketing materials. I was just sorry that we took so long to get started with that one that we didn’t get through all her slides!

It sounds like we both got a lot out of this weekend in Vermont. Do you think we should go back next year? What other things would you like to try if we return?

Genna Beth: I definitely want to go back next year! We didn’t get to check out the marketplace, so next year I want to make a point of that. Also I got to speak with a few people from across the region but it was hard to find time to get to know more people. So I’d like to find a way to make more friends next year too. You?

Cecilia: I agree with all of that. I wonder if it would be easier to make friends if we performed in one of the showcases or slams. Maybe that would give us a starting point for talking to people?

Genna Beth: YES! Good idea. I think we can have something prepared for the slam next year. I’d really like to make that a goal. Perhaps my lightbulb heads puppet show about depression. But who knows, we have a whole year to figure it out.

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The puppet Mr. Ruraru from the show Mr. Ruraru’s Yard by Puppet and It’s Double from Taiwan. 

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A Summer of Shadow Art

Last summer, we went on our first out-of-state tour, taking the shadow show Saudade to six different venues in Minneapolis. This summer, we haven’t performed any shadow work, but I did have the opportunity to see three very different shadow and silhouette based pieces of art in DC and New York City.

Back in the spring, we performed Saudade at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, for the opening of a new exhibit of contemporary and historical silhouettes called Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now. While I knew a little about the history of silhouettes, mainly that they were an inexpensive form of portraiture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was interesting to see more complicated compositions, such as this depiction of a magic lantern show by Auguste Edouart.

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A silhouette of a magic lantern show in the 1800’s cut by Auguste Edouart.

One of the contemporary artists featured in the exhibit is Kristi Malakoff. Much of her work involves the transformation of two-dimensional objects into three-dimensional artwork and her piece in the exhibit is this beautiful three-dimensional silhouette sculpture of children around a maypole.

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Kristi Malakoff’s silhouette sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In 2016, we had the opportunity to perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an annual event that presents artists from all over the world. We performed as part of a section of the festival about migration, titled On the Move, but most of the festival focuses on particular regions or countries around the world. This year, the Smithsonian presented artists from Armenia and Catalonia, including several kinds of puppet artists. The Ayrogi Shadow Theater is a group of performers who travel around Armenia performing shadow puppetry. They trace their traditional storytelling back to the 1830’s and in contrast to more complex and colorful shadow puppets found in the region, use a simple style of puppet made from cardboard or leather.

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Shadow puppets by Ayrogi Shadow Theater from Armenia at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. 

Finally, I was able to visit the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City while I was there for work in early August. I’m very familiar with the DC museum but had never had an excuse to visit the Heye center in New York, housed in the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House downtown. I went primarily to see a new exhibit about Taino Heritage and Identity, but I also happened upon a set of rooms titled Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound. Of course transformation is at the heart of all puppetry, and I was especially moved by the piece The Harbinger of Catastrophe by Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka‘wakw). The box sits in the middle of the room and the shadows it casts stretch to fill the entire floor and walls so that the viewer walks through and disrupts them as they move around the space. It was an immersive experience that I’m still thinking about. If you have a chance to see the exhibit before it closes in January, I highly recommend it.

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The Harbinger of Catastrophe by Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka‘wakw) at the American Indian Museum, NYC. 

Shows I’d Like to See

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A Heart at Sea. Photo by Half a String. 

The wonderful thing about social media is that it enables us to maintain connections with theaters in other parts of the country and the world, and find out about the shows they are performing. The frustrating thing about social media is that I see all these cool pictures of inspiring shows that I won’t get to see in person. Here are three shows either currently running or that have just closed that I wish I could magically teleport to go see.

JUNK at Little Angel Theatre in London.
This immersive kid’s show using recycled materials looks like a really fun way to learn about the recycling process! Some of the puppets look like they have a resemblance to some of our characters from Cabinets of Kismet and I’d love to hear what the voices sound like and see how the audience is encouraged to move from space to space during the show.

NO BLUE MEMORIES at Manual Cinema with the Poetry Foundation and Chicago International Puppet Festival.
I’m a huge fan of Manuel Cinema and their innovative ways of combining actors and overhead projector shadow puppets. I also like Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry, so this show looks amazing and I hope some day I’ll get to see it!

A HEART AT SEA by Half a String, currently touring the UK.
The live music and mechanical set is what attracted me to this show about a boy who bottles up his heart and throws it in the sea. I love puppetry that includes interplay between actors and puppets, especially if there’s a big variation in scale. The intricate workings of this tabletop set are fascinating and I hope in the future they bring it to the US and share it with audiences here.

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.

Puppets in the Berkshires

Company member Genna Davidson attended a two week puppet intensive up in New England this summer. Here is her account of the trip. 

This past August I spent two weeks in Williamstown, Massachusetts (okay, so it’s not really the Berkshires, but it’s just next door) at the New England Puppet Intensive. I worked alongside an incredible group of artists learning, playing, eating, and sometimes stargazing.

Genna and LindseyThe workshop was held at the Buxton School for the Arts and as the name forewarns, the workshop was intense. The two weeks felt more like two months because we were up at 8:00am and worked until 10:00pm or 11:00pm every day. In the morning we warmed our bodies and minds with yoga. Then we either had drawing or Suzuki (a Japanese approach to actor training). After lunch we would usually break into small groups and work on creating our final 10-minute puppetry piece to be presented at the end of the second week. The “puppet camp” counselors (David, Pete, and Nan) guided us on our journey and provided us with the inspiration for the final performances.

_untitled_ 058This year the theme they gave us to use as a springboard for our work was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I was very proud of the performance my group gave. Our exploration of Shelley’s work led to the creation of a puppet who trades her limbs for new ones only to find that she is haunted by the stories attached to each limb. Our piece ended up being somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes long. Ooooops. They didn’t make us cut it shorter though. There were two other small groups. One group meditated the importance of the ones connection to nature, and the other created a piece about creating feminine beauty through destruction of the self. It was inspiring to see how each group took the starting material and ran with it in different directions.

I think the most important thing I learned at the Intensive is that to create work you have to jump in even if things are half done and you can’t see clearly where you’re headed. You have to trust that the story will be what it needs to be and creation is always a journey into the unknown.

We’re Going to Canada!

Wit’s End Puppets is taking to the road! Or the plane, as a matter of fact. We have been invited by the good folks at the University of Manitoba’s Mauro Center for Peace and Justice to perform Saudade at the Winnipeg International Storytelling Festival in May.

This is the first time we have been able to take a larger show to an out-of-town event, so we are extremely excited! Since we wrapped up our INTERSECTIONS run, we have been making some changes to the show, adding puppets, polishing scenes and revising sounds to better achieve the effects and images in our minds. We received lots of excellent feedback from our audiences at the Atlas, and have been considering how best to incorporate audience suggestions. The show has a new ending, several interludes that break up the stories of our three main characters and we are working towards creating recorded monologues to begin and end the show that will feature the voices of many of the people whose stories were captured and shared in the script. Here are a few pictures of the progress we’ve made so far:

Amy is carefully placing the tiny paper birds between these two silhouettes.

Amy is carefully placing the tiny paper birds between these two silhouettes.

A new scene added at the end of show.

A new scene added at the end of show.

The ending images were all cut in one long big piece this time.

The ending images were all cut in one long big piece this time.

We have to carefully cut off the bottom edge to make sure everything matches.

We have to carefully cut off the bottom edge to make sure everything matches.

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!