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.
Living in the United States, I don’t have the opportunity to see very much caja lambe-lambe puppetry live. I mostly have to rely on the Internet to show me what other puppeteers are creating! Videos are not the best way to watch caja lambe-lambe, which really does depend on the forced perspective created by looking through the peephole, but they are better than nothing. Here are three I’ve recently found:
A Flor - Teatro Lambe-lambe - YouTube
This caja lambe-lambe show has designs by Marcos Leal and was made by Brazilian puppeteers, if I’m reading the YouTube description correctly. I like the neon colors and the way it gets so much story out of very simple objects. I also think the movement really works with the ragtime soundtrack!
Teatro Lambe-Lambe - O Violinista - YouTube
There are a couple similar versions of this show online, this one is by Rogério Pett. It includes one aspect of lambe-lambe that always fascinates me, which is how the puppeteer comes up with a costume for their hands, to better incorporate them into the scenario. It can be distracting, so it’s definitely a delicate balance, but it’s always interesting to see.
Teatro Lambe lambe, obra "nube" - YouTube
This video by Leonel Arregui, is probably my favorite of the three. It definitely has the most complicated design, and takes full advantage of the 2-D puppet form. The movement of the set and characters almost reminds me of Japanese theater such as dogugaeshi, with its many sliding screens.
In early March, we shared the full story of Selkie, titled What the Waves Bring at Source Theater in DC. It’s the first time we’ve had all the puppets and prop elements before an audience, and we were lucky enough to have David Moss taking photographs. Here are a few:
Seth Langer and Amy Kellett operate the Selkie.
Ashley Ivy as John playing with Alannah, operated by Cecilia Cackley and Alison Daniels
The other selkies, played by Nina Budabin Mcquown, Anji Lambert and Alison Daniels.
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.
Those of us at Wit’s End Puppets think about puppetry a lot. I’m always interested in materials and the characteristics and possibilities of those materials. It occurred to me recently that it might be helpful to think about the limitations of puppetry. How limited or limitless is it really?
I think of amazing puppet works I’ve seen across the globe. There’s Royale De Luxe with their giant puppets controlled by dozens of people as they move through the city streets telling magical and gigantic stories. I think of the animatronics of Hollywood especially my favorite puppets from Underworld that one would assume are computer generated images, but they aren’t; they’re extremely sophisticated puppets. I think of the most basic puppets like a folded sheet of paper turned flapping wings of a bird.
Obviously there are physical and mechanical limitations, only so many solenoids are fit in an animatronic mask, but what’s not limitless is the imagination. The most basic puppet designs allow the mind to explode with ideas, and I want to know how to do it all. Personally I’m limited by skill and access to the machinery and materials of my small shop. I don’t have a drill press or a vacuum forming machine (Christmas presents? Hint, hint!). Even so you can do a lot with just a hot glue gun and cardboard. So am I really limited? It’s easy to say “well I could have done this or that if I just had the means.” My gut tells me that’s a cop out.
In the world of puppet performance on stage, one of the biggest limitations is how many hands one has to control a puppet. It really doesn’t make sense to have too many hands on a puppet because the bodies of those performers overtake the space and obscure the puppet. But I fall easily into the trap sometimes of thinking that more hands create more nuanced puppetry. I know it’s skill that creates the nuance because I’ve seen it done. That’s why one must be dedicated to practice. There’s no excuse for not getting out the mirror and working those muscles.
I heard recently that over 600 muscles control the human body. TV shows like West World tell of how one day we will be able to create ourselves to such an extent that we can’t tell organic human from android. Honestly I like that we cannot replicate the human form so exactly yet, because the suggestive power of puppetry is what makes it so memorable. It’s a shared imaging between presenter and audience. We silently make a pact at the beginning of every show in which all agree to believe that the inanimate have life and story. I love this and fear we will lose that joy as technology brings us closer and closer to creating life itself.
These musings lead me to the conclusion that there are limits in puppetry; materials, tools, engineering, number of hands, and skill level of builder or puppeteer. These are all limitations I bump up against regularly, and it’s where my problem solving brain gets to take center stage. Oh, and gravity! We are all limited by gravity for now. But all of that doesn’t really matter because the imagination of your audience is limitless. A shoe box becomes a treasure chest. A shoe becomes an opera singer. A ticking clock becomes a beating heart. For those who care to follow, it’s all possible.
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.