Puppetry and Politics: A Work-in-Progress at Long Island University Brooklyn

With puppeteer and performer Alice Tolan-Mee behind the scenes, Rebecca Adeleke, 6, greets one of the stars of Theodora Skipitares's work-in-progress, "The Ionesco Project," which went up on Wednesday, June 26 in the Humanities Gallery at Long Island University Brooklyn. (Photo by Philippe Theise)
With puppeteer and performer Alice Tolan-Mee behind the scenes, Rebecca Adeleke, 6, greets one of the stars of Theodora Skipitares’s work-in-progress, “The Ionesco Project,” which went up on Wednesday, June 26 in the Humanities Gallery at Long Island University Brooklyn. (Photo by Philippe Theise)

“Your movements are really strong and sure, and I think she’s more unsure of herself,” said Theodora Skipitares, as a 10-foot-tall woman wearing a floral-print dress, a green shower cap and gold hoop earrings stood nearby.

Skipitares, a theater artist and puppet maker who has taught at the Pratt Institute for 8 years, was speaking to her former student, Britt Moseley. A puppeteer, Moseley was operating the giant, cast-paper puppet in the back of the glass-walled Humanities Gallery at Long Island University Brooklyn last Wednesday afternoon.

A few minutes later, Skipitares called for a run-through of her work-in-progress, “The Ionesco Project,” a mixed media production that uses puppets and video to convey the messages of various political activists from the Vietnam War era to today.

“Certain issues came to me, looking at a lot of old clips of speeches,” she later said. “[This is] a really early draft of some scenes.”

Examples of Skipitares’s puppetry, masks, and sculpture are on display in the Humanities Gallery through July 20. The selections include a miniature figure of the artist, two-dimensional warriors from ancient Greece, and a metal and wood, raptor-like puppet called “Apeman.”

"Apeman," Theodora Skipitares's aluminum and wood puppet, stands near the entrance to the Humanities Gallery at Long Island University Brooklyn. (Photo by Philippe Theise)
“Apeman,” Theodora Skipitares’s aluminum and wood puppet, stands near the entrance to the Humanities Gallery at Long Island University Brooklyn. (Photo by Philippe Theise)

Skipitares has made plays with her puppets for more than 30 years. She based her latest piece on Eugene Ionesco’s 1952 play “The Chairs,” in which an old couple asks thirty-five people to gather for a meaningful message. But the guests don’t show, and the message doesn’t materialize.

As the rehearsal for last Wednesday’s performance continued, four young children looked into the oval-shaped gallery and ran around it. Moseley, one of five puppeteers, made the large puppet blink its eyes and shuffle its feet in place. Then, more than 20 people entered the space for the start of the show. The four children sat on the floor to get the closest view they could.

After a brief musical opening, narrator Judith Malina, a 66-year veteran of avant-garde theater, gave voice to the puppet, an elderly woman who berated herself for becoming a janitor instead of an orator. After a doorbell rang, signaling the arrival of her guests, she worried that her dress looked old.

But the character was not just preoccupied by existential concern and personal disappointment. She also affirmed life.

“It’s in speaking that ideas come to us – in words. In our words, we find everything,” Malina read.

The scenes that followed bore out this point.

As two puppeteers lifted the giant figure’s dress to produce four chairs and a stool that were also puppets, a technician projected video clips of the activists onto a circular screen in the upper left corner of the stage area.

In the first clip, an Egyptian woman spoke about state-sponsored sexual violence against women during the 2011 revolution in her country. The clip interspersed her interview with footage from the streets of Cairo, including some of a group of men dragging, kicking and stripping a woman.

“We, the women, will free Egypt,” the activist said.

The following clip showed the late Mario Savio, a leader of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley, urging students to resist co-option and corporatization before a sit-in on campus on Dec. 2, 1964.

“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part,” Savio shouted.

In the third video clip, the artist and writer Mary Fisher urged Republicans at their 1992 national convention to confront the epidemic of AIDS and HIV. As Fisher spoke, two puppeteers lifted and lowered the jointed arms of a chair with a mask of a human head affixed to its curved white rail.

Four chairs with masks, along with a stool, complemented the large puppet in Theodora Skipitares's work-in-progress, "The Ionesco Project." (Photo by Philippe Theise)
Four chairs with masks, along with a stool, complemented the large puppet in Theodora Skipitares’s work-in-progress, “The Ionesco Project.” (Photo by Philippe Theise)

The videos provided the messages that were absent from Ionesco’s play. Skipitares said that the puppets symbolized the physical presence of the message bearers.

In the fourth clip, an African American child spoke to an audience about an “economically, socially and politically disenfranchised” group of Americans, and the unacceptability of one of our country’s most enduring slurs.

“Get out of my face, n-word,” he said.

When an image of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and dissident, appeared on the screen, puppeteers operated the last puppet, a stool. One performer lifted its legs toward the audience, while another pressed her face into its thin, canvas seat and mimed speech.

Meanwhile, Weiwei, whom the Chinese government detained in 2011, spoke in English about censorship.

“Free information on the Internet has become most important tool for me to communicate and save my mind,” he said.

After the performance ended, the children in the audience quickly went to the front of the gallery to examine the large puppet.

Rebecca Adeleke, 6, said she liked Skipitares’s work, “because it’s funny.”

The adults enjoyed the performance, too.

“I live in the neighborhood and I’ve never been here before,” said Alex Sichel, 49. “I like the combination of the chairs with the puppetry.”

When Skipitares emerged from the gallery, she spoke to Rodney Hurley, who manages the nearby Kumble Theater in the Humanities Building on campus.

“You know what was great? Those kids in the front row,” she said. “They brought out another element.”

Skipitares will talk to children about her work, the history of puppetry, and how to use puppets on July 12 in the Humanities Gallery. If you would like to bring your child, call the Kumble Theater box office at (718) 488-1624, or email info@kumbletheater.org. To view “Apeman” and the artist’s other selected works, visit the gallery between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.

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