Ima ’bout to blow your mind. Or rather, my good friend and fellow grad student Elsa Dimitriadis is about to. You see, Elsa is a puppet master…twisting your mind and smashing your dreams (mind the Metallica reference) and she took some time to chat with me about what she does, why she does it and what we are all missing here in the U.S. in terms of puppetry and performance. Here we go:
JYA: So, Ill preface this by saying I love puppetry for one main reason…and that is labyrinth and is that wrong of me? as a puppet professional?
ED: I just wrote a paper about labyrinth btw…it was at the forefront of puppetry technology for a long time…do you know what happened to the hoggle puppet?
JYA: no….what? will this ruin my childhood?
ED: yes. In Alabama there is a place that buys stuff that is unclaimed at airports and resells them. Well, that’s where hoggle is, but he rotted because of the foam.
Prepare for your childhood dreams to turn into nightmares:
JYA: So – why did you get into puppetry? It seems like an area that isn’t really widely taught. I wouldn’t have seen ‘puppetry class’ in high school…or college for that matter.
ED: I am not entirely sure. I was exposed to puppetry as a child, I would often go to the Glen Echo Park in Bethesda, MD and see the puppet shows there, and of course, as a Greek, I went to karagiozis shows (shadow puppets), but I was not an adventurous child, so I don’t think that I would have really gravitated toward making funny voices or anything…but my mom really encouraged me to anthropomorphize everything – she told me that my doll would be sad if I left her behind, she sent Christmas presents to me from my imaginary friends, she read me stories about toys that came to life
JYA: that is a little weird
ED: a little weird. I know. But during college, I had a friend that was really sad one day, and really wouldn’t talk to me, so I picked up a stuffed creature, made up a character and voice, and there you go. Then I read everything that had to do with puppetry, watched movies, subscribed to journals….also, I was a professional costumer for a number of years, and so making puppets wasn’t too foreign
JYA: so what you are telling me is your chosen profession was brought on by trying to cheer up a friend. That…is so sweet it makes my teeth hurt
ED: It’s good that sex wasn’t the answer…
JYA: >laughter ensues< oh no, are you a furry?
ED: stop it
JYA: I know a furry. Nice guy. Never saw the costume though. I couldn’t deal
ED: seriously, you know one? wow
JYA: haha I DO. They are real. I mean, whatever gets you through the day I suppose. SO! Did you always have an educational slant with your puppetry work? Or was that something you grew into?
ED: When I was in college, as a theatre and music major, I was hired to be a founding faculty member of the Family Network Partnership. I taught theatre to students in the community centers of housing projects in Mississippi, and I also would teach in the juvenile detention centers, right outside of their cells. So, when i branched off to puppetry, it was a natural progression to keep education as emphasis – we used Augusto Boal’s theatre for the oppressed techniques.
JYA: wanna explain for our readers what Boal did? Because I think his work can easily translate into puppetry…with all the audience participation. I studied him throughout my performance undergrad.
ED: Augusto Boal was a Brazilian theatre artist and political activist who founded the theatre of the oppressed. He used a number of techniques to engage/motivate/incite the oppressed to action, like using actors to present a situation and then asking the audience for possible suggestions to resolve the situation, or invisible theatre, where actors are placed in unusual situations, and audience members don’t even know that they are participating in theatre. for example, actors in a restaurant complaining loudly about the prices of the items on the menu, which would theoretically, cause the other restaurant goers to consider the issue. This is a very simplified and probably insufficient explanation of what a groundbreaking artist/activist Boal was/is.
JYA: I think what I loved most about him was his ability to make people realize how relevant performance can really be – as an actor I would get shit all the time from people about going to college for something ‘flighty’ and ‘learning how to play make believe’ – and Boal was someone who really make it relevant. More than a lot of other leaders in the industry, I think.
ED: I find that in the United States, from most people who are not habitual art-goers, the reaction is that I must work only for/with children. There are many adult oriented puppeteers in the us, but bc of the popularity of using puppetry in the U.S. as a children activity or outreach, it has become the assumption. Muppets are wonderful and were vital to the history of puppetry in the U.S. – I can’t stress how important Henson was, but Sesame Street has been both a blessing and a curse.
In Europe, it is totally different. They have never lost the tradition of puppetry being a viable option for entertainment. And a useful option for political subversion. Puppetry seems so innocuous, that it is easier to be subversive and fly under the radar. There are so many puppet traditions that I wish that I could shake the American people and say – hey! look at the this! You’ll love it!
JYA: Well how can you make that happen? What has to happen to make the US open to it? Involve David Bowie?
ED: That’s the tricky part. I want people to know about Vietnamese water puppetry where families use their flooded rice fields for months out of the year to do underwater puppet shows, and [there are harsh consequences] if you reveal your secrets to another family…women don’t even get told the secrets, since they will eventually marry into another family, and then where does their loyalty lie? Or Royal de Luxe, the French marionette company that builds puppets that are 30, 40 ft high and they parade them through the streets
Check out this video and have your mind blown:
ED: Yeah. There’s a fucking boat in it with WATER. I think that the best chance that something could happen like that would either be the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. My end goal is to have a theatre/puppetry company that is as commonly recognized by adults as a viable option as other mainstream arts for adults. Even when we teach students of younger ages, we stress this over and over. We try to create social or politically minded productions with the students. For example, we just finished doing a series of vignettes about the oil spill, something that the students were clearly concerned about.
Currently in the classes I teach, we begin with introductions and explaining our expectations (ours and what they can expect from us). We move onto vocal and physical warm-ups, and then partnering and team building exercises. Then we move on to puppet history, we do a show and tell of many different types of puppets, and then we cover puppet etiquette – what we call “how to treat a puppet”. Then the kids in the program design what they want to build, and build it. They also work on puppet manipulation – this is done with cameras and monitors that we bring in, so that they can see what they are doing as they do it.
JYA: So its a really comprehensive program then. Which I think is important for people to understand – performing usually doesn’t just happen spontaneously. It requires a lot of background work, exercises, understanding history, etc and THEN performance
ED: If not, it devolves into what people expect – googly eyes on paper bags. The parents often don’t get it until the end. Or the schools where we do residencies. They are like, where are the puppets? do you need more socks?
Interested in learning more about puppetry and how you can get involved?