The Language of Objects
A Puppeteer in Five Acts
La Esquinita is a series that serves as a production notebook for Latina/o designers and artisans working on stages across the nation. In La Esquinita, designers and artisans share their process and production work, plus overall thoughts on dynamic collaboration. This series will provide glimpses of the off-stage world where you will find these master artisans, technicians, and designers remembering and retelling their experiences in creating the evocative theatrical landscapes we see today. Welcome to our corner!
Act I: The Space
I'm eternally moved to expression by the natural world, particularly the ocean and micro-organisms; ghost stories and the Unknowable; death; transformational processes; poetry and the mystical challenges of expressing the seemingly-inexpressible; common vocabularies (such as gesture and music); folk traditions and mythology; and beauty and/or humor in the profane. I’m also strongly moved to examine notions of narrative—in particular, the ways in which economy of imagery, text, and movement can give a viewer just enough information to produce their own story about what they’re seeing that makes sense, and is unique to them without imposing a concrete narrative. I like to exist in that enormous, amorphous world between the completely abstract and the linear/straightforward, which makes sense considering my bicultural identity as a Guatemalan-American: ni de aqui, ni de allá.
Act II: The Language of Objects
An actor by trade, I began performing puppetry in Seattle with Jean Enticknap's Thistle Theatre back in 1999. They do beautiful work for young audiences, adapting global folk and fairytales, reflecting the cultural origin of the stories in the production design. The puppetry itself is very precise, detailed tabletop work involving two to three puppeteers (clad entirely in black; faces, too) on a single puppet. It's a Westernized form of the ancient Japanese art of Bunraku, and the resulting movement is lifelike and magical and mesmerizing. So I did that for a few years, and it informed the kind of work I do and what I like to see.
But before I got involved with Thistle Theatre, I had seen a show at the La Jolla Playhouse by Improbable Theatre Company called 70 Hill Lane, which blew my mind. It was a poignant ghost story of love, loss, and longing, and featured the most ordinary objects employed in the most extraordinary—yet simple—ways. Plain newspapers transformed from reading material into people, floating clouds, even an old woman on an IV right before your eyes. Household objects were suspended in clear packing tape to portray poltergeist activity—I can still see the tape gleaming under the lights like a ghostly spider web. I had never seen anything like that before and I was thrilled. A year later I found myself in Seattle watching a Thistle Theatre show, and the memory of 70 Hill Lane came rushing back. I called Jean up and that's how I became a puppeteer.
I’m always interested in extracting expression from the inherent qualities of materials and objects, honoring and exploiting their natural parameters, allowing them to reveal themselves to me.
Act III: El Papel Aguanta Todo
In general, the design of a puppet is inspired almost entirely by the materials. I work primarily with paper, papier-mâché, wire and a variety of found materials (organic and manmade). I’m always interested in extracting expression from the inherent qualities of materials and objects, honoring and exploiting their natural parameters, allowing them to reveal themselves to me. But I love paper. Every kind of paper! I’m always trying to see how much of any given puppet I can create with paper. I can't explain why I'm drawn to it, but I was making my own paper dolls as a child and my mom taught me to make paper flowers, and do papier-mâché. My last three designs have featured puppets with paper hair/wigs, and papier-mâché faces and hands. Some of my puppets are made almost entirely from paper—I have a flock of seagulls made of cardstock and tissue paper, and a koi made from manila folders. Even the sculpting clay I use most is paper-based. There's a saying in writing—el papel aguanta todo—and I feel like that applies here as well!
Creating a character mostly depends on whether we're talking about a commission, or my own stuff, which are two different processes. If I'm hired as a designer, then my process is informed by the needs of the play, the personnel available to operate the puppets, and the look of the world of that play. Also, the type of puppet greatly informs the character and vice versa; shadow, hand, and tabletop puppets each carry specific, unique movement qualities. For example, The Long Christmas Ride Home (Strawdog Theatre, 2015) calls for Bunraku-style puppets, which have spectacular movability, and are able to convey the tiniest nuance of human emotion, which in a play with three kids in the backseat of a car half the time, is essential. I threw in a shadow puppet sequence as well (to depict a pivotal love scene) that I fought for because of the voyeuristic qualities and physical limitations of silhouette play. These things lend themselves really well to what is essentially a peepshow, and I was inspired by the classical Indonesian form to achieve a graceful, sensual expression. In The Life of Galileo (Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, 2016), we did a puppet sequence lampooning the Church, so the Pope and Cardinal were Punch-and-Judy-style hand puppets, which are naturally funny because they're so comparatively limited and proportionally wackadoo.
In my own work, I find that characters generate themselves through the qualities of the materials and how they want to be assembled.
In my own work, I find that characters generate themselves through the qualities of the materials and how they want to be assembled. It's sort of a chicken-and-egg thing—there’s a jellyfish puppet in my show Mariposa Nocturna that is made from coffee filters (naturally semi-transparent) and plastic grocery bags (naturally ethereal in motion). I chose the materials for aesthetic reasons, but once they were assembled and in a puppeteer's hands, they really told us what to do. Too much manipulation degraded the character. So we had to step back and observe what it wanted to do, how little movement was actually necessary for the character to bloom. That idea of the economy of movement—how little do we actually have to move a puppet to achieve expression—has become a constant touchstone for me.
Act IV: Keeping Both Hands Alive
One of the bigger challenges I've had was creating fully-articulated, Bunraku-style puppets for The Long Christmas Ride Home that could be mostly operated by a single puppeteer. I solved this problem by designing the girl puppets without feet. In traditional Bunraku, the lady puppets don’t have feet, just their long kimonos, so ours were costumed in long skirts. Only Stephen, the main character, had fully-articulated legs/feet that could be operated by an auxiliary puppeteer when necessary. All three puppets had arm controls connected in the back by a flexible cord, so that both hands would always remain "alive" even if only one arm was in use. The puppeteer could also control both arms at once when the puppets were in "flight"—the stylized way they moved from location to location, a graceful, swooping motion. Director Josh Sobel and I also decided to use the Stephen puppet to double as two other puppet characters, and we achieved this not only through costume changes (gorgeously designed by Raquel Adorno), but also by using a paper wig created to be worn when the puppet is Stephen, and removed for the other two characters. Additionally, Josh and I found solutions to most of our blocking/operational problems by going back to Paula Vogel's directives regarding the structure of the play itself—it is highly informed by Noh theatrical forms. Observing these structures gave us tremendous freedom from our ingrained Western notions of movement, transition, and transformation.
Act V: Portmanteau and the Great Why Not
My creative partner Jessica Mondres and I formed a little company called Portmanteau; we're currently in residence with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, creating an installation-based performance using puppets, film, sound, and created environments. We took ourselves on a residency to Ojo Caliente, New Mexico last year and were inspired by the desert highlands and the vastness and mystery of it all—the tricks it plays on your mind and senses. I’m also honored to be designing puppets for Lifeline Theatre’s exciting new adaptation of Thumbelina, (October 2016).
I am a huge fan of The Quay Brothers; Wayne White; Manual Cinema; Guillermo del Toro; Heather Henson; performance artists Marta Carrasco, La Pocha Nostra, and Erica Mott; playwright Mickle Maher; photographer/puppeteer Joe Mazza; drag artist Katya; and the Chicago Puppet Bike. Why? I think if you know their work, or are prompted to seek it out after reading this...the work will speak for itself! “Why?” is generally the toughest question for me to answer. I'm not a big why person. I try to live more in the why not?
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I would like to know if Stephanie is available to work on some puppet building for a show my theatre company is producing in June 2018. I need a cat and dog puppet. Please message me on FB. Thanks!
Noemi! I am terribly terribly sorry that I missed this comment (and the opportunity to meet you and learn more about your project)! If you should see this, I have reached out to you on FB. Hopefully we can connect!!
And great photos!
The photos are so good! I want to see Stephanie's work live one day!
I loved having access to this piece. It's a great reminder to consider Latin@ artists for all roles in a production and to invite their unique aesthetics as designers to the work.