Interview by Tony Adler
Photos by Andrea Bauer
When you tell people that you’re a puppeteer—which I generally don’t do—it’s always the same conversation: they assume that you do marionettes, which I admire but don’t have a personal interest in doing. Or not only do they assume that you do the hand-and-mouth-and-rod style of the Hensons, they assume you aspire and want to do that. Sort of in the same way that when you’re an actor people assume that if you’re not in New York or LA you are on your way there.
People always say one of two things. They tell it to you like it’s a secret, like you’ve never heard it before: “I think puppets are creepy.” Like it’s a confession. And we puppeteers are like, “Duh. You and everyone else. Nuns and clowns too?” Or they say, “I love puppets!” But even the people who think they’re creepy, sometimes they only think they think they’re creepy. We just don’t get enough exposure to puppetry.
I’m most excited by how puppets move. For me the design of a puppet, how it looks, is inextricable from how it moves or how I’ve designed it to move or want it to move or imagine it moving or how the objects from which it’s assembled naturally work to move. An example is the solteronas—the two bird-headed ladies—in Mariposa Nocturna. When people see them in a picture or static or hanging in my studio, they’ll say, “What are they supposed to be?” And then I try not to be irritated, but my answer is, “They are what they are. They are what you see.” But in performance nobody ever asks what they’re supposed to be. And so in Christmas Ride I wanted to see how much of the storytelling could be done entirely through the movement and not so much the appearance of the puppets.
I was very adamant with the actors in Christmas Ride: “No dead puppets on the stage! Don’t you dare let me see a dead puppet on that stage! That puppet better be looking at something!” It can be holding still, but it better be a specific holding still. You wouldn’t believe the difference when the puppeteer becomes distracted and is just holding the puppet still—you can tell, you can see puppet and puppeteer divorce. You can see it. Whereas if the puppet is holding still deliberately, for a reason—because they’re thinking or they don’t want to move or they’re bored—that’s clear.
“Even the people who think puppets are creepy, sometimes they only think they think they’re creepy.”
When you have a puppet on a stage and you have people on a stage, the eye goes directly to the puppet for the most part. And therefore the puppet doesn’t need to do so much so big. If you were to observe the movement of the puppets in Christmas Ride, you’d see the movements they’re making are very small and very precise and very specific. That kind of specificity elicits a reaction of recognition from the audience. Of joy. Because they see themselves in that puppet. You have to be selective about when the bigness happens. One of the actors was being at first very big, and I said, “No no no no no.” And they said, “Well, what about when Kermit the Frog goes, ‘Yaaaah!’” It’s a famous Kermit thing. And I’m like, “Yeah, but Kermit only does that for that occasion of wild abandon. The rest of the time Kermit’s not doing great big gestures. He’s doing what he needs to do to get by, which is really what we do in life.” Really, really, really: less is more, and it’s hard as a performer to trust that you’re doing enough.
My writing style is a lot more florid. I’m wordy and florid and I try to be funny. I like things that are profane to be treated as funny even if they’re horrible. I think that’s very Guatemalan. In my novel, all of the stories are infused with these unexplained happenings. Are they real? They’re just treated as matter-of-fact because that’s how my family treats them: of course you stuck your hand out the door and the little cold hand grabbed it and laughed and then you went into hysterics. Of course that happened.
When I created Mariposa and then again a year later, when I was developing Mariposa, I had two miscarriages. My husband and I lost both of our pregnancies at the same time of year at the same place in the pregnancy. You recover in a postpartum way, the way that you would if you’d had the kid, except you don’t have a kid. You don’t have the reward. You just have this void. And both times I’ve been forced to look at the void on the ultrasound. It’s really interesting: Voids are very much a part the work that [fellow 16th Street Theater artistic associate] Jessica Mondres and I are thinking of creating next. It’s called T(w)o Marias, based on the idea that something is there and then it is not there. It’s there, it’s there, it’s there, and it’s alive and it’s vibrant and it’s here, and then it’s gone. Oh, more death? Heh. Yeah. v