A theatre conference is not unlike a Robert AItman film: dozens of characters come together because of a common bond; each character has a unique story ... the mosaic of American life drawn together by the music in "Nashville" ...the fitness fanatics at the Miami convention in "Health"...the quests and family attending "A Wedding"...the fashion mavens who gravitate to the Paris runway shows in "Pret A Porter"...the disparate Los Angeles residents drawn together by the earthquake in "Short Cuts." In this case, dozens of vastly different theatre folk have come to Waterford, CT. What unites them is their passion for puppetry.
During my two days at the O'Neill Theatre Center, I will speak to over fifty people, see eighteen puppet works and attend a fancy dress gala where Barbara Cook is the guest entertainer.
If this article moves. randomly from person to person, and event to event, remember that I was doing the same.
The most telling revelations come at the O'Neill's on site saloon where the puppeteers relax after performing. Bits of conversations are part enthusiastic and part apprehensive. It's been a wonderful two weeks... puppeteers perfecting their art with others who are equally fervent. But for some, the other fifty weeks bring big questions such as making a living in puppetry. The O'Neill is a haven. Returning to the city may bring outright rejection or at best farming out puppetry skills for animation, television or commercials.
Bernd Orodnik is one of the lucky ones. The slim European-born artisan makes a full-time living from puppetry. He has toured Europe, Canada and the United States with his Alchemilla Puppetworks and is also an accomplished musician, serving as the conference's music coordinator.
For two golden weeks, the participants have been making puppets and marionettes, writing and creating projects for public presentation. They have been working with the some of the most experienced hands of the puppet world.
The conference was started eight years ago by Jane Henson, Jim Henson's widow and co-creator of The Muppets. An upbeat, energetic woman, equally at home with people of all ages, she might be described as Mrs. Doubtfire's younger pretty sister. This is a very special conference for Jane Henson because her daughter, Heather, is presenting her first complete project, "Fish, Plume, Fly", a performance piece in which four actors manipulate natural as well as manufactured objects. The piece is presented at the O'Neill's "instant" theatre, a three-quarter thrust, wooden structure positioned in front of large leafy trees; it is an integral part of Henson's piece as well as Larry Hunt's piece which follows. Hunt's piece, "The Clowns" started at the O'Neill, was performed in a longer version in Japan and rehoned at the O'Neill. His goofy-faced masked performers measure the relationship of man to nature.
There are three categories of performance at the conference. (1) Continuum projects, such as the two cited above, which were started in the previous year end asked to return for development. (2) Guest projects, by far the most technically ambitious works, which combine performance art with puppetry arts and (3) Puppetry, marionette and shadow presentations which have been totally created during the two week conference. Four performing spaces are used at the O'Neill: the above mentioned "instant theatre"; the main theatre in the Rufus and Margo Rose Barn, an outside amphitheater; and the barn "L", a studio which has been set up for shadow presentations. And there's the gala space, a large white tent pitched on a rolling lawn looking out to sea, On performance nights, the audience moves from one venue to another.
The puppeteers serve as each other's performers and crew. In the case of the ongoing continuum projects, the New London Flock Theatre company supplements the acting troupe.
I had been to the O'Neill a month ago for the Family Music Theatre/Opera Institute where two productions were given well-rehearsed staged readings. The emphasis was not (nor should it have been) technical. The technical side of puppetry, by nature of the art, is overwhelming. John Ludwig's piece, "Home," is a stunning example. There is no counterweight system in the barn, yet objects (set pieces as well as puppets and marionettes) fly with ease during this humorous yet disturbing piece. What's most astounding about the technical wizardry is that all the manipulation and mechanical work was performed by the members of the conference. Most of the technical components were built by the puppeteers in the O'Neill workshop under the supervision of tech director Michael Chann and workshop steward Julie Morrison.
If you want to be a puppeteer, you'd better have good small motor coordination and a vivid imagination. Puppeteers write their own stories, build and fashion their characters and sets, then manipulate all, the different elements during performance.
It's my first day, but it's the penultimate day of the two week conference: I'm met at the train station by O'Neill intern, Andrew DiLeo. Andy is a husky twentysomething fellow with a Yul Brynner haircut and a infatuation with puppetry. He plans to do graduate work at Yale in musical theatre and has composed some of the music being performed tonight.
Andy spots license plate CT-1. It appears to be Senator Christopher Dodd and I wonder if he'll be at tonight's gala.
Andy suggests that I stay in the production cottage, rather than Seaside, an off-site building which was formerly a tuberculosis sanitorium. I agree and stay at the on-site cottage, where I will share a room with two puppeteers as well as a co-ed washroom. Miraculously, this is no problem. The only wait that I encounter during my two day stay is for the pay phone.
The first person I speak to is Victoria McCreary, a lovely Kentucky-born blonde, who lives in South Florida and makes her living as an actress and model. Sometimes she makes puppets or marionettes for hire. But she's truly happy when she's creating and performing with puppets of her own design. This year, she came to the O'Neill and studied with Margo Rose (who with her late husband, Rufus Rose, helped create Howdy Doody), Jim Rose (her son who carries on the family tradition), and master marionetter Fred Thompson. During the two week conference, she created a complete marionette in the vast workshop which she suggests I visit.
INSIDE THE WORKSHOP
Santa's toy shop has been transported to the lower level of a large red barn. Grownup elves in sandals, shorts and tank tops are using glue guns, staple guns, fabrics, woods and feathers. Bearded sprites and pony-tailed imps use band saws, jig saws, sewing machines, pliers, wire, mesh and padding, padding, padding, all to make miniature magic.
Victoria's project is about a Fairie marionette who earns her wings. During performance, the marionette performs to music composed and played by the above-mentioned Andy
I've asked Victoria if she knows the whereabouts of Jim Rose. Jim is not only a master marionetter, but a number of years ago I studied set and lighting design with him at Antioch College.
JIM ROSE AND THE MARIONETTE WORKSHOP
I find Jim outside the theatre named for his parents. He now devotes full time to puppetry, running workshops, taking design commissions, consulting as well as entertaining. He can make anything from a basic marionette, dubbed "Rodney MacDowel" (because he's made of rods and dowels) to the most complicated character. He's been at all of the O'Neill puppetry conferences, but only started the marionette workshop in the last few years.
Jim (as are many of the puppeteers I'll meet) is the antithesis of theatrical...salt of the earth, practical, even-tempered and slyly humorous. He's invited me to sit in on the windup of the marionette workshop.
Participant Catherine Gasta asks for a rehearsal space with a mirror so that she can become more proficient in marionette manipulation. Victoria wonders, if more time couldn't be spent in the craft of creating knee and elbow joints.
The discussion turns to the relationship between costume and character. Instructor Fred Thompson urges that less time be spent in costumes and decoration and more time be spent in learning to manipulate; he hopes that the marionetters will master the art of conveying character through gesture (and that means precise, delicate manipulation of the "airplane" control), rather than conveying character through paint, fabric and spangles.
Jim doesn't completely agree with Thompson; he'd like to spend more time helping the participants perfect their craftsmanship. But as we leave the barn, Jim tells me that there's nothing he loves more than a good debate. He's always respected Thompson and admires him for the fervor of his argument.
BARBARA COOK, DINA MERRILL AND ME
About 5:45, a car service sedan pulls up to the main mansion and Barbara Cook emerges. Tempted as I am to run after her with my tape recorder, an interview is not scheduled and the timing would be incredibly inappropriate. Cook, music director Wally Harper and bass player John Beal will have about forty five minutes to warm-up and test the sound system in a vast white tent. She will not perform again until ten p.m.; her performance will be the culmination of a fund raising evening and she will not stint. It's, a full nightclub set, virtually her latest album, "Oscar Winners" which salutes the lyrics, of Oscar Hammerstein.
Cook's resurgence is tied to the O'Neill. The Broadway ingenue who created the roles of Cunegonde in "Candide" and Marian the Librarian in "The Music Man" refined her cabaret act at the O'Neill's cabaret symposium, prior to her dazzling nightclub return (and Carnegie Hall Concert) in the 1970's. Amazingly, her unique soprano is as clear as it was in her Broadway days. Tonight she is adding a new song to the act, "Wonderful Guy" from "South Pacific", and for me it's a small dream come true. I'd always hoped that Atlanta-born Cook would play little Rock's Nellie Forbush. Tonight she proves she has the emotional and vocal chops worthy of a new studio recording; Thomas Z. Shepard, are you listening?
Her penultimate number is "Lover, Come Back to Me", which in other hands could be a sugary Romberg ballad; but she and Harper have devised a thumping ragtime version which brings down the house. She closes with an unamplified "Edelweiss" and her golden voice rolls over the green lawn to the sea.
Earlier, there has been an auction and the unveiling of a rendering of the new Dina Merrill Theatre, not to mention Ms. Merrill herself. Merrill is in mint condition. When I meet her, I tell her I loved her in a film where she played a second lead and I wish she'd landed the hero. "It must have been 'The Courtship of Eddie's Father', where I was supposed to get Glenn Ford but little Ronnie Howard disapproved of me because I had squinty eyes."
Dina Merrill Hartlay, a longtime supporter of the O'Neill, serves on numerous boards including the Kennedy Center and the Museum of Broadcasting. remains very active as an actress; she was featured in (and got critical huzzahs for) last year's sleeper "Suture", which gave a new definition to film noir. Rent the video.
When I am introduced to Barbara Cook, I remind her that I last shook her hand when she played "Brothers and Sisters," the New York club where her cabaret career reignited. She is not up to an interview, but she gives my arm an affectionate squeeze before she leaves.
THE GALA VERSUS THE PUPPETEERS
"That singer!" one of the young puppeteers says in disgust the next morning. "You couldn't hear a thing we were doing with her blaring over the P.A. system last night."
What am I in for?
How old do you have to be to know that the folks who shelled out the bucks for the poached salmon and listened to "that singer" are helping to underwrite your puppetry conference?
I'm taken beck to days of working crew, when I was dragged away from building sets to work tech for a benefit. I encountered a grande dame demanding that screens be removed from a makeshift stage because she could not tolerate anything the color of excretion. Tonight, there's not a grande dame in sight.
Earlier, over cocktails I speak to a couple of married first-time O'Neill attendees. They love Broadway; they try to combine theatre with business so that they can write off overnight stays in the city. And tonight they wanted to see what the O'Neill was all about.
They got to see Bernd do an Olympic sport using only a miniature high hurdle and his right hand. Spellbinding, even in a vast white tent. And in addition to Ms. Cook and Ms. Merrill., they indeed got U.S. Senator Christopher J. Dodd, friend to the O'Neill and strong supporter of the N.E.A.
SENATOR DODD AND MISS HEPBURN
Dodd tells us:
"There are a lot of people who are renowned who live in this state and not very far from here is Katherine Hepburn, who lives in Old Saybrook. I'd never met Katherine Hepburn although I'd seen her on numerous occasions. I live in a town a couple of villages away from her, but never intruded upon her privacy. Her former brother-in-law is a wonderful. friend of mine, Ellsworth Graham. He used to be the mayor of West Hartford, Connecticut. I've known Ellsworth for years, a delightful person, a great person, a great individual. He's probably Katherine's age.
"About two or three months ago," Dodd continues, "I stopped to see Ellsworth in Old Saybrook. As I was walking up the back steps of his home, the door opened and there's Ellsworth standing with Katherine Hepburn. We're standing about three feet away from each other. And Ellsworth, in a very loud voice (he didn't have his listening device in) said 'Chris, would you like to meet Katherine Hepburn?' Well, what am I going to say...she's standing right here, so I say, 'Of course I'd be delighted to meet Miss Hepburn.' He turned to Katherine in an equally loud voice end said "Would you like to meet Senator Dodd?" And Katherine, without looking at me at all, her little heed shaking said 'Why?'
"It'll show you how life in public office is these days..."
WHAT THE GALA UNDERWROTE
Saturday afternoon. The second performance of "The Whaling Wife", a piece which utilizes journals and letters written in the 1850's by American women who had to choose between staying landlocked or sailing for as long as four years with their husbands aboard whaling ships. The piece, written by Bonnie Kohn Remsberg is being expanded by director Lennie Pinna for a full production in Cleveland this fall. The piece incorporates puppets, shadow play and live actors. By miniaturizing, Remsberg and Pinna are able to create a vast scope and seascape.
I caught two rehearsals and the final performance of "Hogarth's Progress", a performance piece by Theodore Skipitares, with music played and composed by Larry Greenhut. Based on the rakish drawings of the eighteenth century artist, the piece is ribald fare and ingeniously combines the live action of the nine person cast within the scenery. Drawings have arms that move, etched faces change and inert undergarments begin to have a life of their own. In one sequence, a character enters with a miniature of herself atop her oversized wig,
Probably the most ambitious project is Jon Ludwig's "Home", which presents (take your choice) Noah's Ark and/or The Garden of Eden and/or heaven, on acid if not Quaaludes. Midway through the piece a life sized mobster marionette interacts with similarly black-suited live performers. There are blue monsters, an adorable monkey (who will die via a noose), angels and a sleek yellow snake. Forget explanations--all that matters is, it's never boring. The piece could be a technical nightmare, but it comes off with Swiss-watch precision.
[NOTE: The Puppetry Conference specifically is underwritten by The Rose Endowment Fund honoring Margo and Rufus Rose; as well as The Jim Henson Legacy. The gala helps underwrite all the O'Neill activities in general.]
SHORT CUTS: PUPPETRY PIECES
Later there are shorter pieces, all written, created end rehearsed within the two week period of the conference: I am particularly drawn to Ron Binion's "Honey I Bought a Computer", in which a puppet is so addicted to cyberspace that his wife finally destroys his hardware. "Chair-Man", a piece by Artistic director Richard Termine (who created Placido Flamingo and Wolfgang the Seal for "Sesame Street") is a very funny observation of man versus rocker, recliner, barstool, well, the whole Macy's chair department. Billy Jarcho's "The Boogie Biter Bogglins" is a zany warning to those who don't dispose of what comes out of their noses properly. The evening ends (and I haven't begun to mention every piece) with Wendy Morton's shadow play "Portals", which chronicles the evolution of man.
SHORT CUTS: INTERVIEWS
The Titian Tressed Lady with the Floppy Straw Hat
Dr. Holly Hill. has worked as an actress, theatre journalist and is currently a professor at New York's John Jay University. She's had a longtime association with the O'Neill. She specializes in Middle Eastern Theatre and has been escort to Lofti El Saifel Salama, an Egyptian puppeteer who demonstrated two of his creations (a belly dancer for adult audiences and a family portrait for family audiences) earlier in the week. Hill tells me marionettes, hand puppets, stick puppets and shadow puppets are all part of the Egyptian tradition, if not the international, puppetry tradition. My guts tell me that the slender, porcelain complected, Titian tressed Dr. Hill has a story far more interesting then the Middle Easterners I meet through her. I am initially drawn to her because I think we've worked together (not true) and because we're both grown-ups. Under her stylish summer straw hat, there's a lady who's made her living in the theatre for all her adult life. Just when I'm about to ask her more about herself, she introduces me to James Mirrione, a Middle Eastern playwright and Professor at NYU who is uniting Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli artists in a multicultural play he's written.
George Latshaw, Surprise Honoree
I am having supper at a large round table with several puppeteers, but most importantly, George Latshaw, a student at Yale when "Oklahoma!" (under the title of "Away We Go") tried out in New Haven. (He missed it; friends told him it was just some cowboy musical. Then he had to wait two years for tickets.) Latshaw has made his living as a puppeteer all his adult life; his colleagues include Bil Baird and Burr (Kukla, Fran and Ollie) Tillstrom.
It is impossible for Latshsw's mouth not to smile, his eyebrows are perpetually raised in a kind of wonder, his eyes sparkle under his full head of red hair. He is editor and founder of the Puppetry Journal. There is not one puppeteer at the conference who has not been touched or influenced by him.
"Where's dessert?" Latshaw asks and goes off to the kitchen. What he doesn't know is that dessert is postponed until a reception which, unbeknownst to him, is in his honor. He is genuinely moved. Margo Rose, now 94, presents him with a puppet likeness she modeled after him over fifty years ago.
Later Latshaw tells. m me : "Our purpose here is to nurture the thinking that leads an artist to make m statement, So much puppetry has been aimed at children -- children's literature was the key factor -- so that people doing the production didn't have to think of anything new. The children's audience replenishes itself so there's not the same demand for new material. You get a repertory of folk and fairy tales and it'll last you an entire career, whereas if you're talking to adults, first, you have to have something to say and then you have to get them sit still long enough so that you can say it effectively.
"Take John Ludwig's piece, 'Home'. It's abstract enough that we don't feel like we're being lectured to or drummed at, That's the advantage of this medium, rather than using people."
P.S.: Latshaw was my first instructor in Dramatics many years ago at a summer festival in Cleveland.
Annie Evans (no relation to myself), a recent Brown graduate, is attending the conference for her third year. As resident playwright, she helps puppeteers shape their works. "They're fantastic at being able to create some wonderful images but they're not as successful at building something structurally with a beginning, middle and end." Evans is based in New York and works with the Children's Television Workshop, but looks forward to the two weeks when she can get back to her roots, where everyone's energy is so focused. Evans will often come in in the middle of a project and help the puppeteer clarify his ideas. She first came to the O'Neill as a student at the National Theatre Institute and is an O'Neill loyalist, having participated in the Playwrights' Conference as well.
Nigel Maister, originally from South Africa, is a theatre professor based in Rochester, N.Y. The attractive young man speaks to me as he fills his hundred dollar clunker of a car with equipment and supplies he brought along for the conference. He has only just started experimenting with puppetry, despite his vast theatre background.
"Puppetry is very much like mask work: a living actor or performer is living through an essentially inanimate object that has to be activated by the performer behind the performance. Puppetry unleashes a sense of freedom in a performer that you rarely get anywhere else...I really think that puppets are the measure of one's soul...the stuff that we keep hidden we can express through chunks of wood or a glove. It allows us another form which we actually don't have to take responsibility for, because it is a performer and yet it is so much part of ourselves.
"We can accept with puppetry what you can't accept with live people doing it... All those magical things, That is what largely accounts for the passion behind it. You see people here who are really skilled. There's a very strong visual component--whatever drives a painter to paint or a sculptor to sculpt."
Story Lady From D.C.
Vivacious Anne Mesritz is a professions] children's story teller ms well as a puppeteer. "There's a level. of refreshing eccentricity in the puppetry world--you can't find it anywhere else. I first came to Washington to work for the government in 1980. I met this woman who knew about puppets and she gave me a list of shows playing at the Kennedy Center. I went the first night and saw this phenomenal show by Theatre Without Strings and walked out of that theatre ten feet off the ground.
"I said 'That's what I want to do.' I came back every night for the next six nights. So in love and so immature was I that it never occurred to me to ask have I any talent. I think if you fall in love with something that much, then you have the talent or the genes or the ability to do it.
"The O'Neill is like coming to Mecca for inspiration. This is my second year and this is like coming home."
WHY THIS IS NOT, AFTER ALL, AN ALTMAN FILM
The next time you see "Nashville" or "A Wedding" (Dina Merrill's in it, by the way) or "Short Cuts", you may notice that Altman's films focus equally on any number of characters who move about in turmoil. Yes, the Puppetry Conference focuses on any number of characters, but in this case, they're all working towards a common goal and for shared passion. I think I'm starting to understand why.
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