Thursday, May 22, 2014

puppets in the city

     photo Brian Pounds, Connecticut Post


In a decade of leading workshops for kids and adults I've figured out that though I might teach adults sometimes, kids are really my teachers. I can show them some things they didn't know about, but I always come out of schools having gotten schooled myself. 

Last September I joined the teaching team of After School at the Klein (ASK), a performing arts program free to public high school students in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Brand new, thanks to a grant from the Board of Education, we were building from scratch and I was lucky enough to be invited to create a puppetry class.


Bridgeport is a rough and tumble city. Walking home isn't necessarily safe, much less self expression. Arts classes in public schools are not usual. The ASK program was made to bring students together with artists working in theater, expose them to all aspects of the performing arts, and be a safe environment for artistic and self exploration. 


It was also made to bring life and community connection back to an equally underserved entity, the Klein Memorial Auditorium, a grand 1400 seat theater from the 40's that became neglected when the surrounding neighborhood fell into disarray.

One of the first orders of business was to carve out some teaching spaces with very little budget. We turned an old office into a dance studio with a sprung floor thanks to some materials donations.


It was down to the wire, teachers and interns found themselves in the midst of construction during orientation.


Just in time we got it done. Here, before the paint went on, but the tremendous mirror installation in place.


Puppetry happily made its home in the Trap Room, the basement under the stage. Here we could make every kind of mess possible. We started the first semester with an exploration of materials, all easily found and often discarded, to discredit the notion that you can't make art unless you can afford expensive things from art stores. Then we played with every type of puppet: finger, hand, shadow, rod, bunraku-esque. And then moved into making large papier mache puppet heads.  


With this group I encountered the largest force of self-doubt I'd yet come up against. I had some self-doubt, too, unsure if I had the spark to combat it. So many students arrived each week already defeated, discouraged by their abilities and what was available to them. Even the need for developing basic motor skills was something I hadn't planned for, nor were the distractions from the more than usual challenges of their daily lives. So we borrowed this manifesto from Bread and Puppet which was always posted. Whenever spirits needed raising we would gather round and each shout a line.


There were a couple of natural born puppeteers. Anthony had a love for fabric that surpassed even my own, and could pull a puppet together out of anything. I once found him in a stairwell listening to someone practicing violin. "Brahms," he said. "I really love Brahms." Anthony! This is him discovering his phoenix.


And Tameika, a blossom of ferocious artistic determination. More like myself than any student I've yet met, but a hundred times braver and more sure of herself. She knows what she needs in order to do what she loves, and doesn't put up with anything that gets in the way of it. She came to my class because she had a dream of herself as a puppet. Here she is working on her Ghost Girl head. 


It wasn't always easy-- the concept of sticking through for the long haul was new to many, and no small obstacle to overcome was the keen aversion to cornstarch papier mache paste. 


But by the end of the semester they were looking at junk and puppets in a new way, and we put a foot in the doorway opening to the limitless possibilities in their own hands. 


But true to my theory, the biggest revelation was mine. Somewhere along the way I realized how lucky I had been to have art given to me through my family, and how it empowered me to create a world of my making to be in when the outside world was less than ideal. 


Some of these students are living in a world that is failing them all the time. Art isn't going to sustain all of them, but for the ones which it can, ASK is determined to make a space for them to be able to find it. 


In puppetry, it might just be the introduction of a new tool, or instruction on something as simple as how to angle scissors to get a good point cut.


And in other cases, maybe it was more. But with this work, seeds are planted for trees you don't expect to ever sit under. You just keep planting and planting because someone planted for you.


But puppets were just a fraction of the program which also included acting, stage craft, hip hop, Shakespeare, flash mob, film making, singing, and drumming. A great article about it in the CT Post is here.

We went bigger in the second semester, so big it needs its own post! That's coming next. 





Friday, May 09, 2014

shaman masks, puppets, and dreams

Here is part 2 of an appeal for donations to fund my tuition to attend the 2014 Eugene O'Neill National Puppetry Conference. Thanks to so many great friends and allies, I have just a little more to raise! The fundraiser is here on Gofundme







PUPPET APPEAL, PART 2:

THE MASK OF THE MOON


(From the "Mini-Manifesto" portion of the NPC application:)

When I am not puppeteering or making, my hands feel empty and ache with asking to hold. For some, the spirit lives in the mind, and this age of disembodied words and digital signals satisfies them. For others like myself, the spirit lives in the hands, and it is through the tangible that the world is understood and navigated. I puppeteer to keep that way of being and learning, for myself and those to come, though I haven’t always been aware that’s what I was doing.



Last May at the American Museum of Natural History, exhausted by long rehearsals, anxious if I’d prepared my young performers enough, wondering if I deserved to be there, I stepped out of the chaos of the last tech of my show Luna's Sea and into the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians-- dark, empty, and silent in the hours after closing. Alone in dim light with those ancient objects, from a wall full of strange faces one face in particular stared at me with inquisitive humor, much like the Moon puppet I had made for the head dancer of my oceanic show. Trepidatiously approaching through a thick air of something very old and alive I wasn't sure was welcoming or warning, I saw it was labeled: Shaman’s Mask of the Moon, and it said this:




These masks were worn by shamans when they danced in various rites. A shaman is a person who can control and use supernatural powers. The shaman had a special mask for each of his spirits which he used when appealing to that spirit. There were many occasions for ceremonies, among them births, funerals, and memorials. Tlingit shamans cured the sick, brought good weather, and caused large runs of fish.

In that moment I understood that what we were doing was more than a show, that it was part of thousands of years of an ongoing human activity, and that puppetry kept resurfacing in my life because of my corresponding need for visual art, movement, and ritual combined.





I had experimented with all kinds of art forms that I succeeded in. I had tried all kinds of athletics that thrilled me. I had sought all kinds of spiritual practices that I felt fulfilled by. But only in the meeting of object, physical exertion, and precise intention is where I experience a deep artistic, embodied, sacred satisfaction that feels like it expands beyond my self. 





Only through puppetry have I seen my work stir others the way I have been stirred by grand unseen things. It took me a long time to understand that consciously, and understand that puppets are a major force and source of my life.





My day jobs have been in traditional theater, but it has never felt for me as right and true as puppet theater. Perhaps because I was raised with puppets and the sense that life is in all inanimate objects. But I think it's that a character created by an actor, no matter how transformed, is still linked to that actor. 





While an object, made with care and moved with intention, has a chance to connect to something beyond the personal, to characters beyond human, to the vast space of myth and collective dreams, to the audience’s own souls. 





And it can be done in the smallest and humblest of places, making it accessible to everyone. This is so extraordinary!




Despite all the struggle and worry, Luna's Sea played at the AMNH for four shows last May to great audience response and reviews. It ended too quickly! The amazing and fiercely dedicated cast and crew dispersed, the puppets and set were packed into a neat space in my basement. There are discussions with local theater companies about re-launching it as a community theater show, and as another smaller professional show for another science museum, including a possible sequel. It might take some time, but it feels like there is more in store for Luna and the Moon. It's my hope that the Puppetry Conference is going to help me figure that out, among many other things. But, I'll save that for part 3!













Thursday, May 08, 2014

National Puppetry Conference!


There has been much puppetry afoot and afloat in 2014 already. The latest big news: I've been accepted into the prestigious Eugene O'Neill National Puppetry Conference for the second time! As much as a surprise as last year, since this time I took a risk and went for the writing strand, the skill I need to work most on.

Even more incredibly, I won a Jane Henson Memorial Scholarship award! I still need to raise the remaining balance of $1175 for tuition and board so there is a GoFundMe campaign running, full of new thank you gifts like giclee prints, true tales, Peaceable Kingdom journals, signed books, and puppets.

The training I get at the O'Neill is world class, and goes directly into projects like this giant fish puppet, part of an ambitious vision to start a year round puppetry class for underserved Bridgeport high school students within the After School at the Klein arts program. Since this pilot program began last September I've worked with dozens of talented students who have little or no exposure to the arts, teaching everything from the motor skills of basic tool use, to dreaming up and manifesting their own puppets. But that deserves a post or two for its own.

I applied for writing for two reasons: to help me complete some short personal puppet shows I've been wanting to finally present to the public, and to bring full narrative productions into my work with young people and the community. Both of these are long overdue!

Any amount no matter how small is greatly appreciated! And every amount receives something as well as endless amounts of hugs and gratitude. If you can't afford monetary donations, cheering on is equally welcomed!

To donate to the tuition, click here!

To read about my puppeteering family and their puppet troupe I'm reviving, click here!

To read about me in an article by Teaching K-12, click here!








Thursday, February 13, 2014

bird by bird: robin #2



The role of the robin in The Secret Garden is shared by two puppets I'm building, so it can quickly appear in different places on the stage. While #1 has a wing flapping action, I wanted #2 to tilt its head along with the flute voicing its song. Wing flapping I'd done before, tilting is new to me. So again I made a quick cardboard mechanism to see if my idea would work. 






The simplest solution seemed to be a pivoting joint with 2 strings coming from paddles on either side.


   


This required getting more serious, so I went into the wood shop. Some experimentation 
and much reshaping resulted in this sloppy but adequate interior neck joint. 
The smaller holes are where the two strings will start from.




First mantra-- use what's on hand. Old paintbrushes are aplenty, 
and their hard coating makes a smooth twisting action as pins for the pivot.




Here it is put together: the crescent pieces will glue into the shoulder, 
while the round piece will pivot between them. Dowel inserted at angle to hold up the head. 




A wicked fight to get it into the cardboard body, which I'd already built. 
I would have done it the other way around, in hindsight. Der. Glued and stapled in.




A double strand of thick fishing line threaded through the holes, held down solid with 
epoxy and hot glue. I won't be able to get back into the body
easily for fixes, so extra back up strength is going in from the start. 




Clay-over-styrofoam head put into place. 




 And now, cardboard feather layers again, for texture and shaping. So much fun!




With robin #1 I was inventing from scratch, this time I'm recreating robin #1. 
Easier now that I know what to do, harder now that I have to match something.




Eye sockets carved, beak and wings added.




The first robin poses and watches on like a cheerleader.




"You're doing great, Robin #2!" says Robin #1.




End of a long and fruitful day 1, a moment to look at the evolution of the robins,
from maquette to finish.




Day 2: constant checking to get the second body similar to the first, 
using the cardboard feather pieces to add roundness and disguise the much different 
shapes created by the two different mechanisms.




Face and head feathers added. Carefully measured overhang to hide the gap between 
head and shoulders without obstructing the tilting action. Beak reshaped. 
It's always nice to finally get eyeballs in.




Looking like a bird now.




Remembering how the paint went on. Glad I took process photos to put on my blog.




And here they are, not quite identical, but twins nonetheless.




The tails might not be seen much from the audience, but they didn't look complete without them.




Robin #2 shows off his head tilt.




Next, a less visible rubber band for #1, and dowels for both, and then we'll be ready 
to head to rehearsal.