For many, the world of puppetry arts has become synonymous with Jim Henson, the puppeteer responsible for creating and voicing Kermit the Frog.
While Henson has traditionally served as the face of modern puppetry arts, Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts shone the spotlight on the history of Black and African puppetry during a conversation with notable Black theater artists on Feb. 17.
The all-star panel, hosted by Brian Harrison of the Center for Puppetry Arts, featured S. Renee Clark, Chris Thomas Hayes, Tarish Pipkins, Spencer Stephens and Paulette Richards. The discussion kicked off with Harrison framing the conversation with the long tradition of African puppetry.
“Many people may not know that there was puppetry in Africa long before the European colonization,” Harrison said.
“And puppetry was documented. I believe it was as early as 1829 was the first documented puppetry and we know there was probably puppetry long before that because puppetry was huge, and storytelling was a big part of the oral tradition of Africa. The area of Egypt is believed to be where puppets originated from.”
With that context in mind, the conversation shifted towards the panels’ journey to becoming puppeteers and actors, with many citing the ways pop culture led them to appreciating the art of puppetry. Pipkins, also known by his artist name Jeghetto, referenced his love of horror and science fiction films such as “Gremlins” and “Predator” as his introduction to puppetry.
“I was doing these abstract sculptures and that led me to building my first puppet and putting clothes on it and moving it around,” Pipkins said.” So I tripped and fell into puppetry. When I built that first puppet a friend of mine gave me the movie ‘Being John Malkovich’ and I popped it into my VCR and watched that opening scene and I said ‘this is something I want to do.’”
Richards, a puppeteer and former Tech professor who got her start making stop motion art with Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe action figures, spoke on the technical side of puppetry.
“[At Tech,] I taught a class where I guided students through their undergraduate thesis,” Richards said.
“So I was reading all of this cutting edge research from every scientific discipline at the university, and as a volunteer at the Center for Puppetry Arts, I was working in the Hansen gallery next to all these cool robotic puppets and it started to click that this is what my students were doing. I’m also hanging out with the Decatur Makers with people that play with Arduino and I’m like ‘oh, that’s how they made this movie.’ So from there I started making my own animatronic puppets.”
Richards continued on to talk about how her experience at Tech and playing with different software has led her to integrate technology and artistry into her teaching.
“What I saw in that experience was I can inspire kids who would never think of themselves as robot scientists to be interested in puppets,” Richards said. “Because, if someone had showed me you could use this program to make your dolls move when I was a kid, I would have paid more attention to those math classes. So my goal as a puppet artist teaching artists is to bring the STEAM disciplines to kids through the art of puppetry,”
The latter half of the hour long discussion regarding the differences the artists had noticed between the face forward acting world and the puppetry world. Hayes, who is known for his work on Sesame Street, described how acting roles would often limit him to certain types of characters, while puppetry allowed him to push against that.
“When I’m auditioning, I’m constantly aware of what kind of roles are put in front of me, and I just noticed a lot of stuff comes up where it’s like, okay this guy is a gangster, this guy is a thug and after a while you start to go ‘oh, my God, what is out there? Is there any kind of positive representation on TV for us?’” Hayes said.
“In order to take steps up in certain kinds of mediums, I have to become this kind of dark and gritty character. The levity of puppetry is that it opens the door a little bit. When I look at auditions for puppets, I’m like a bird, or a couch. Those roles allow me to dig a little bit more into different characters and it frees you up a bit.”
Harrison pointed out the importance of representation in theater and puppetry arts for minority children.
“Those Black children, Spanish children are going to see that and they’re going to connect to that and they’re going to feel like they have a place in that theater,” Harrison said. “They can go see a performance and at the end see a Black performer and see themselves on stage.”
Clark ended the discussion by recounting a story of a time when students from her elementary school visited a show of hers the night after Obama was elected president.
“I was the narrator, so I’m not covered. I’m sitting at the piano. And I’m not going to say she said it because I was a person of color. I don’t know why she said it. But I immediately took it because I was a person of color. But this little girl sitting about the fourth row points at me and she screams to her
mother ‘I don’t like her. Mommy, I don’t like her’ and I just had to remember my lines for the rest of the show,” Clark said.
“I was devastated. I was like, ‘what do you do with that?’ Because she was not a person of color and all of these things that had happened overnight and at the point that at the time, Georgia was still a red state. And I had no idea what had just happened in that moment of celebration.”
Clark used the story to remind the audience that being a performing artist and especially a Black artist, requires a lot of vulnerability on stage.
“Sometimes we are at the mercy of these beautiful little minds that are growing up, and as performers and artists we’re very vulnerable while we’re on stage,” Clark said.
“We celebrate all the beautiful things to come at us, but sometimes when harsh days come for us we have to override it. It’s not just behind the scenes. It’s not just the audition that didn’t want us. We made it to the stage and we rehearsed, we did everything we were supposed to do and then somebody can still say something really mean. So just know we’re human beings and we’re people with heart.”
To learn more about the Center for Puppetry Arts and their upcoming programming, please visit puppet.org.