Something magical is happening in the midst of the sprawling woods of Waterford, CT, home of the historic Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. The first conference of the season, the National Puppetry Conference, kicked off June 14.
“Welcome, you’ve found your tribe,” artistic director Pam Arciero told the participants.
The idea of a community is not uncommon for puppeteers, but before the formation of the Puppeteers of America in 1936, most puppet artists worked as soloists or with a small group of performers. It was for these reasons that Jane Henson, Margo Rose and other leading puppeteers of the day sought to create a national conference at the O’Neill. They successfully did so in 1990, after the passing of Jim Henson.
At the O’Neill, puppeteers have a chance to learn from peers and develop skills in a form of puppetry that includes shadow, glove, rod and string puppetry while also having the opportunity to create and perform new works. Jim Rose, marionettist, instructor at the O'Neill and son of renowned puppeteers Rufus and Margo Rose of the "Howdy Doody Show," believes the formation of the Puppeteers of America was a pivotal moment for puppetry that helped to make what is happening at the O'Neill, a possibility. “Before 1936, American puppetry was practiced by several individual professional companies who had little or no contact with one another,” said Jim Rose. “Puppetry associations and schools in the last 80 years or so have strengthened the art of puppetry and broadened its appeal to the public. Gathering together a group of practitioners who can share their expertise, their talents and their knowledge — the result is that the art itself benefits.”
The conference at the O'Neill is a perfect antidote for puppeteers who feel they have become too removed from a viable community.
In the days leading up the National Puppetry Conference, the Pre-Conference was held, which enables puppeteers to study one specific strand of puppetry, such as glove puppetry, over the course of a three-day period. At the close of the Pre-Conference were a bevy of performances by participants and artists in residence. Kuang-Yu Fong, Stephen Kaplin and Shasha Li of the Chinese Theater Works company, along with other performers, premiered a show they developed at the O'Neill.
|Photo by Richard Termine|
Hua Mulan: Holding Half the Sky featured rod, shadow hand and Bunraku puppetry in the Rufus and Margo Rose Barn. Vignettes of Chinese history, interspered with tales of heroines and the Confusian concept of the Four Virtues for women, were seen through several types of puppetry. A rod puppet cloaked in scarves was manipulated in such a way to create the impression that the puppet was soaring above the audience. Another puppet was constructed out of a white sheet and a head and represented a princess. Particpants of Hua Hua Zhang’s class in Chinese rod puppetry got to release some tension through on-stage battles. Placed in pairs, students took turns with choreographed duels that often ended is comic deaths for the puppet.
It would not have been a complete night without a round of performances at Blue Gene’s Pub, a log cabin which serves as the social hub of the campus. Students of Ronnie Burkett presented readings of their plays, and Brad Shur and Paul Vincent Davis’ students performed a Christmas-styled bar song replete with comedic banter as well as a bevy of titillating open-mic performances that both allows puppeteers to perform in a friendly environment as well as keep the participants entertained. Participant Annie Forbes wowed audiences with her digital egg, through which animation techniques projected a cartoonlike face through an egg that sang the popular ballad, “If You Go Away.”
Training future puppeteers is a task the staff takes very seriously at the O’Neill. In this environment, puppeteers can grow under the tutelage of several leading professionals.
“It’s so difficult to find a community of puppeteers because we are a wild and wooly group of individuals who have no central gathering place, and the O’Neill has become that central gathering place,” said Arciero, who was the puppeteer for Grundgetta Grouch on "Sesame Street." "In our pursuit of excellence in puppetry we find the like-minded personalities and artists that form our tribe."
The degree of warmth and openess is particuarly striking for some of the 68 particpants at the conference. Joshua Holden, glove puppeteer, former stringer for the second national tour of Avenue Q, producer and performer of "The Joshua Show" and recipient of the Best Performance and Fan Favorite award by the Puppeteers of American 2013 National Festival, was astounded by the community and support at the O’Neill conference. Holden is a first-year participant at the O'Neill.
|Photo by Richard Termine|
“I’ve never heard or seen anything like this — where a community of artists are so willing to share what they know with one another and with a real excitement.”
The first night of the conference wrapped up with performances by several staff members. James Godwin performed a comic act with a talking head and a puppet named Piranha Man, and Ronnie Burkett gave a reading of his work along with participant Ben Durocher that touched on puppetry, inhibitions and heroism. Guest artists Alice Gottschalk and Raphael Murle performed a German-styled puppetry from their show, Wunderkammer, which is based on the concept that the puppet can develop and transform through the performance, and Phillip Huber dazzled the audience with his contortionist act-in which his golden puppet Oskar, made graceful moves to the aria "Nella Fantasia." And on the second night of the conference, which took place Father's Day, acting advisor and puppetter Tyler Bunch gave a tear-jerking rendition of the song "Fathers and Sons," from the Tony-nominated musical, Working, at the open-mic session in the pub.
The performances, master classes and ability for students to receive training or advance their work in a form of puppetry, are all part of the learning experience. For J. Greg Veneklasen, president of the L.A. Guild of Puppetry, puppeteer and first-time participant at the puppetry conference, what stands out is the support of the staff.
“Re-launching myself in performance after not doing it for 30 years — it is so apparent that Pam is invested in our success. That has really struck me,” Veneklasen said of Pam Arciero. “I need to do the work, but coming here has been the inspiration that will help motivate my next steps.”
Students at the puppetry conference can focus on different aspects of puppetry including mechanisms for designing puppets, writing, movement and marionettes. They also have the ability to work in what is referred to as the Participant Project, which allows for collaboration on a new work. The performances, a showcase of the work done at the conference, will be held June 21-22 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Visit theoneill.org for more information.