Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Festival Fundraiser

I received a message this morning that I'd like to pass on to all toy theatre lovers...
Greetings, Friends!

And thank you once again for coming to the Great Small Works 9th International Toy Theatre Festival. It was great seeing you, and being able to perform for you.

There is a campaign afloat to help with the Festival finances, complete with video. The festival is a mammoth undertaking. It has not been until we were "behind the scenes" that we have been able to appreciate the full scope of this event, and the talented people, the extent of the effort, and the degree of collaboration that putting on the toy theatre festival at St. Ann's requires. Although performers are not paid for performing, we are reimbursed for travel expenses.

Trudi Cohen, impressario extraordinaire and one of the producers of this wonderful events writes:
Our finances are still pretty shaky, and it's likely that Great Small Works will lose money on the festival. We've created a Kickstarter campaign, and would be grateful if you could send your friends and fans to the site!
Please visit the site, enjoy the video, and if you wish, and you are able, do make a donation. You could get a festival poster or tee-shirt!


Ann and George - still pushing those figures on and off the stage!
It is my hopes you'll contribute and support the ongoing work of this great toy theatre festival which not only showcases the world's finest performers of the small, but is involved with educating the public and preservation efforts.

NOTE: With only 3 weeks of the fundraiser to go, they are only a bit over half-way to their goal. From what I understand, it's a 'fully-funded' model, meaning if they don't meet their goal of $3,000, they get nothing at all. So I strongly encourage everyone to give what they can - every little bit helps!

Monday, June 28, 2010

William Appleton Collection: Digital Prints Online

This two-penny coloured sheet was featured this past week on a blog.

It's from the "Penny Plains" and "Two-pence Coloured:" English Theatrical Portraits 1799-1847 in the William Appleton Collection, which is described as...
306 toy theatre prints portraying plays and actors in character, from the early- to mid-19th century; these prints comprise the visual materials in the William Appleton collection of theatrical correspondence and ephemera, 1697-1930.
Confusing dates notwithstanding, it's worthy of a look, since it's all online. In fact, I found the collection most impressive, historically and artistically...Enjoy!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Missed Opportunity

Further proof that I'm not infallible despite rumours to the contrary (!), here is information on an exhibit recently closed that included toy theatre, including some programming that featured Dr. John Bell from Great Small Works (who we recently featured concerning their festival that ran the first two weeks of June...)

NOTE: Sadly, Frank Ballard who created the institute recently passed away..

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

GSW9: Final Festival Report

Tess Elliott had one more report she sent me last night from the final hours of the Festival.

Considering that Tess lost her DSL access for almost half the festival - and my satellite access has been capped the last 4 days due to my going over our threshold (yes, satellite has broadband caps...don't get me started...!) - it's been a struggle for this website to get reports out on a timely basis. Thank you, Dear Readers, for being patient.

Now, here is the final report - Enjoy!

Fiesta Graveyard” from Mexico City was written by Mercedes Go'mez Benet, who also played a small harp. The puppeteers were Alejandro Beni'tez and Mauricio Martinez of Facto Teatro, who also performed songs. The other musician was Gerardo Tame'z. Part of the success of their show is that the music and sound effects were just stunning. They did the show with some English translation, but most of it you could follow once they set the scene. A man, Procopio, has died a natural death, and to reach the eternal Fiesta, he must go through some supernatural tests. A hairless dog that in some cultures had mystical properties (and in others was food) becomes his guide, only the man first must realize he is dead. Each scene change is punctuated by a supernatural interval of ghostly winds done beautifully with various pipes which ends with more music bringing in the next scene. The guitar and harp are very wonderfully done, so that it feels like an orchestra. They accompany him fighting a supernatural lizard, mountains crashing together, and other tests.

The performers were very funny and fierce with a mixture of good puppetry and making great faces as they tell the story. Oh the weeping when poor Procopio dies! And of course, it ends with a Day of the Dead altar, which is one of my favorite traditions. After several years of painting in the New Mexico desert at Halloween time, I got to know a lot about the tradition of Dios de Los Muertos, and now make my own home altar to remember those who I have lost. It is a very friendly, warm way to remember your loved ones, and the home altars are really quite beautiful. This was such a happy surprise for me to see the show was about this great tradition. It was magical and mesmerizing (and they, too, made their own jokes about Arizona). I hope to see this company again. It gave me more insight into a tradition I already love.

Shoddy Puppet Company's leader Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews was in the Saturday symposium, so I looked forward to seeing his company. They performed “Fables of Light and Falling” in an interesting looking tent, with scenes painted on the outside, and a window flap to be raised for the small stage. The other puppeteers were Zac Palladino, Leslie Rogers, and Kestrel Plump. There were four interwoven stories, that involved a mule who was mistaken for a woman, a wooden man, two people made of straw, a scarecrow man (who later meets the straw woman who has a stone tied around her belly), and how the straw man did not want to fight in a war. He ran from one, but was absorbed by the Earth for signing a paper that he would pay for someone else to fight when another war is declared. It is a morality tale because the man who was taken in his place was the wooden man who helped him when the scarecrow ran from the first war. Crows are the device that take people and become frightening symbols. The scarecrow is afraid of them. I remembered thinking they were bullies as a little girl and the truth is crows recognize people and carry grudges.I am very glad I didn't throw stones at the ones who perched on my swingset! This is also a political tale about war, and everyone is given a silver pencil as a symbol of the right person signing the right paper at the right time to prevent wars and other terrible things. Mr. Andrews was a musical narrator, with a Woody Guthrie sort of persona of folk music and plain speaking, telling the stories and playing, while the little tent twirled with activity, as puppets popped up out of slashes in the fabric set, and then up on the stage to tell the story. That is some close quarters to perform in, though it reminded me of the old seaside Punch and Judy theaters that were worn ON the puppeteer. It's certainly handy to bring your own theater.

Often, I find myself disliking being lectured to about what is right and wrong by sidewalk petitioners and protestors, but the charm of the puppeteers and the humor in the stories (all the political satire) are a delightful way to present controversial points of view. Unfortunately, they are preaching to the choir in Brooklyn. This is an artistic community that in general hates war, and banks foreclosing (I have memories of some small farms going down when I was a 4H girl in Indiana) and I like the way the puppets can charm their way into telling you their point of view. Protesters don't have that luxury, to make people laugh while they get them to listen. I like the puppet way better! I think if I ever manned a petition table, it would have to have puppets handing out pens instead of big angry signs and in-your-face criers of protest. Maybe the liberal world ought to think of this when they want to change something?

The Cosmic Bicycle Theater, performing “Clockworks Universalis.” This company has a terrific website except that while I love playing with it, I still want more information and pictures of performances. They have a long record of performing, even when “steampunk” was not really a genre well known, but one they may have helped develop. So when I saw their set, and the derby clad automata-like performers sitting on either side I was in heaven. Only trouble is that it took a third of the performance to see that their set was a wonderful 3-dimensional collage of all sorts of old clip art, much of which came from Dover Publications, which I pay homage to in much of my decoupage work. It reminded me a lot of the collage work of automata maker Simon Venus (am a huge automata fan). Check out Cabaret Mechanical Theater's little flick on YouTube made by Gaz Cobain - Venus's piece is the first one - and you will see why I connect the two. I am playing with my own automata design kit, which makes my head explode on a regular basis.

So while I was mesmerized by the puppeteers, I must admit one of their devices, the Victorian engraved pointing hand zipping in and out, sometimes doing some damage, did interfere with my mindset, because when I see that device my brain goes : Blue Meanie Flying Glove, or “the Fickle Finger of Fate” award by Rowan and Martin. It made me hold back laughter, and I wonder if maybe it was okay to laugh. We heard someone say not to clap, that they needed silence. Clockwork is noisy. It was beautiful but I wanted noise.

The set is a 3D collage that sits in a long box lit with oil lamps, behind a many-paned window with something foggy on the glass. The device of wiping off the glass is really cool, until you have had to watch the window cleaning six or seven times. The collage is beautiful, and tells a creation story that is artistic and funny when the two puppeteers get going. It was well-timed, and the only thing I wished for was larger panes of glass and less window cleaning.

Great Small Works film, “White Pajamas” was a lovely little film done by Jenny Romaine with Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. It is the paintings of Mayer Kirshenblatt about his childhood in Poland, and they are wonderful na├»ve paintings of the local city life and how his father tried to get a boy after seven daughters. He is told by the nearby Rebbe to dress the baby in white so that the Angel of death won't take him, and how that boy always wore white pajamas. The scenes are just beautiful. There is the inevitable memory of the Holocaust, but I really loved the sweet paintings of a happier life—one that never seems to be covered enough. It was a perfect ending to all the marvelous, frantic and funny dreams of utopia, and transformed anger of the toy theater performances. Especially giving it that “citizen of the world” passport stamp for an audience who passionately supports seeing work from other countries.

Bravo, and Brava to Great Small Works!
NOTE FROM TRISH: I concur - an amazing festival, indeed!

Monday, June 14, 2010

GSW9: Festival Report VIII

A final report from Tess Elliott from the toy theatre festival, on the Second Family Program (part of it covered in a previous post...)
“How the Earth Got Its Color”
Performed by Drama of Works

I sat down front to hear everything, and was next to two boys whose parent or parents were somewhere else. They were antsy, and kidding around. When the show started, the duo puppeteers came out (Gretchen Van Lente and Scott Weber) with their song about the color musicians, and while they were extremely enthusiastic the song was a little too long to join in, though the song itself was rather nice. Like most of the audience, I did not realize the words were in the program! It was an Aztec story about how the world lost its color because the Musicians who play and create it had disappeared. The Sun god did it, and one by one the Wind god goes around visiting other gods trying to find his musician friends to bring them back. Each god he visits gives him something strong to help him. I have absolutely no issue with the quality of the performances, but the smaller kids were getting tired of all the exposition so that when the Wind god thinks he can do this hard task because we believe in him, both of the boys next to me first said, “I don't” but then joined in with everyone because they were taught to play nice. The kids did not join in with the sound effects much even with the prompting, though they did enjoy flinging their colored streamers around at the end. Their musician, James Walton ,who knew what he was doing, really needed bigger tools: when he mimics the sound of a rattle, few can hear the sound of beads being shaken in a tube. Good sound effects tools are called for in children's theater, and I think they should have used their musician more in this show because kids really do respond to music being played live. I would have loved to have heard a rainstick in his tools, too, because the Wind god has rain as one of his weapons.

The show was not boring to me, or the older children, but Drama of Works needs more show and less tell (maybe more playful prodding with the audience for interaction) to keep the younger kids engaged. Kids are a hard audience!

“Something Better”
Written and performed by Michael Romanyshyn, with Mr. Romanyshyn on clarinet, Kaolyn Kinsey on tuba, Roberto Rossi on accordion, and Shaunalynn Duffy on clarinet.

This show had the kids from the start, because all the people (who performed as much as the puppets) had instruments with a rousing sound. They have a good way of using their trunk for storage, a stage, and even some instruments and stage special effects. It was great music and my two front row neighbors who were next to me again were grinning and tapping their feet. The company enters in disguise (because they are unfortunately in Arizona). Romanyshyn begins narrating about how they were refugees from countries who made them leave or die, looking for something better than death. They formed the Refugee Band, and stayed on the run from the authorities until they land in Brooklyn where one of them has lost her family home. They decide to take a stand, and call on their Fairy Godmother to help them. She is a puppet on Romanyshyn's hand and she gives them some magical potion to put into the tea of the vultures who bought the foreclosed home. The potion will shrink their big heads, and cause their hearts to grow. I hope she remembered to pay the mortgage and taxes, too.

This was the most successful of the shows I saw for kids. It was short, it was musical and noisy, funny and had a simple story (if a rather simplistic ending). The performers were not afraid to look silly, they made a lot of audience eye contact, let you know THEY were having fun, and did not talk down to the kids even on the serious subjects. The children and adults responded in kind.

GSW9: Festival Report VII

Tess Elliot has this report from the final day of the Great Small Works 9th International Toy Theatre Festival in NYC:
We saw Laura Heit's miniature theater, called “Bureau of Small Requests: the 76 Departments of Tomorrow” and for the smallest show, they put the most people in the theater to see it. I think the reasoning is that she designs her shows to be displayed on video (though the color on the video was really bad). But I saw her today performing her miniature circus in the Family Program and it was an entirely different kind of experience that mattered to me, so I wanted to write about her work in one report. For the adults, she has a much more complicated set, but keeps an emotional distance that bothered me. She talks about a true story about having a wandering eye, and all the surgeries that went on to fix it. Her entire point is that her eyes don't get along, so how can you trust what you see? You need that other point of view, she says. She even gives you an anatomical picture about it. Nothing seemed to help. Then they did an experimental procedure by inserting Botox right into the eye muscles that won't get along. It's all like a science hall lecture, when I want more from her about her feelings. I know that without stereo vision, you can't have depth perception. How did she feel seeing that way? My brother is legally blind from having wandering eyes, and was never allowed to drive. He and his pals at school, also in the same boat, hung out telling Helen Keller jokes. They were fierce in their “nothing is sacred” way of laughing at handicaps. They were not always treated kindly by normal kids. My late husband lost the sight in one eye, and broke almost every glass trying to wash them in the sink. I would hear the glass breaking, and then him swearing at the glass and his inability to know how not to break it. He wouldn't drive after that, either. How did Laura deal with things that are really personal in a flat world?

Yet, when Laura pulls out her miniature circus for the kids—she keeps them tuned in and laughing at the imaginative way she invents a paper circus that is matchbook size. The grand old joke about all the clowns getting out of the car was a scroll inside a matchbook car full of impossible things like a whale coming out, along with her Mom holding a pizza and being chased by hungry teenagers and a dozen clowns, etc. Everyone was charmed and laughing, and Laura herself was obviously having fun. The kids sitting next to me who were bored at the more kid like show just loved the miniature circus. They were my litmus test. Somehow, that emotional truth ought to be for adults, too. I wanted it. She is smart, creative and often an ingenious designer of tiny set pieces, and I guess I just want her to be able to show me how she felt having to cope with that terrible uncertainty. She gave us all little tags to pose uncertainties on, and I am tempted to find one and send it to her care of her university in Los Angeles.

Dr. Neff's Incredible Puppet Company
Rip Van Winkle

Okay, right up front I must say that I do love traditional toy theater, and their little stage is a beauty. They are the couple (George and Ann Neff) who made Trish's toy theater. Their own theater is just a jewel. The sets are like beautiful watercolors, and part of the story is on tape while they speak the rest of it. It felt like a good balance of technology that didn't get in the way of the story but allowed them to have some sound effects they didn't have to make. But it was the only show where after about 15 minutes, five teenage girls sitting in the front row, got up and stoop-walked out of the show. I was so tempted to trip them! A kind person would have sat there and contemplated something interesting or their navel, rather than disrupt the performance. It didn't help that Rip Van Winkle was one of my favorite stories, and I treasure my book illustrated by Arthur Rackham. But crawl out they did, and the Neff's (being consumate pros) never gave them the slightest look. They were smooth, and precise in their timing. I wanted to curl up because it felt like being read to when I was little (no relative was safe from me). Perhaps that is why I love the traditional performances as much as the more demanding ones.

This was just a delightful re-telling of a familiar story with wonderful scenery and perfect characters. I am grateful to the Neff's for keeping that traditional art alive. I hung on every line, thanks to my fondness for Rip!

Justin Lander and Rose Frieman
(with her soon to be born bundle of joy...)
The Jolly Banker

This show was very funny indeed. The stage looks like a rebuilt old chicken coop, with mouse traps all around the proscenium outside, and string lights around the opening. They sing a twangy rustic harmony that is pleasant to hear, and was the interval music. It is a home-made Punch and Judy, only their cardboard characters have an edgy modern look, like Picasso drew them before he had his coffee. Their eyes are flounder-like on one side of the head, and each character also has a floating mouth full of grid-like teeth, to give you an idea of their cartoony style.

Punch and Judy are fighting over money, which everyone wants but no one has. At last, Punch decides to go to the banker to get some money with absolutely no concept of what he is doing. He gets a bag of money which Judy has already spent, and the banker proceeds to take their house in court. Punch goes to the police, a lawyer, and a congressman to no avail, though they all have their hands out for money, too. Punch at last believes they are all in cahoots to rob the people, and egged on by Judy, goes on a killing spree. Those mousetraps all had caps in them and were set off. At the end, Punch is consigned to Hell by God for messing up his good economic plan. I wasn't sure where I stood on that part, but punishment for killing is usually a good enough reason for a person going to Hell. Where was Judy in all this? Did she get off on a technicality? She is never seen again.

There was a funny interval (set changes are usually frequent in toy theater), where a chicken comes out of one side slot and trots across the proscenium to meet an egg coming out of the other side, finally answering the famous question: what came first, the chicken or the egg? The chicken was definitely first!

There is a very angry undertone in this story that fits perfectly into the tradition of Punch and Judy, along with the violence. There are many, many people who lost their homes in the crash that appears to have been caused by greedy, unregulated bankers making it look so easy to live beyond your means to millions of people. I applaud being able to take that anger and transform it into art, instead of resigning oneself to being helpless in the face of such massive power. Anyone remember the countdown for someone to go to prison for the Enron scandal?
Thanks, Tess, for the incredible reporting throughout the festival. I must admit I especially loved this last one since it included an individual who I consider a mentor - albeit an online one (the only way possible at present) - Ann Neff.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

GSW9 in the News

I realize this is a bit long, but I felt it was worth featuring and preserving here, with full attribution of the original source of course, since so often these online articles disappear so quickly. It's a comprehensive and insightful review of the centerpiece of the ongoing toy theatre festival, ending today, in NYC...
Hotel Modern’s “Kamp” at the Toy Theater Festival
By Lauren Wissot

One of the most astonishing theatrical productions this summer in NYC occurred at St. Ann’s Warehouse out in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, which hosted the Great Small Works 9th International Toy Theater Festival May 30th through June 13th. (Up next at St. Ann’s is the fantastical sounding Labapalooza! – a festival of avant-garde, works-in-progress puppetry June 23rd through June 27th.)

But to call “Kamp” from the Rotterdam-based troupe Hotel Modern a theater piece doesn’t even come close to describing their re-imagining of Auschwitz as a breathtaking scale model peopled by thousands of three-inch tall miniatures, looking like a European version of Mexico’s Day of the Dead figurines. Taking up the entire stage, the intricate and precise installation would fit right at home at the Whitney Biennial (in fact, there’s a temporary toy theater museum also set up at St. Ann’s) and includes not only rows of barracks and a railroad track but also the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” emblazoned on a gateway.

Through this setting three company members, two women and a man dressed in drab grey outfits, manipulate the tiny, nameless and mute characters and project the results in real time upon a large back screen via equally miniature cameras. What better way to get at the essence of one of history’s most surreal events than by presenting the Holocaust in such a surreal fashion?

In this way “Kamp” runs closer to cinema than to theater, most notably the work of David Lynch. Hotel Modern has captured an almost Eraserhead vibe, in which everyday mundane experiences like performing carpentry work and drinking soup become horrific nightmares. It’s a full-fledged visceral experience designed to make us physically uncomfortable even as we’re too hypnotized to look away. There’s no air conditioning in St. Ann’s auditorium space so we sweat in the summer heat. The enormity of the predicament of the figurines that become larger than life onscreen is enhanced through sound design sometimes amplified to hurt our ears. Since “Kamp” has no dialogue nothing is lost in translation. Howling winds and roaring cattle cars speak louder than words.

And those tiny sculptures truly take on personal lives of their own as a series of haunted house-like tableaus play out underneath a cinematographic lighting design that even casts their shadows upon the dollhouse size walls. As a result the black and white imagery projected evokes those old World War II documentaries often shot by great Hollywood hands. A figurine wearing a gas mask dumps poison from canisters through a hole, his rhythmic huffing nearly melodious. An over-the-shoulder shot of a guard reveals a prisoner sweeping a floor with all his weak might. The gruesome thudding sound of a victim being beaten to death by a Nazi’s billy club actually made the woman next to me startle with every thump. The artists pass miniature-filled trays like cake pans to the beat of marching music, foreshadowing the ovens to come.

By the time the camp is lit up at sunset and an eerie stillness descends we’ve reached only the calm before the storm. The camera pans across pained faces of prisoners eating hungrily followed by a close-up on barbed wire that segues into a scene of electrocution upon it. The darkness of the gas chambers emerges into color images of clothing, hair, a menorah and various other objects in haphazard piles. From drunken Nazis in celebration to a moving overhead shot of a mountain of corpses that resembles a sculpture sprung from the mind of Brueghel, “Kamp” deftly shows the constant, sickening bipolar state of barracks life – and death as one lone figurine finally struggles and stumbles out of the heartbreaking carnage.

GSW9: Festival Report VI

Temporary Toy Theatre Museum

From, Tess Elliott - Toy Theatre Festival reporter-at-large, who says, "Here is my report on the Workshop and the Symposium..."
Saturday, June 12

Today was a long day! I went to the workshop hoping to see kids making toy theaters and only counted four children and three teenagers. The rest of us were a lot older! I threw myself into building. Half way through I was horrified to hear that we were expected to take them up to the stage and either perform or explain them. I am NOT a performer but they liked my theater. I saw a plastic apple and decided to do the Garden of Eden and called my theater Paradise, with an angry apple hanging on a big bare branch as the main character (someone else grabbed up all the leaves in the props box).

After the workshop, and there were some beauties, I went to the symposium. The Spanish lady with the collection of toy theaters was there, Professor Bell, two other performers and a professor in theater & puppetry at Hunter whose names I could not write down fast enough and will look up. It was interesting to hear them talk about the small scale of toy theater, though it was stretched to include the Bread and Puppet Theater (big sets and puppets) which kind of bursts out of the envelope so to speak. I for one felt it was appropriate for them to be represented, as the Bread and Puppet Theater gave birth to many of the toy theater professional performers working now on the East Coast. That will be part of my [next] report...

It is fun to hear the puppeteers talking about using this medium, though [some] did not like the video close-ups usually projected above. It isn't very attractive, for sure, but for people far back it makes sense of what they are seeing in a very tiny scale from the back rows. It is practically impossible, in a Festival type setting, to do toy theater in the way it was invented to be seen, with very small audiences. The more traditional theaters, being very small, are hard to see (the Little Blue Moon Theatre handed out little cheap opera glasses and I was glad to have them). I only suffered from having to sit in the front row (to hear better), which made me miss some of the lower movements on the smaller stages. I liked hearing that there are some, including Great Small Works who do performances in the schools. Kids seem to be so restless with electronics giving them short attention spans. Toy theater, especially when kids are involved in the shows, can help get those attention spans stretched out for the important things in life, like inventing or making something, building relationships, blissing out to a sunset, letting great art move you, finishing a whole novel...and perhaps making great art themselves.
Amen, Tess...Let's hope so!

GSW9: Festival Report V

This is a very special report, in my opinion, by Tess Elliott - our report-at-large at the Toy Theatre Festival. Why so special? Because she's reporting on some shows that take on some touchy subjects (not that some of the earlier ones didn't) and she shares some personal reactions. I appreciated that, and hope you do, also...
Friday, June 11th

We had to work as an audience for these shows.

Clare Dolan performed “Lingua Franca” with excellent music and sound by Ralph Denzer. The scene was a dark toy theater stage, painted in a primitive fashion with Mr. Denzer on the side, like the great old radio shows, surrounded by all his sound effects equipment and instruments. The stage is variously set with street scenes, torture rooms (the empty chair with a hard spotlight above), kids flipping around TV stations with the remote, and punctuated by a dance about torture by Dolan. She makes a point about how people react to even talk of torture, mixed in with bored kids, who would flip away from “that” channel, to every day life going on same as ever. I remember when government was run like government, and schools were run like schools; they are all run like corporations now, with the bottom line being their “lingua franca” and having downsized, fired all of their corporate ethics personnel first, and then all of their loyal middle aged, skilled workers next. It may seem heretical in a capitalist country to hate corporate values, but that kind of cold-blooded devotion to the bottom line is also the kind of thinking that leads a government that claims to care about people to accept torture as “playing the game.” I think Dolan makes a very good and dreadful point.

The Bread and Puppet Theatre did a show about the JFK assassination, with classical quotes interspersed in their usual ritualistic way, built around the chorus of “Hey, hey, hey” to the beat of bamboo sticks. The troupe is in and out of the set, doing dances about terrible things in this almost mystery play about the military and JFK's assassination. I know some people in the audience did not care for the troupe performing in front of the set without the puppets, but this company gave birth to many of our current puppeteer's careers today, particularly the ones who make political statements about the world's evils. I don't know who did it, in the end, though they clearly feel the military had a hand. I only know that I witnessed the first murder of my life when Oswald was killed on live television when I was a child and that is something I would appreciate a cleansing ritual for. I don't know about others people, but the hard realities of life that involve hunger, torture, oils spills, injustice all make me feel soiled and in need of a spiritual shower. It's not so much that I don't want to face those things, but they make one feel so small and helpless in the face of so much evil.

The next show I saw was Michael Sommers and Elise Langer [Open Eye Figure Theatre] performing “Amore! Que Fregatura!” by Maladetto Poetaccio. I knew something was up by reading the author's name which is basically Bad Poet, and means “love, go figure.” So the show starts with a funny song called the “Got No Pussy Blues” about how “She doesn't want to...” which got us laughing. It goes on through all sorts of strange objects, including the machine-like stage itself, and is mostly about sex, though gives lip service to romance and infatuation as Mr. Sommers and Ms. Langer keep up a frantic pace. The first puppet was actually genitalia, hopping about. It was as if they were performing a ritual live sex act with puppets that started late. The puppets pop up from hidden orifices around the stage, and then hang decorously from it, an artificial womb (a water balloon) get pierced by cupid's arrow. I think, when I was in school, I would rather have seen this show about sex than the very sad and boring scientific lecture with pictures given by a horribly embarrassed nun. Yes, it's scary, and fun, and a game we often can't resist. Yes, it's very confusing and bemusing, but I would have enjoyed it a lot more in the style of Open Eye Theatre. I think Mr. Sommers would be smiling if he knew that I sat there wondering what just happened to me.

The last show was very mysterious. It must have been my hearing, but I did not experience the show in a way that the program notes describe — that “B”, performed by Kyle Loven, has never met the man she writes to. He sits on the stage and reads air mail letters from “B” who becomes more enamored as the letters go along. I missed any reference here that they had not met, but in actuality it did not affect the experience of the show at all. After the letters, he picks up a box which is a projector, and in a mixture of video and shadow puppetry, shows a woman running here and there trying to find someone or something. Late into the show, he is pictured under an umbrella reading something and looking around. They are both lost, and do not find each other. I felt sad because often that's just how life works, trying to find love and not connecting. It's hard even to find the right kind of friends in life and I know too many women who have very few friends. Loven, a narrator and by proxy the love object, draws you into this confusing world with him and you could tell the audience was moved by the performance. I would have been just as happy without the video and just the shadow puppets, which are presented on a newspaper screen held by two hands which in itself is a statement all its own. I look forward to seeing more work from this young man but I also hope he does not try to be too clever with technology. Perhaps I am drawn to the live performances because it really is intimate, and like many it gets boring to “watch” the TV. This was a subject discussed at the symposium, and I find myself thinking about it more now.
I hear you, Tess. Television, even good television, only meets so much of our needs. There are some things that can't be done any other way than in person, with more interaction. You can't beat it!

The company listed above - Open Eye Figure Theatre - is from my neck-of-the-woods, up here in Minnesota - you never know where you'll find toy theatre!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

GSW9: Festival Report IV

Our first post-crisis report from Tess Elliott, and a smashing one at that...!

Thursday, June 10th

Haus of Marsian Theater
"Growing up Linda"

The program notes say that it is about the troubled life of an ice cream heiress, and the truth about a lot of heiresses seems to be pretty strange; there are certainly some stories you think someone must have made up, but were true. The main character onstage is decked out in a white suit badly stuffed with padding, with a very oddly cut platinum blonde wig and accessories right out of the film noir genre. On the one hand, you wonder if this is the heiress, or is she merely the narrator? Most people were astonished that through the entire performance this actor, whose lips are covered with ice cream sprinkles, managed to narrate the entire performance without licking her/his lips (the voice sounded very masculine). There were two pop-up book stages, full of drawings (the artist in me loves seeing drawings as stagecraft because in toy theater you CAN) and an ice cream store attendant who moved around a tiny camera to show closeups of the drawings. It was a dark and troubling story dressed in white ice-cream-cone color with sprinkles on top.

Dan Hurlin and Dan Froot
Who's Hungry—West Hollywood

This was a triptych of three performances, each ending with a picture of a person, so that you can assume the story is about the real person. Story One is about a man who was very successful in design, but became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and then became HIV positive. It is actually a hopeful story about a man who crashes and burns, but manages to get drug free again. It is a story with hope and resourcefulness, which sets the tone for the three plays. Story two is about a woman who has nothing but her treasured little dog, and loses it. She is portrayed in a very imaginative way with ribbon, binoculars, a small leash, and tiny flip flops and through the efforts of one, two and sometimes three people becomes a living, moving person. I was very amused at how well this company works together, so that it takes a wee village of puppeteers to make such an entertaining character. This was without an old fashioned proscenium stage, but was just as effective as an animation made out of scribbles which works beautifully. The woman finds her dog again, even though someone has spent a lot of money taking care of it while the owner was trying to find it with fliers. Again, there is a message of hope and determination. The third story is about a man who recycles in his neighborhood and builds it into a kind of business that makes him a living. He doesn't want to be a mogul, likes things simple, and really just wants to enjoy life rather than be owned by a tax-paying, receipt-filing, by-the-book business job. It's a slice of life that tells you some of the problems they face, and how we are none of us all that different.

Concrete Temple Theatre
"Hudson to China"

It took me awhile to remember my history, that Hudson believed he could find a route to the Orient in the north of America. The Hudson River did get him far inland, and near the Great Lakes, but a route to the East was not to be. So they start with a song commemorating Henry Hudson, then fly ahead in time to Nixon's work in negotiating a relationship with China, which was the beginning of the Chinese taking over many areas of what was once American manufacturing. You see a perspective from an American and an immigrant's point of view. The large stage is used in an interesting way: it is a long shape rather like a pagoda, with scenery at top, with life size people popping up or large puppets, and openings on the lower front where people pop out. It was a more complex story that was a little harder to follow than the simpler narratives, but the accordion accompaniment and stagecraft still made it fun to watch.

"Please Stand By..."

I hate to say it, but right now our reporter-on-the-scene, Tess Elliott, is having technical problems, so is unable to send in reports from the toy theatre festival. Which is very ironic, since this is the climax of the festival, which ends tomorrow night.

As frustrating as that is, I hope Tess can still share her insights into these last few days once she can communicate again (which is unknown...) Until then, please be patient. I shall share what I can from other sources.

UPDATE: Tess is getting content through via comments; in turn, I will be transferring them to posts asap on Sunday - STAY TUNED!

ADDITIONAL NOTE: Tess has SEVERAL posts coming all at once. I will be posting them as I get them done. I don't see any sense in parceling them out a day at a time or whatever. So when you see a new post, be sure to scan down the page, because they're might be more!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Exhibit: Worlds in Miniature - UPDATE

Since I last posted, the Museum of Performance & Design has put up a page about its upcoming exhibition, Toy Theater: Worlds in Miniature, opening July 13, 2010...

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

GSW9: Festival Report III (Part 2 of 2)

Dolly Waggler's Lindsay McCaw...Tess shared more about the Cabaret lineup from Sunday night (June 6)...
SUNDAY Night (Continued)

So here is the cabaret lineup: The Dolly Wagglers, Quality Slippers Productions from Canada, Howie Leiffer's "Captain Jack and the Mermaid," Jamie Davis with "Sneak and Destroy," Alissa Hunnicutt's "Marry Me," Meredith Miller's "The Abduction" which I have already covered, and Great Small Work's "Toy Theatre of Terror as Usual."

The Dolly Wagglers are a couple I only know as Adam [Cook] and Lindsay [McCaw] who are terrific musicians as well as witty puppeteers. They were the ones who did "Bare Minimum Theatre" in the photos, and this stage was the same style. Their show was "The Woodcutters Opera," of the same style and equally funny. Adam sang out from behind the stage as the puppeteer while Lindsay accompanied him on the accordion. I always wondered where all the accordions went: they all joined toy theatre companies! I counted three in shows this week (I like the sound). It was a story about a woodcutter who got an idea (the idea imp had a gift in one hand and a knife in the other), who made the tired woodcutter think up a machine that would make toast, so that people wouldn't need fires to cook anymore. It was so popular that the King gave his daughter's hand in marriage to the woodcutter, and the people had time to take up hobbies and go look at Art. But no one knew where the toast came from. In some unexplained way, it came from the future, so that people and animals were starving. They send someone back to make the woodcutter see that you can't rob the future to have things easy today. The singing and the dialogue was both funny and charming and this duo were probably my favorites in the festival.

The Quality Slippers Productions was a trio of young women from Canada who performed "Being the Enthralling Story of Hercule Barbin, who was born a woman but died as a man." The three ladies performed "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," a number of times during the show with the middle one unable to remember her dance steps. In show biz we would have told her to go for a laugh but she just remained embarrassed. The story is about a girl who grows up in a quiet religious home in France, and discovers she is different. I could not hear the unmiked dialogue well, but the girl became attached to other females and at some point goes to a doctor and I am assuming finds out she is hermaphrodite or something like that. She takes on the role of a man but cannot live with the change (neighborly gossip and ostracism?) and in the end kills her/himself in the 1860's after writing down the life story. It was a cute production and in time I think they will learn how to go for the laugh. You cannot be dignified in toy theatre. Every single dignified performer in the mini shows could not keep an audience. A lot of these productions had adult subjects, and in a way it is satisfying to see these difficult subjects in unthreatening miniature theatricals. Maybe this is the new off-Broadway? There's no money in that, either!

Next was toy theater like it was invented: the theatrics are accompanied by a wonderful folk song played through the speakers about Captain Jack and the Mermaid by Meg Davis. Howie Leiffer, who could play the role of an old sea dog, manipulates his puppets to act out the story that is being sung in the song. It is a lovely way to prod your own imagination into giving life to these wee images on rods, seduced by the beautiful song. This is toy theatre at it's most basic and wonderful.

Jamie Davis's "Sneak and Destroy" is definitely a more modern theatrical: there is no speaking, but a gentle guitar accompaniment. The stage is an attractive, semi-abstract forest through which prance many deer. Then comes one hunter, two, and more. Then comes the woodcutters, and a wolf following them about on two legs (I could not see well from the side--I was trying to learn more about how the stages were used, but it lost me a perfect view of the story). A city springs up and at the end a wolf shows up in a business suit, drops a suitcase and leaves--and in the last scene there is just a picture of a bomb explosion. It was certainly a perfect visual lesson in nature fighting back. I think he didn't need to blow up the city to make his point, but it was a very lovely, low-key performance. The artistry of his set was extraordinary. I loved the ancient tradition that he fits right into: theater that does not require language to communicate.

Alissa Hunnicut's short, funny show was accompanied by a bluegrass band, and I could not hear their name. I found myself wishing there was a program with all the names in it. The band is in the back of the stage, and a wee toy theater in the center. She is at the side saying good night to her date, who gives her a shy peck and leaves quickly without the bag he was carrying. She sighs, and the music starts. In a moment she has whipped her coat off to show a white dress, flips on a bridal veil and in hilarious fashion sings "He's Gonna Marry Me" while acting it all out with her little rod puppets. It is frenetic and charming as she fantasizes blowing off his suspicious mother and having his kids. It ends abruptly when her date comes in without knocking to grab his bag. It was very entertaining.

I already saw Meredith Miller's show before, and of course you already have my bit on Great Small Works--which really was the topper for the night. Today, I plan to houseclean and catch up on business, and go frolicking out among the birds in Central Park. Our Riverside hawks lost all their babies when their nest was literally blown out of the tree in a windstorm, so I have been walking mostly in Central Park. Many of my favorite birds are nesting now and there will be little robins soon falling out of the bushes everywhere as they learn how to fly. I need the break! It is just perfect after a week of boiling in the hot sun! Lots to think about.
Amen, Tess - LOTS to think about. Great stuff - thanks for sharing with us! We look forward to your next report...

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

GSW9: Festival Report III (Part 1 of 2)

From our on-the-spot reporter Tess Elliott come these reports for Sunday at the ongoing 9th Annual International Toy Theatre Festival in New York...

Tony Schlesinger as The Palace. She is not like a palace, she IS the Palace Theatre and she sits on the stage dressed as an older glam star "incognito" complete with sunglasses and scarf. It's a layered show. There is the actual miniature movie theatre, and a large screen for the projected images full size, and then the persona of the theater as a retired movie star. The persona and the mini theatre are surrounded by her court of staffers: the usher/butler, the candy girl, and the manager/director. She tells of her woes without whining: how she was once a palace of the greatest films, fell into disrepair, became a ratty porn house, and had a brief revival as an art film house. She, in truth, was the real show. There was a lovely way they had of showing just a close up of her elegantly stockinged legs on the big screen as she spoke, and as she tells the tale of disintegration, her stockings become more and more riddled with runs! There was a funny little bit where she talks about actually having therapy, and they trot out a little prop of an even tinier theater resting on a fainting couch! For some reason, I love imbuing inanimate objects with life, because like the astronomer John Dobson I feel like the entire universe is alive, and in truth, our fantasies are not interested in real life but in dreams. This grand dame doesn't know how anything works, or how the mysteries end, and doesn't really care.

I have to say that I grew up in movie houses because my father was a projectionist. He protested hopelessly against cable because he was sure he was going to lose yet another means of income. He actually died of a heart attack in the projection room after getting the movie running again once the power came back up after a thunderstorm! Those tarted up old film houses were made to seem grander than the most expensive mansion in the world, and they will always be full of mystery for me.

The next show was Meredith Miller, a tiny woman who wears a three tiered set of stages complete with plush red velvet curtains. She tells a tale of love that starts with romance in the head, progresses to love in the heart, and ends up with passion that plays itself out leaving her empty, (her heart having been consumed by her lover). She is desolate and inconsolable, and we as an audience felt sorry for her at the end. It was an interesting spectacle--simply done with a clear message.

She was followed on the same stage with Pop-up Theatre: John Mejias and another man (sorry I don't hear better) were in a box that looked like something cobbled from alley wood disgards. It was the kind of thing kids would build as a clubhouse, except for the collage of wood that stands for the city on top. They tell the stories in a disembodied voice coming through a speaker at the side, even though you know someone is in that box. The puppets remind me of German Expressionist woodcuts, very attractive and fierce, while the stories are rather odd events that take place at the school where he teaches. It's about parents who teach their children not to be victims by hitting back (with some becoming perpatrators as a result), lost dogs, and fire drills where neighborhood bullies throw eggs. Again, there seems to be this acceptance of the scary, the weird and the unfair as it comes and goes. It's that gigantic bored shrug called "whatever" that seems hopeless to me, but it is a very hard world graduating kids face now. Maybe it's a very necessary emotional distance.

The last show was by The Puppeteers' Coop of Boston & NYC with Sara Peattie & Theresa Linnihan and a young man who did their sound effects (he is from a separate company). It was a classic toy theatre performance, all about Coney Island--funny and sad at the same time. Someone really knew how to do Dwight Frye's mad laugh from the old Dracula which told me it was Coney Island as created by Dr. Frankenstein and Igor. I got a big kick out of it.


...Hi! It's gotten cool again, though not inside the Festival Warehouse! Tonight was a little bit of everything. I can probably describe them but I want to look for pictures in the morning because some are not in the exhibit. It was a bit more adult but I got to actually see Great Small Works perform a newer piece--they did a satire on the Oil Spill and apparently this was a revamped version of an old one they performed before. You can really tell they have worked together for a long time. I can tell you, it REALLY makes the difference when the music and singing are quality. But that's tomorrow. Am going to really sleep tonight. But here are the pictures I promised. I could not get a great one of Torry Bend's odd theater that she wears. It's in a dark corner. I will try to do it with a flash to put on the DVD for you. Will also be uploading two shorter videos of walking through the exhibition.

They [Great Small Works] were the last act of the cabaret, and their theatre stage has to be fairly big. In truth they barely fit on the stage but they managed to crush in for their opening "stance" of shock and awe before they take up their stations around the stage (they each have their own frozen emotion, though they break it and either scream or laugh maniacally). I found myself wondering if they did that in response to the audience awaiting them. Everyone has their assigned task.They sang a sea chanty with lovely harmony about the "Red Rose going down" while an old style ship bobs in waves of gold, not blue. Here is a link with the words and a performance so you know what it sounded like: sea chantey The ship left and there came tea cups in saucers bobbing on the waters, and tea bags hovered over them like clouds (everyone loved that part) until a giant gas pump comes down to pour gas or oil into the cups. The cups float away and an oil derrick plunks down into the waves. The narrator talks about people saying "accidents happen" and then puppets act out repeating that like hysterical parrots, so the narrator says "sometimes it's just wickness." The sea chanty starts out again, and several BP logos, like colored clouds whisks across the sky (I thought of it as ball lightning, which bounces around and off things). The song is a haunting tune that seems appropriate for what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico. It got a rousing response from the audience. It was a pleasure to see them do their thing after years of reading about them.
More to come in Part 2...

Sunday, June 06, 2010

GSW9: Festival Report II

From Tess Elliot comes this news about Saturday at the festival...
The Symposium this afternoon though was a very nice experience. I ended up sitting next to Professor Bell and the participants were the three main artists of the Dutch Show (which was already sold out with a waiting list tonight, so I did not get in). They were lovely people [Pauline Kalker, her partner Herman Helle, and their sound man/composer Ruud van der Pluijm...] The woman had relatives who died at Auschwitz which was her interest in doing it; all three of the people had grown up on the stories. Her partner made a living doing models, and that gave her the idea to use models as a stage. The sound man talked about the problem of scale - what sounds made it real, and what needed to be left out. They talked about using the language of film-making a lot, in how they used their cameras. During the talk, I learned they also did film or animation about WWI, and then a bear 'porn show' where they used models of the bear torsos with genitalia having sex, topped off by Professor Bell claiming an animation they did about the World Trade Center attack was one of the most profound statements he ever saw about that event. Of course everyone is going to try and look it up now and I haven't been to their web site yet. I will have to look up their names because I couldn't hear the introductions at first - they had the whole side open to the street because it was so hot (St. Ann's really IS a warehouse)...and the street noise kills my ability to hear. Some kind soul brought in microphones. Their sound guy looked very much like a Northern Renaissance figure. I was so cooked that I never even thought about getting my camera out. If I find the picture tomorrow, I will scan it before I go back out there tomorrow. I will send the reviews on the kids shows before I go out, and maybe even get the other shows done in the morning, too.

They talked about how acting out the terrible things the Germans did in those camps made them feel conflicted, but of course I personally see it as a duty to keep the terrible truth alive out there so it can't ever happen again. It wasn't about just Jews in my world; I was friends in Indiana with a family whose parents were both camp survivors: they were Polish Catholics all rounded up into the camps along with the Jews and homosexuals. Stella, their mother, had been a dress designer, but nearly starved to death working at the camp. Typhoid broke out right before the liberation, and they thought she was dead and threw her in the pile of dead bodies. She laid there for three days. Her best friend knew she was alive and when the soldiers came, she begged and pleaded for someone to follow her to the pile of dead bodies. Someone translated that she was saying "my friend is not dead," and sure enough when they got Stella out she had a wisp of a pulse. Stella met her future husband in Switzerland (he had been in another camp), and they had their first child when their ship to Canada ran aground off the Irish shore. They ended up in Indiana where I knew her five kids. Stella has since passed away, but her story will stay with me forever.

So I am still not sure about how important it is to distinguish the role objects play in a theater piece, but I sure know how important the story is and what an emotional wallop that particular truth is. That sort of duty is not fun for an artist, but necessary to our world. I applaud their efforts.
Now that is one dedicated festival-goer. Tess, those of us not able to attend, reading about your experience here, greatly appreciate you sharing with us! It's almost as good as being there, and we're avoiding the heat!

Friday, June 04, 2010

GSW9: Festival Report I

Spanish Toy Theatre 1
Originally uploaded by Trishymouse
From Tess Elliot comes this first GSW9 Festival report...
Howdy! Well it was just delightful! The Finnish piece was unexpectedly mysterious and moving: the leader, told the story line in English and sang in Finnish--a lovely sounding language, I might add. They were very creative with lights, and even their costumes. They come out to the stage like fairies from under "the Earth" and perform, at some points even using their costumes as mini sets, projecting images onto the cloth. The first swamp song was about trying to find a mate, and the second about the end of childhood for a child in WWII, whose only family horse drowned in the swamps. It is hard for us to realize how devastating it is to be in a war and then lose your only work animal so that the plowing and hauling had to be done by hand. It was lovely.

The second was Little Blue Moon Theatre and they might have a video on YouTube (the festival did not want me to film during performances). I wish they had, just because it would draw people out to the festival--they were not sold out that I could tell and it's dicey getting home on the subway now with all the service cuts. The Mutiny on the Bounty is accompanied by the male part of the team (Michael Nelson) playing a ukelele, singing and some harmonica with their lyrics to the tunes of popular songs like Gilligan's Island and the Beach Boys. It was beautifully done--the sets were gorgeous and fun. I like not seeing the puppeteer (Valerie Nelson) because it's rather distracting, though she sang harmony and added some sound effects from behind the facade. We even started singing along. They were just wonderful.

The third performance was strange: the Devil (Blair Thomas) in black with a fake naked butt and pointy tail (which gets discarded at one point) tells the Biblical story of Jonah in a soapbox fashion. He wears music hall style makeup and speaks with a lovely Shakespearean voice which is at odds with the unfolding home-made set he carries and his very homemade Devil glove/hand. A fun surprise is that the characters are cut out sketches like scribbles--all black slashes of lines that were kind of arty and fun.

In addition, before the shows were mini shows in the exhibit area only there wasn't enough time to see all of them, let alone film any. I ended up a volunteer for the [Alphabet Arts] Toy Poets Theater show. Me and a gentleman stood on either side of the stage and played with boxing robots while the woman--I think she was Amber West--recited poetry. I won three out of four--she always stopped when one of us knocked the head up which is a win. It was odd but funny. I wanted to see Kate Brehm's piece but we got ushered out to see the main shows before I could get back there. All these performers were doing five minute shows...but they didn't start until 9:30. There were several very funny ones and one young man not on the program who did his own version of Shadow Puppetry which was stunning. I will find out who he was tomorrow, because I assume he made the stage, too.
Later, Tess sent this with more photos (see the above link which takes you to a slideshow of all her photos...)
Hey Trisha,

Here are pics of what I thought was the pre-show (sunset on the East River) and a few more of the toy theatres. It is really hard to get good pics as there isn't a lot of good lighting for the sets. I am wanting to invent little LED spotlights just to see the doggone stages. There were some places where I could brace my hands, but I can't use the low light setting because it flashes. It did better than my bigger SLR camera! Am thinking that the best small toy theatre performances were where the puppeteers actually were hidden (only Little Blue Moon did that), or the puppeteers were almost part of the show (the Bare Minimum Theatre). I am going to try to find them again and see if I can take their picture. It was hard to know who the people were. There was one show by Leslie Rogers and Zac Palladino that was attractive, though I found them both kind of distracting (he played guitar and she was the puppeteer who also spoke, wearing a little black dress). The story was about flying foxes who ate baby birds (real flying foxes are fruit eaters--I am a bat fan) so I felt rather confused about the story even though visually it was very pretty to watch. All in all it was mesmerizing, and Saturday I will be there ALL DAY! Am seeing the Family Program at 11, and the symposium at 1pm. If it rains, I will have to go home until the 10pm show and thank heavens that is the last late one. I don't like to be out and about after 1am!

It was supposed to be stormy last night but ended up beautiful so maybe I will luck out tomorrow. I couldn't get anyone to go with me, though I think Justyn may come tomorrow night. There just aren't a lot of people who imagine it being fun, but it was really delightful and funny--if also eccentric and odd.

It will take all afternoon to upload the video of walking through part of the exhibit.