Wit's End Puppets is an innovative and experimental puppet theater in the national capital region, producing original work for adventurous audiences; collaborating with local partners to bring quality puppetry into contemporary performance; and educating children and adults about the craft of puppetry.
We’re excited to welcome puppeteers Lisi Stoessel and Francisco Benavides to the Puppet Lobby this month, along with Wit’s End company member Amy Kellett. It’s especially meaningful because Lisi worked with us on the very first project that Genna Beth and I created together back in 2011, a show for the Capital Fringe Festival called The Malachite Palace. While the company wasn’t fully formed back then, we did use the name ‘Wit’s End Puppets’ for our family show about a princess and a little golden bird. Lisi designed beautiful shadow puppets for that project and later worked on some of the early material that would eventually become our first fully produced show, The Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet. Lisi lives in Baltimore where she designs sets and puppets and works in a variety of theatrical and creative roles, for Submersive Productions, among other companies. With Francisco Benavides, she created puppets for Submersive’s recent production H.T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum and they will be showing us some of those puppets on Monday March 19th. We hope you’ll join us at 7:00pm at the Selman Gallery at Brookland Artspace Lofts for some great conversation!
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!
Genna Beth with a new puppet, the selkie in human form.
Angela and Nina rehearsing one of the group dances for the selkies.
Amy working out movement for Selkie with Seth operating her right arm.
Ashley, Seth and Amy work on Selkie’s dance with her husband John.
The Selkie puppet after rehearsal, looking a bit lonely!
I am slowly coming to the realization that I can complete about one solo puppet project a year. That’s about what my brain and imagination and over-scheduled life can handle. Since I have quite a long list of ideas, I’m set for about the next ten years in projects, thank you very much. The project I completed this year is one I’ve had in mind since 2014, when I studied the art of caja lambe-lambe with Gabriela Céspedes. It’s a three minute long street theater show called Library Love.
I’m not going to say too much about it, because if you ever see me performing it at a festival, farmer’s market or other event, I’d like you to be at least a little surprised! I will tell you that the story takes place inside a library and includes both human and non-human characters. It is wordless, like most caja lambe-lambe shows and I am working very hard to construct a version that is both sturdy enough to hold up to wear and tear, but light enough to travel internationally without costing a fortune in baggage fees. Here are some photos of an early tryout I did in November at the Savannah Children’s Book Festival.
Over the centuries, naturalists have described the fens as a landscape of extraordinary fertility and disturbing darkness. At once a place “of manifold horrors and fears, and the loneliness of the wide wilderness,” and a place of abundance, “plentifully endowed” (Merchant 169, 166).
Perhaps the most potent symbol of that overlap of horror and abundance is the conger eel, a fish native to the fens, congers can grow massive in proportions, the recent record is 20 feet in length and over 130 pounds after gutting.
Slimy, sharp toothed, and writhing, eels are also delicious. They were a central part of a local economy that depended on the land—including hunting, fowling, and cutting peat for fuel. Eel fishermen used baskets trap to catch them and transport them to markets.
For the fen landscape we’re building for Tiddy Mun, then, eels are an essential part, but in building our eels, we want to be sure that their movement communicated both size and slithering, abundance and slime.
I wanted a puppet that could move like a real eel, and as I planned it, I thought of the toy wooden snakes I’d had as a child. Those snakes are built of a large number of wooden disks connected by a cloth spine. The internet, beneficent in all things, has an excellent tutorial on how to make them from scratch, but I needed our eels to be five to six feet long and five to six inches in diameter, so wood would be far too heavy to use as a material. Instead, I went for lighter cardboard. Instead of flat disks (I tried it, it would’ve taken approximately three hundred of them, individually cut in graduating size, to get the length and shape we needed!), I bent strips of cardboard into thicker rib shapes to build a skeleton. The plan was to connect them with fabric, then cover them with shining black nylon skin. In the end, this method produced an eel-like body shape, but if anything it was too flexible. It would require four hands to operate, and puppeteers might end up obscuring the puppet when all was done!
Amy reminded me of another kind of toy snake:
These wider segments might hold up under the weight of the puppet and still slither, so I cut and bent cardboard into the shape of the segments, then built a frame for the eel’s face, tale and flippers:
For added strength, I used a cornstarch glue and cardboard paper mache to cover the body of the eel:
I painted the eel, then attached each segment with a vertical wire, allowing them to slide individually from left to right. Two glass eyes made the puppet live, and the final product moved like this:
Building an Eel puppet - YouTube
So here I am finally, a proud eel fisherman with my catch (and my cat):
We are thrilled to welcome Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon of Alex & Olmsted as our guests at our next Puppet Lobby on January 29. Alex and Sarah have been making puppets together since 2010. In recent years, they have performed at LaMaMa NYC, The Puppeteers of America Festival, Bread and Puppet Theater, and two National Puppet Slams. They will be talking about their show Milo the Magnificent which was awarded a 2017 Jim Henson Foundation Grant and a Greenbelt Community Foundation Grant and was featured on the front page of the Hartford Courant. Milo is a show about a magician with a variety show of tricks and science experiments that don’t go quite as planned. You can watch a trailer for the show here.
In addition to Alex & Olmsted, Wit’s End artistic director Cecilia Cackley will be talking about her latest project in the Brazilian style caja lambe-lambe, which is a form of street puppetry. She recently took her latest work-in-progress, called Library Love to the Savannah Children’s Book Festival. We hope you can join us to hear about these puppet projects on January 29th at 7:00 at the Selman Gallery at the Artspace Lofts in Brookland.
As we endeavor to mount Malevolent Creatures: What the Waves Bring as part of Space4 with CulturalDC, a big build is underway in my studio space. When we did a 20 minute section of the piece last year I had the main selkie puppet constructed enough for use, but she was far from finished, and I discovered some problems during that workshop.
For one, the puppet has to be worn by our puppetress, Amy Kellett, who quickly discovered that the play we’ve written doesn’t have many “down” moments for Selkie. The lower legs of the puppet are Amy’s legs and the puppet is attached at the knees. Amy holds the puppets head and controls the movement of one arm, but it is actually taking A LOT of arm and back strength to keep the puppet from slumping down. This is a problem that my redesign/rebuild needs to address. I haven’t quite figured out yet how to handle it. I might reach out to a master designer in our area for some help.
Secondly I decided to put the puppet in a nude unitard because for some of the scenes she appears nude, but it didn’t end up looking like she was nude; it looked like someone wearing a nude unitard. In retrospect I think to myself “duh!” So I had to deconstruct the unitard and pull the material taut over each body part. This way it will look more like a nude woman. It’s very tricky pulling the fabric taut though. It wants to fold in ways that make it look like fabric. Learning to do this skin-job is a new challenge that I’m still figuring out too.
Puppetry is full of problem solving. I never seem to anticipate all the challenges that come up, but that’s part of the fun for me. I remember working on a show a few years ago in which I built a puppet whose head didn’t move from side to side because of the way I designed the shoulders. It was a total accident, and then I had to quickly figure out how to adjust that design. I came up with a design in which I inserted the neck dowel into the hosing that was the spine. I kept them together with elastic that ran the length of the spine and connected through the tubing and up to the top of the neck dowel where I had wired some loops around which I could sew the elastic (see image). It was pretty cool figuring that out. I love it when a problem comes my way. It’s the best part of building for me!
Genna Beth’s puppet head design.
My dad is an engineer so sometimes I run things by him; he loves problem solving too. But on more than one occasion, he has wanted to take the design in a completely different direction. It’s at those times that I turn into a little kid again with the impulse to say: “No I want to do it by myself!” I have to remind myself it’s okay to learn from others and get more experience in the process.
I will start by saying I’m not very good at New Year’s resolutions. My own tend to lean towards the kind of vague (Write a play. What kind? I don’t know…) to the very specific (read four books in translation). Hard and fast rules don’t usually work for puppetry, to be honest. You might plan to create a puppet using a specific design and five different materials…and then realize that your design is inherently flawed and one material doesn’t bend the way you expected it to (yes, this has happened to me a lot.) As a result, making specific resolutions can be tough.
2017 was a bit of a dumpster fire for much of the world. Who knows what 2018 will bring? Who knows how we will need to respond, creatively or otherwise? So I’m not going to give you a list of specific resolutions for Wit’s End in the new year. Instead, here are a few hopes I have for what may happen in the next twelve months:
I hope we get to work with someone new that we’ve never met before.
I hope we are able to teach someone a new skill that they never thought they would try.
I hope we can be the first experience of puppetry for someone out there who sees our work and thinks about it for awhile afterwards.
I hope we try something new–whether that is a puppet podcast, or a new building technique or a show made entirely out of moss–I don’t know. The surprise brings the joy.
Puppetry as an art form always has more surprises for me. Any time I think I’ve seen it all, that there’s nothing new out there, I discover a performer, a story, or a kind of puppet that proves me wrong. I expect the same will be true in 2018. Onward!
I did not expect that we would make an eel puppet out of cardboard in 2017. Or that Annalisa, demonstrating it here, would love it quite this much.
It’s been a year when I look back and many things blur together in my memory. So much happened–in the world, in our city, in our personal lives–that it’s hard to remember specifics. I know we did a lot of work. I remember the stress, the late nights, the many emails back and forth. But sometimes the accomplishments disappear in hindsight, so I think it’s important to think back and list the highlights of the year.
Minneapolis tour! This adventure from last June was definitely the project that took the most planning, organization and money. It has been a goal of mine to go on tour with Saudade pretty much since I conceived the idea of the show, so this was truly a dream come true.
Welcoming a new company member! Nina Budabin McQuown has added so much to our team this year. From their research and script-writing on Malevolent Creatures, to their thoughtful blog posts about trash and podcasts here, Nina has brought ideas, energy and enthusiasm to the party, getting us all more excited about our next projects.
A focus on community! In our conversations as a company after Nina joined us, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to re-focus our time and energy not just on creating our own work, but on engaging and connecting with other artists as well. Pat came up with the idea of the Puppet Lobby as a way of facilitating those connections and along with the Puppet SlamNation organized by Genna Beth, it has been a great way to meet other artists, share ideas and learn more about our craft.
Page to Stage! This is another milestone I’ve been wanting to hit for awhile. The Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival is a great way for local companies to try out new work in front of an audience. Our problem has always been that most of our work is wordless, and therefore not an easy fit for a staged reading. It was great to be able to share Selkie’s story with a sold-out house in the Israeli Room and get their feedback on the story. With any luck, we’ll be able to build on that experience as we go back to Selkie to prepare for our next workshop in March.
Despite it’s many challenges, 2017 has had good moments. As our politicians focus their energy on tearing down structures of equality and safeguards to the environment, we will focus our energy on serving our community, connecting with other artists and making the best puppet theater we can. If you were able to join us this year, thank you for your support! If you’re just finding out about our work, welcome and we looking forward to sharing puppets with you in 2018. Happy New Year!
Ah the holidays. The annual time of congressional spending bills and self-addressed envelopes in the mail from non-profits, when we look behind to make sure we’ve wrung every last cent out of our dental insurance (should we have it), and we look ahead to a new year and all the tax forms it will bring. And you know, gingerbread and egg nog and stuff. It’s the perfect time to introduce you to our brand new shiny Patreon, a place where Wit’s End Puppets supporters (you, dear reader), can go to help us make puppet theater, workshops, slams, and speakers happen here in DC.
If you’ve never encountered Patreon before, it’s a platform for funding ongoing projects, artists, and creators. It works like this: we tell you about how to find our new Patreon (that is, here), you go, sign up, and decide on an amount to give monthly. Depending on your subscription level, we then send you a small token of gratitude for each time you donate. That means videos and photos, in-process shots of our puppets and shows as we build them, reflections on writing and research, and more. That more might include stuff like video of Amy’s kitten trying to eat a bird made out of repurposed hangers and break casings.
Patreon is different from more widely known funding platforms like Kickstarter or Go Fund me. Like them, it allows networks of people across the country to pool small donations in support of artists, but for theater companies like us, it’s a much better deal. Because they raise a lot of money at once and for one purpose, Kickstarter and Gofundme are usually best for single projects: a book, a therapy dog, an album, a surgery—all things I’ve seen on those two sites—but Patreon works for artists who make lots of content continuously over time and can really use support that keeps up.
Wit’s End is currently asking for subscribers at either of our two tiers: $1 a month at the finger puppet level, or $5 dollars a month at the hand puppet level. We haven’t even yet begun to dream of marionettes or body puppets, or multi-operator horse puppets but hey, we’d love to get there. Meanwhile, you can sign up to get original content from the company geared specifically toward our subscribers. That’s in addition, of course, to the warm fuzzy feeling you’re guaranteed every time you support the arts, which is better even than watching this video of capybaras taking a bath.
In 2018, we’re hoping to commission new work as part of Malevolent Creatures, stage the full show, continue DC Slamnation and The Puppet Lobby, and maybe even start a puppetry podcast. If you’re interested in supporting work like this, and you have a buck or five a month that you might otherwise just spend on 36oz. bags of gummy worms (that’s me, is who does that), come join the illustrious ranks of our subscribers. Puppetry is better for your teeth.
Sometimes I wonder what I would have done as a freelance art and puppetry teacher before Pinterest. Whenever I am stuck for ideas, wondering what new project three year olds can do using cotton balls, paint and paper plates, all I have to do is type a few keywords into a search box and the wonders of teaching blogs, mommy blogs and other artists are there for my perusal.
Because I’m teaching different groups of kids in different settings, sometimes I will repeat a project, and in the process, learn how to improve it. Here is a small case study: a penguin puppet.
I found this project (from the blog Confessions of a Teaching Junkie), attractive because of it’s simplicity. I also liked that it used paint, which is useful for stretching a project out to two lessons, because we have to let it dry. My students in an after school arts program, who are nearly all 6 or 7, were able to paint a plastic cup, cut out wings and eyes (I cut out the feet, as cardboard cutting skills are still a bit beyond them) and glue everything together. They turned out quite charming, as you can see. And they all looked pretty much the same, with some slight variations in the eyes.
Then I decided to repeat the project with a different after school class. These are 7 and 8 year olds, so a little older, a little more assured with scissors and glue and paint. However, I made a major mistake, which is that I didn’t realize our paint was tempera, not acrylic and in no way designed to bind to the slick plastic of the cups. I didn’t take a picture, because it was slightly humiliating, but all the paint the kids piled on the cups simply shriveled up and flaked off.
So we had to try something else, which turned out to be paper collage. In the process of re-doing the project with paper instead of paint, I noticed something interesting. Perhaps because my students felt more assured with paper, scissors and markers, they started really putting their own stamp on the project. They added hats, hair, and accessories. Signs that read ‘I Love Penguins’. Their creativity was inspiring.
I have no doubt that my students at the first program are just as creative and could have produced their own unique penguins. But instead, they followed my directions and example and made puppets that all looked pretty much alike. I am always interested in how to gently push my students to let their puppets reflect their own personalities, rather than making something they think will please me or their friends. For this project, it turned out that tissue paper was the magic ingredient.
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