As a puppeteer I’d been telling stories to young audiences at private parties, schools, and other venues for many years, but performing as an entertainer was wearing on me. I wanted to stretch myself, create work that would appeal to adults, too. I was looking for some way beyond speech, hearing, touch, and sight (but not smell!) to communicate meaning to those watching my puppetry performances. I asked myself what sense would help the audience do that? Coupled with my instinctually close relationship with my audiences, could I add a sixth sense to the experience that would make my storytelling resonate with meaning?
During my career as a puppeteer and with varying success, I worked with traditional hand puppets. I loved sculpting them, writing scripts, staging productions, and putting on shows, adorable, cute, and fluffy adaptations of fairy tales and celebrated children’s books; but after many years of working this way I felt something was missing from my work. Driven to change my approach, I did some research. I hoped to find a new direction, a way to create meaning through context, authenticity, and movement. If I was seeking a new, more audacious way to perform, birthday party shows were not the way to go.
My personal breakthrough materialized in graduate school at Columbia College Chicago. As a member of the sixth cohort to pass through its Interdisciplinary Arts master’s degree program, I had the privilege of studying with a master storyteller and celebrated performance artist, James Grigsby (d.2002). He was also an arts educator and choreographer who influenced a generation of artists with his art, his perceptive critiques, and his dry sense of humor. He used to say to me, the birthday-party puppeteer, “Cute is a four-letter word” while prodding me to imagine puppetry in a larger dimension. He suggested the agent of change I sought was performance art.
What is performance art? To quote June Sawyers’ September 4, 1987 Chicago Tribune article: “It is an art form without a home, a nebulous hybrid of dance, music, theater, film, sound, light and the written word. It can be as brief as five minutes or as long as five hours. It is a one-time-only event or can be repeated as often as the artist desires. It belongs in its own category yet defies all labels. It is an enigma.” I say it is art reaching people but not in a traditional way. I realized that this genre of representation would be my perfect medium for experimentation with puppets; but how could I make art with puppets that would have a personal impact on those experiencing it?
James Grigsby’s classes in performance art emphasized the importance of an artist connecting with her audience’s ongoing interior monologue, e.g. “Why did I do that just now?” Or “Will this plane crash while I’m in the restroom?” Or “I wish I could stop worrying about tomorrow.” Throughout the semester, I experimented but never quite found a way to reach the audience (my classmates) and create that meaningful connection with them.
I attended as many local Chicago performance events as I possibly could to see how the ‘pros’ did it. My quarrel with some of the work I saw—other than that of Grigsby and a few others—was the overflowing egocentricity characterizing it. In the absence of shared humanity, works that left me unmoved were those to which I could not—to use 1980’s vocabulary—relate. In contrast, although Grigsby’s work was surreal, he posed important questions using music, visual imagery, and text, as in his piece “Trust Me,” which I think urged people to be wary of dwelling on the future and to live fully in the present.
After graduating from the Interdisciplinary Arts program, I spent months writing and building puppets around a personally important theme I thought would be meaningful to the kind of audience attending my performance. I arranged an event at the MoMing Dance and Art Center (now defunct) in Chicago. Called “Beauty, Beast, Feast,” the work explored childhood conceptions of gender roles and challenged the so-called happy endings of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty and the Beast.” I hired two actors to manipulate my life-sized puppets representing Belle’s father from one story and the Prince who awakened Beauty in the other. I played the woman who interacted with the puppets at different stations across the stage. Each station represented a step in the woman’s development toward a resolution of her quandary.
I hoped Beauty’s struggles would resonate with women in the audience. I hoped some of the men there would gain insights into women’s internal struggles with misogyny, traditional roles, and social inequities. In retrospect, of all the performance pieces I presented at different venues during the few years I worked in the genre, this one at MoMing was one of the most successful in planting a “sixth sense” in my audience. For example, some people approached me after the performance to share their appreciation for the perspectives I shared. Others voiced their perplexity, but the work did provoke thought.
A few years later, I joined the education staff of a museum in Chicago where the lessons I learned from performance art informed and enhanced the programs and curricula I developed for the museum, so much so that in 1995 I received the American Alliance for Museums EDCOM Award for Excellence in Practice. The award certificate lauds me in various ways but these statements say it all: “For developing meaningful programs and exhibitions about the ancient world that resonate in a contemporary context [the sixth sense!]. For initiating imaginative projects across institutions and disciplines. For bringing diverse audiences into creative partnerships with the Museum. For the sensitivity and humor that enliven her teaching and hearten her colleagues.” I’d found a way not only to re-imagine my puppetry art, but also to connect meaningfully with audiences, whether in a performance venue or a museum gallery. I’d found a way to transcend C-U-T-E ‘cute.’