Wit’s End artistic director Cecilia Cackley is currently traveling in South America. While she is gone, Cecilia is keeping a visual journal of the places she visits and shows that she sees. She will be posting pages here occasionally as virtual postcards from her trip.
A roundup of articles, photos and events that we highlighted on Twitter this month.
1. A fantastic article about the importance of arts education is here. Obviously, we agree!
2. Puppetry is an ancient art, but its prevalence in some parts of the world is changing rapidly. Read about traditional Indian puppetry and how it is changing here.
3. A tribute to British marionette master Frank Mumford is here.
4.Double Edge Theater up in Massachusetts is performing Sharazad this summer. Find out more about this fantastic theater in this article.
Perhaps as a result of their collaboration with Handspring, Bristol Old Vic presented a version of Dream that connected the characters and their story to objects, humble materials and craftsmanship. The set was an immediate hint that this was not going to be your usual, run-of-the-mill Shakespeare production. Ladders, stools, lattice and paint drops gave the feeling of being in a workshop, and one actor wandered about onstage handling wood and tools with ease.The costumes were rough work clothes, with few differences between the mechanicals and the nobles, while the actors playing Oberon and Titania carried large sculpted masks and in Oberon’s case an oversized jointed hand. The mechanicals used large blocks of wood as props in their rehearsal, which by the final performance of Pyramus and Thisbe had been carved into rough representations of the doomed lovers. Even the woods of Athens were displayed literally–the actors held up planks of wood for the lovers to hide behind and travel through during their scenes.
In keeping with the rough aesthetic, the puppets used for Puck and the other fairies were somewhat motley in style and appearance. Puck was played by three of the mechanicals, each holding a different object (mallet, fork, metal can, etc) that they brought together to form the head, body and appendages of the character. The exact setup might be different each time, but the hobgoblin could move like lightning simply by having all the objects zoom off in different directions, which was very effective whenever Oberon called for his servant. Peaseblossm and company were slightly more grotesque, with exaggerated features and only one or two body parts made from objects similar to Puck. Bottom’s transformation, like the woods of Athens, took Shakespeare’s text quite literally, with an over-the-top visual gag that the actor pulled off with aplomb. The transformation mechanism, along with fully realized versions of Oberon and Titania used in the final dance, were the only puppets that seemed to be created in a woven cane style similar to the War Horse puppets.
There was one small mystery: in the publicity photos for the show, the lovers each had a small puppet of themselves. Onstage, these were nowhere to be seen. I didn’t miss them; it made sense that puppetry was used for the otherworldly characters, with rough imitations by the mechanicals as part of their own play within the play. The large masks and hands made Oberon and Titania larger than life, while Puck’s transformative qualities were superbly created (and recreated) by his collection of objects. This production of Dream brought the audience fully into the darkness and strangeness of the woods and the fairies’ world.
Penny Plain, Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes.
In the Terrace Theater, a smaller scale, yet arguably more epic story was on display in Penny Plain, an original show by Ronnie Burkett from Canada. Set in a future world that is disintegrating fast, the story centers on Penny Plain, an old woman in a boarding house full of odd characters who has only her dog for company. But Geoffrey has decided that he wants to be a man, not a dog and at the beginning of the play heads out into the world, leaving Penny by herself. As news clips are heard that detail the food and money shortages, the environmental disasters and the desperation of humanity, Penny and the rest of the people in the house try their best to survive.
Burkett performed Penny Plain, solo, controlling over 20 marionettes alone or in pairs, around the two levels of the set that depicted the boarding house. Some characters had two different puppets, one to appear on the upper floor and one with longer strings to appear on the lower. The style of both the writing and the puppets was naturalistic, with brilliant touches of the macabre. Burkett switched voices expertly throughout the rapid-fire dialogue, punctuated by heavy pauses. The themes of change, human nature and survival are heavy, but satire helped to undercut the serious tone (a scene with two US refugees from the south was especially delicious). Burkett built the tension in the story expertly, alternating gruesomely funny sequences with poignant conversations until the entire audience was riveted. Directly after the final blackout, I heard someone behind me heave a sigh of relief, as though being released from a magic spell. This show was a brilliant example of the power of pure puppetry.
Oxford Dictionaries defines social justice as “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities and privileges within a society.” In honor of Dr. King, who fought for equal opportunities for so many, this week we have a short overview of how puppets have contributed and continue to contribute to the fight for social justice.
In his 1990 essay “The Radicality of the Puppet Theater,” Peter Schumann calls puppetry “…conceptual sculpture…uninvited by the powers-that-be.” Over the centuries, the low status of puppets in the art hierarchy has allowed them to be agitators for justice, the perfect mouthpiece for complaints about the government. Today puppets are used by theaters and activist groups across the US as an essential visual component of protests as well as a way to empower communities for fight for necessary change. While this is far from a complete picture (read this essay for more information), here is a short overview of the history of puppetry and protest.
Puppetry has always been a transient art form. From medieval times through the nineteenth century, puppeteers moved from place to place, often performing outdoors rather than inside theaters. As Italian commedia characters such as Pulcinella travelled from country to country, these archetypal figures took on local characteristics and became distinct. However, whether they were named Kasperle (in Germany), Karagioz (in Turkey) or Punch (in England), all of these puppets entertained by breaking rules, upsetting authority and sometimes commenting on local issues and problems of the day. In early nineteenth century France, an out of work silk worker and dentist named Laurent Mourguet created the character Guignol, who became a voice for the working people of France disenfranchised by the combination of industrialization and economic depression. Later in the twentieth century, as protests multiplied in the 1960’s, puppets (especially giant ones) became a widespread part of the action.
The most famous puppet theater associated with protest is probably Bread and Puppet Theater, located in Glover, Vermont and formed in 1963 by Peter Schumann. Originally based on the Lower East Side of New York City, Schumann began by creating shows about local problems and eventually moved on to deploring unchecked capitalism, the Vietnam War and other national issues. Bread and Puppet still takes their puppet and circus shows (always with live music) on tour each year and creates massive community circuses each summer at their farm in Vermont. Two other companies that provide puppet support to activists on a range of issues are the People’s Puppets of Occupy Wall Street, in New York City and Puppet Underground, in Washington DC. Run by volunteers, they hold workshops in puppet-making and create large and small scale puppets and artwork for protests.
Over the years, several groups that began by working on protests and activism have started to also provide educational resources and community arts support in various cities around the country. Wise Fool Puppet Intervention began as an arts group adding visual impact to activist events in California, and artists with the group later founded Wise Fool New Mexico, which seeks to empower people through puppetry and circus arts. In Philadelphia, Spiral Q Puppet Theater provides arts programming to schools, support for communities trying to express a vision of change, and leadership training for young people. Across the country, puppets are still speaking for those with no voices; still part of a movement toward change for the better.
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.
It has been a wonderful busy year here at Wit’s End Puppets and I hope that anyone who stumbled upon this blog and our work has enjoyed a look at our process and stories. Now it’s time to take a little break. For the next two months, I will be traveling (mostly to places where I don’t speak the language), in search of puppets and adventure. This blog is going on hiatus while I am gone (although Genna or Pat may possibly be persuaded to write a guest post now and then). When I get back, there will be photos, stories and many new ideas. But for now, enjoy the summer!
This is Washington DC, so the first question you usually get upon meeting new people is “So, what do you do?” When I say I’m a puppeteer, two words are frequently heard: “Really?” and “Why?” A few weeks ago, performing the Personal Puppet Show at Fenton Street Market, a gentleman who sat down to see the show asked me afterward “What was the point of that?” At the time, I responded “To get you to smile–hey, look, it worked!” but I’ve continued to think about his question, as it’s one that I think many people seem to have about puppets and art in general.
Does art have to have a point? Can art exist on its own, free of any agenda or intention? Is that even possible? I wonder, because it seems that so much content created nowadays (digital and otherwise) is meant to make us THINK. Entertainment for children includes Important Information To Know and newspapers and websites abound with infographics and charts and statistics which will help you better understand the world around you. Not to say that any of this is bad. But sometimes, I think it’s important that art gives us a little break from all that. A space to smile, and let your mind wander. That, for me anyway, is the point.