Thursday, April 25, 2013

the mask of the moon

Last week the impossible happened: I was accepted into the Eugene O'Neill National Puppetry Conference, a dream I've had for 17 years. 

This week the impossible happened again: in less than 24 hours friends and strangers from all over the country (and world!) donated to my tuition fundraising campaign, making it possible for me to go. And, blowing my mind even more, in another half day they exceeded my goal, allowing me to pay for all the other associated expenses. 

Last week, I was pretty sure I would not get to the O'Neill. I had a short deadline and three days of blog post material to appeal for donations to my cause. I knew I had generous friends, but to the degree and speed with which they were ready to help.... I still can't get over it. 

I now have the most wonderful work ahead- putting together thank you gifts and love letters. And I'm going to continue with the Puppet Appeal blog posts as planned, so these incredible supporters can know what they are a part of.

Thank you to EVERYONE who donated, shared, linked, tweeted, cheered. Everyone's gracious help, small and large, is equally and immensely appreciated. Every moment of my being at the O'Neill this June is going to mean so much more, knowing how much you wanted me to be there. 

With all my love and gratitude for years to come: thank you, thank you, thank you. 



(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!

Monday, April 22, 2013

never say never!

After years of stumbling into puppetry again and again, through strange coincidences and seemingly inherited family fate, this year I decided to fully embrace it and apply to the prestigious Eugene O'Neill National Puppetry Conference in Waterford, CT.

Heavens to Betsy, I got in! I was awarded a scholarship from the Terry and Taylor Fator fund, which is "intended to financially and emotionally support puppet artists with a 'never say never' spirit." I'm still $1,175 short of the remaining tuition balance for the 11 day conference, due April 28. This seems like a lot to raise in less than a week, but-- Never say never! So I am fundraising for myself for the first time. 

This series of blog posts is an appeal for donations, a history of my life-long tango with puppetry and community art, and why I want so badly this experience at the O'Neill, which you can read about here. Any small amount you can give to help me get there will be so appreciated for years to come!

To donate, please go to my GoFundMe page by clicking right here!



My grandparents David and Helen Bogdan started making and performing with marionettes in the 1950s in West Orange, New Jersey, along with their 2 daughters, Bonnie and Judy. They called their family theater company The Stringpullers, and put shows on for the community, built theaters for other puppeteers, and taught art and puppetry to school groups. This is Helen and Judy in my grandfather's stage construction diagrams.

By the time I came along in the 70's, their house and their lives were full of puppets. From before I can remember, I was making and playing with puppets, too. And there were always shows going on for neighborhood kids. That's me in the crowd on the right in a pink dress, looking very dramatic.

As I grew up, I strayed away from puppetry and towards the introversion of books. I trained in classical visual art at the Rhode Island School of Design and became a children's book illustrator. But I, too, went into schools and taught kids about illustration, as my grandfather had (he was also a cartoonist). Here's my grandfather and me, both talking about illustration to school groups, 30 years apart.

Though I wasn't making puppets, I couldn't stop making dolls. I joined the Original Doll Artisans of Connecticut and focused on figurative sculpting. But I always had an uneasy feeling when these dolls were stiff and posed, which for some reason I felt I had to make them. But secretly, I wanted them to be loose and moveable. Secretly, (obviously now) I wanted them to be puppets. This is "Grace", which I made for Robert's Snow, an art auction fundraiser for a dear friend's very personal cause. 

When my grandmother fell ill years after my grandfather passed away, she was most anxious about the future of their large family of marionettes. I had always promised I would take care of them, but she doubted me, expressing regret that I didn't become a puppeteer. These are just a few of the dozens of puppets my grandparents made together.

The last time I saw my grandmother, the day before she died, to comfort her I lied and said I had found people who I was going to puppeteer with, which brought her tremendous relief. Two weeks later, by the strangest of coincidences, I heard about an open apprentice puppetry position with Bob Bresnick, Leslie Weinberg, and Margaret Carl of Puppetsweat theater company, and suddenly I was in my first puppeteering roll in a show called James Mars. (I'm the one on the far left!)


I performed with Puppetsweat for many more shows, operating table top, rod, bunraku-esque, and shadow puppets. Puppetsweat productions are mature, dark, brooding, sophisticated, and gorgeous. Puppeteers are visible, and body awareness is crucial. I had never been a stage performer before, and I learned everything from Bob, Leslie and Margaret. With them I got to perform in amazing places, including the Pontine Movement Theater, Wesleyan University, Manhattan School of Music, and Galapagos Art Space. And I began helping them build puppets for Master Peter's Puppet Show, which we took to the Kennedy Center in DC. That's me in the center as Don Quixote's right hand, and the monkey puppet I built from Leslie's design on the right. 

In 2006 I began teaching for the first time, as co-instructor of an Intro to Puppetry class with Bob at Quinnipiac University. I taught building and operation of rod, hand, toy and shadow puppets, while Bob taught history, theory and direction. Again I found myself copying my grandfather. Here's his puppet building class at St. Cloud School in 1976, and my class at QU in 2006. 

Inexplicably I started being asked to teach other places, including Jake Weinstein's Circus class at the Educational Center of the Arts in New Haven where I experimented with my first all-student-designed giant puppet project. We built a giant cardboard monkey puppet with rolling eyes and performed it on Audubon Street in New Haven. Now I was really hooked.

photo: Rich House

In 2007 I became a puppet cover girl (how many people can say that?) when Teaching PreK-8 Magazine came to my attic studio to interview me about book illustration and puppetry. 

In 2010 in my art class at the Common Ground Summer Ecology Camp, I used the resident chickens as study subjects for my elementary school students to translate live animal movement into giant puppet construction. The two giant chickens were completely designed, developed, built, and performed by them as a communal project. Here's my grandfather's students building at St. Cloud again, and mine at Common Ground. (You can see more of these amazing chickens and their design process at the Giant Chicken Blog.)

Around this time I began experimenting with producing my own short acts combining dance, shadow play, and puppetry for a vaudeville festival called Forgot to Laugh curated by Tony Juliano. Over a few years I recruited circus friends as cast members, and two recurring characters began developing who I called Polly and The Moon

photos: Mike Franzman & Chion Wolf

More and more opportunities began coming from my collaboration with circus artists, including building and teaching giant puppetry for student shows and street festivals. This giant sea spirit was built for the Torrington Main Street Market and Matica Arts in 2011. 

And, a whole new experiment combining living statue and puppetry called The Mermaid Statue that I built and performed for Hartford First Night on December 31, 2010, and has since been my most prolific project, appearing all over New England at county fairs, private parties, festivals, street corners and museums. 

But most epic yet: in 2011 I was commissioned by Cornerstone Playhouse and Mystic Aquarium to write, build, and perform a show about the ocean for family audiences. Polly and The Moon turned into Luna and The Moon, and became a 40 minute, full stage, 7 cast member production called Luna’s Sea, directed by Karl Gasteyer and choreographed by Christine Poland. After a summer run in Mystic Luna was unbelievably discovered and contracted by the American Museum of Natural History in NYC to perform in 2012. 

photo: American Museum of Natural History

The story isn't done with Luna's Sea yet! But I'll leave that for Part 2 of Puppet Appeal blog post series. Perhaps in the meantime you'll be dazzled enough to throw a dollar, or two, or a hundred into the virtual hat that will help send me to Eugene O'Neill this June by donating at this link! Or if you are unable, but still feel moved to help, please share this post. I promise more shows, more community events, and more participatory spectacles that will be a thousand times better for you having helped send me to the O'Neill!

Sunday, April 07, 2013


The extra long-ness and cold-ness of this winter is making the spring so much more dear and wonderful. I've been listening to gardening music and feeling mono-chromatic. This pen and ink came out inspired by a rousing Travis Knapp song, Permaculture Saints which you can listen to here

Crow quill was the first art tool I became adept with beyond the pencil, but I never used it much past RISD. It feels real nice to say hello again.