PUPPETS & POETS
ALPHABET ARTS / AMBER WEST, KIRSTEN KAMMERMEYER, CHRIS BORCHARDT
Alphabet Arts presented its third annual Puppets & Poets (P&P) festival in 2013, celebrating and exploring the relationship between poetry and puppetry, two of the world’s oldest and most diversely practiced art forms. We became interested in creating what we call “puppet poems” as we began recognizing how much poetry and puppetry have in common. Though in some respects a new form, the roots of the puppet poem are as ancient, ubiquitous and entangled as the art forms themselves. In a variety of eastern traditions, poems are often the basis of puppet plays, but in western culture poetry and puppetry are rarely thought of as having anything in common. Puppetry is often dismissed as merely a commercial and/or children’s entertainment, whereas poetry is often seen as “beyond” commodification, inaccessible to the uneducated and uninformed. P&P is in part an attempt to challenge modern western genre binaries separating “high arts” like poetry from “low entertainments” like puppetry, which I believe are deeply entwined with dualistic constructions of gender, race and sexuality (e.g. man as superior to woman). We are contributing to a long and rich “tradition of non-tradition” of artists utilizing hybridity to subvert and critique social and aesthetic hierarchies that breed injustice and limit human potential.
This year’s festival included two programs of eclectic performances by diverse artists from around the USA, including three performances of an evening cabaret for mature audiences and two performances of an all ages matinee. The evening program featured the theatrical debut of Bacon’s verse musical, “The Folk Opera,” with puppetry by Kammermeyer and a team from Alphabet Arts. Z. West performed “Spacetansmananagasm,” blending kugutsu puppetry with a mash-up of poetic lyrics by David Bowie. A. West performed her love poem “Moss Seeking Stone” with dance by Wilkening and S. West and shadow puppetry by Ginsburg. Jimenez performed a poem about life in the drug trade called “Complicated Thoughts,” integrating stop-motion video, music and mask into the performance. The matinees included an excerpt from “The Folk Opera,” Z. West’s piece, a performance by Rooker and Burgey inspired by the children’s opera “Brundibar” and an educational puppet musical by Urban Stages’ Sullivan and Parker called “Blown Away by Poetry.” Matinees were followed by poetry-writing and puppet-making workshops. We made the matinees free and distributed bilingual Spanish/English fliers to advertise them because one of our goals is to make the arts accessible to diverse low-income families. For similar reasons, we also expanded P&P in 2013 to include free field trips and after school workshops for students at PS 123, a nearby Title 1 elementary school. Borchardt created a poetry/puppetry curriculum that led to some amazing puppet-poem performances by a group of fifth graders. This festival serves as a reminder of poetry’s oral and aural roots.