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 had a blast at the 2nd annual DC Puppet SlamNation on November 2nd at the Takoma Park Community Center. We were thrilled to welcome fellow puppeteers from Baltimore, as well as Takoma Park and Washington, DC for a great night of puppetry for all ages. If you missed the event or just want to relive the magic, here are a few shots of the acts.
Schroeder Cherry performing If I Can’t Sell it I Will Sit on It. Photo by Laura D. Meyer
MattaMagical performing How Possum Played Death. Photo by Laura D. Meyer
Katherine Fahey and Daniel Van Allen performing I Know Moonrise. Photo by Laura D. Meyer.
String Theory Theater performing Collaboration Story. Photo by Laura D. Meyer.
In September, Wit’s End company members Cecilia Cackley and Genna Beth Davidson went up to Brattleboro, Vermont for Puppet Homecoming. This Puppeteers of American regional event was held in conjunction with Puppets in the Green Mountains, an international puppet festival organized by Sandglass Theater. In this post, Cecilia and Genna Beth have a conversation about their experiences at Puppet Homecoming.
Cecilia: Puppet Homecoming was a great experience. What shows did you find the most inspiring or interesting?
Genna Beth: Can I say all of them? Haha, each one was so different, and all were virtuosic. A Hunger Artist was just my cup of tea. I loved the cleverness of all the different puppetry styles (toy theatre, hand and rod, shadow, pure object manipulation); each one used to it’s full potential and perfectly chosen for that part of the story. And who doesn’t love the strangeness of a Kafka story? The performer was also just so amazing! Jonathan Levin basically did a one man show. So much talent! Which show was your favorite?
Cecilia: I really loved Meet Fred by Hijinx Theater in association with Blind Summit. I’ve really enjoyed the work by Blind Summit that I’ve seen in the past, but the collaboration with Hijinx and the themes of how a person with a disability navigates the world were extra powerful. I was laughing the whole time, just on the edge of crying. It really made me think.
Besides seeing the shows, we also went to some different workshops. Which ones did you do and which were the most helpful?
Genna Beth: I learned about silicone, writing grants for funding puppetry, and about race, gender, and sexuality in puppetry. Learning about silicone opened me up to new possibilities for crafting puppets, but I think the one that stimulated my mind the most was the one on race, gender and sexuality. I think everyone in the workshop was white and many talked about mistakes they’ve made with appropriation. Who should be telling what stories? And for me it raised a questions about taking on work to build puppets for stories that aren’t mine to tell. You were going to come to that workshop too but hung back at the writing grants one to talk more with that presenter individually. What did you learn?
Cecilia: I felt a lot better after that workshop, because I learned that my frustration at writing grants for puppet work is something a lot of people share! The presenter, Roxie Myhrum from Puppet Showplace Theater in Boston, had a lot of concrete tips for how to think about describing puppets in grant applications and marketing materials. I was just sorry that we took so long to get started with that one that we didn’t get through all her slides!
It sounds like we both got a lot out of this weekend in Vermont. Do you think we should go back next year? What other things would you like to try if we return?
Genna Beth: I definitely want to go back next year! We didn’t get to check out the marketplace, so next year I want to make a point of that. Also I got to speak with a few people from across the region but it was hard to find time to get to know more people. So I’d like to find a way to make more friends next year too. You?
Cecilia: I agree with all of that. I wonder if it would be easier to make friends if we performed in one of the showcases or slams. Maybe that would give us a starting point for talking to people?
Genna Beth: YES! Good idea. I think we can have something prepared for the slam next year. I’d really like to make that a goal. Perhaps my lightbulb heads puppet show about depression. But who knows, we have a whole year to figure it out.
The puppet Mr. Ruraru from the show Mr. Ruraru’s Yard by Puppet and It’s Double from Taiwan.
The dinosaurs are coming! We are thrilled to be welcoming not one, not two, but THREE fabulous puppet builders to our first Puppet Lobby of the fall. What do they have in common? They’ve all built dinosaur puppets, for very different projects. Francisco Benavides created a mammoth for an immersive theater experience in Baltimore, Matt McGee built a family of dinosaurs for the American classic The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder, and Ingrid Crepeau invented a whole cast of different dinos for her popular children’s show DinoRock. The Puppet Lobby is free and open to everyone and starts at 8:00pm on Monday, October 15 at the Brookland Artspace Lofts’ Selman Gallery. Come hear about these puppeteers and their research process, designs, successes and failures as they created these prehistoric creatures!
Ingrid Crepeau models one of her dino heads with Michele Valeri.
Last summer, we went on our first out-of-state tour, taking the shadow show Saudade to six different venues in Minneapolis. This summer, we haven’t performed any shadow work, but I did have the opportunity to see three very different shadow and silhouette based pieces of art in DC and New York City.
Back in the spring, we performed Saudade at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, for the opening of a new exhibit of contemporary and historical silhouettes called Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now. While I knew a little about the history of silhouettes, mainly that they were an inexpensive form of portraiture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was interesting to see more complicated compositions, such as this depiction of a magic lantern show by Auguste Edouart.
A silhouette of a magic lantern show in the 1800’s cut by Auguste Edouart.
One of the contemporary artists featured in the exhibit is Kristi Malakoff. Much of her work involves the transformation of two-dimensional objects into three-dimensional artwork and her piece in the exhibit is this beautiful three-dimensional silhouette sculpture of children around a maypole.
Kristi Malakoff’s silhouette sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
In 2016, we had the opportunity to perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an annual event that presents artists from all over the world. We performed as part of a section of the festival about migration, titled On the Move, but most of the festival focuses on particular regions or countries around the world. This year, the Smithsonian presented artists from Armenia and Catalonia, including several kinds of puppet artists. The Ayrogi Shadow Theater is a group of performers who travel around Armenia performing shadow puppetry. They trace their traditional storytelling back to the 1830’s and in contrast to more complex and colorful shadow puppets found in the region, use a simple style of puppet made from cardboard or leather.
Shadow puppets by Ayrogi Shadow Theater from Armenia at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Finally, I was able to visit the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City while I was there for work in early August. I’m very familiar with the DC museum but had never had an excuse to visit the Heye center in New York, housed in the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House downtown. I went primarily to see a new exhibit about Taino Heritage and Identity, but I also happened upon a set of rooms titled Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound. Of course transformation is at the heart of all puppetry, and I was especially moved by the piece The Harbinger of Catastrophe by Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka‘wakw). The box sits in the middle of the room and the shadows it casts stretch to fill the entire floor and walls so that the viewer walks through and disrupts them as they move around the space. It was an immersive experience that I’m still thinking about. If you have a chance to see the exhibit before it closes in January, I highly recommend it.
The Harbinger of Catastrophe by Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka‘wakw) at the American Indian Museum, NYC.
At our company meeting last summer, when I asked if there were any projects we wanted to start for the upcoming year, Patricia Germann mentioned that she’d like to curate a lecture series on puppetry, featuring local artists. She had noticed that we often had lots of people come up to us at our shows looking for more information about puppetry and puppet-building and realized that there might be an audience for a free event bringing artists and spectators together. One year later, we’ve had six great conversations with a wide range of puppet artists. Here’s Patricia, talking a little bit more about what has turned into The Puppet Lobby.
Michelle Valeri and Ingrid Crepeau, Genna Beth Davidson and Hamida Khatri presenting at the Puppet Lobby in 2017-2018.
Cecilia Cackley: When did you get the idea for The Puppet Lobby?
Patricia German: I’d been thinking about an event series like this for about a year before we actually started it. DC is such a networking town, and I often come across events like this in so many other industries. Creating a space for artists to connect about puppet design, building, and performance felt like we were filling a gap.
CC: Has it gone the way you had hoped when you started? Is there anything you would change?
PG: I’m really happy with this first year, and the response from the community has been great. We’ve had so many incredible speakers willing to share their work, and we’ve covered such a breadth of topics — stop motion, hand puppets, full body costumes, installation pieces… It’s really exciting to see how much talent we have in the area, both in DC and in Baltimore. (And people from Baltimore have been willing to drive into DC on a weeknight for this! For me, that’s been wonderfully unexpected.)
I think the speakers have kind of surprised themselves with how much they have to share. When we initially asked for a 15- to 20-minute presentation, some speakers were worried it was going to be a stretch to fill that much time. But once we got going with the series, it started feeling like even at 20 minutes we were cutting off some great conversations. So over the year, we started setting aside more time for the featured speaker, rather than trying to fill out the agenda with several different topics. I think that’s worked well.
CC: What are some of your favorite moments from this year’s conversations?
PG: Ha! Each one has been different in its own way. I loved playing around with Alex Vernon’sFettig Project puppet mechanics. They were so expressive, and I hadn’t seen anything like that before. Hearing more of the story about Hamida Khatri’s mom as the inspiration for her short film was really great. And pretty much any part of Ingrid Crepeau’s presentation could be a favorite moment. She’s a hoot, and had so many great design tips to share!
CC: If you could invite any puppeteer to visit The Puppet Lobby, who would it be and why?
PG:Nicholas Mahon, who created the puppets for the Olympic Opening Ceremonies this past winter in Pyeongchang. I’d love to hear about the process of creating those characters, actually getting them over to South Korea, and incorporating them into such a huge event with so many elements. Also, I’d love to work on an Olympics opening ceremony, so I’m curious to hear how he got the gig!
CC: What can we expect to see in the upcoming year from The Puppet Lobby?
PG: More puppets! More lobby! I have some ideas for panel discussions around a specific theme, like bringing together the three artists from this season who we discovered have all built large-scale dinosaur puppets. And for the more typical presentations, we’re continuing to reach out to artists across DC and Baltimore. We’re hoping that with a little more lead time, some of the speakers who couldn’t make it last year will be able to join us in 2018-19. But part of the idea of The Puppet Lobby is to connect artists who don’t normally work together — so if you have some great project you’ve been working on that you want to share with this community, send us an email and let us know!
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!