New Roles for Puppets in the Arts

Robert Smythe, Festival Director, Puppeteers of America

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Adventure of a Boy and His Dog on the High Seas -Mum Puppet Theatre

Adventure of a Boy and His Dog on the High Seas: Mum Puppet Theatre

As with many artistic fields, the world of puppetry is seeing a lot of change. Performers are facing new challenges in an increasingly complex marketplace, but there are new opportunities for crossover in the arts as well.  This month, more than 500 puppeteers came from across the U.S. to participate in Puppet Festival (r)Evolution, hosted at Swarthmore College and organized by Robert Smythe, this year’s festival director for The Puppeteers of America.

Today, puppets, are finding their way into an increasing number of arts disciplines and Smythe believes this reflects a growing understanding that puppets can play a unique role that goes beyond special effects or standing in for human characters. “People engage differently with puppets, because puppets represent an alternate type of reality, and so require a person to suspend disbelief and be willing to connect with the character differently than we would with one portrayed by a person,” says Smythe. “What you realize once you’ve worked with puppets, is that they broaden the range of possibilities for telling a story. For example, in theater, you normally have to allow time for action to shift – whether that involves making a scenery change, or having characters move in or out of the action. With puppets, you’re working in an alternate reality, so they can say and do things the people can’t, they can appear and disappear instantly, and exist in a fantasy world.

“The integration of puppetry with other fields such as theater, music and dance, reflects a larger trend in puppetry, which is that it’s become a much more collaborative art form than it’s traditionally been which I believe is a good thing. In the past, if you wanted to do your art, you’d hire staff you’d teach your methods to, and then you’d focus on having the group create your vision. Now, people in the field are much more specialized, and no one’s expected to do everything. As a result, you gain the benefit of having a group of individuals with specific talents, training and expertise, come together to produce a great performance.

“The Internet has also had a big impact, and we’ve seen that effect even in the make up of our conference. It used to be that the people who attended were primarily coming to learn how to build and operate puppets. Now, anyone can learn that online. So, we shifted our focus to be more about what you’d do after that, so our focus is on storytelling, performance and about the business of puppetry. Our organization also wants to create a place for people to connect and to learn from each other.”

Not surprisingly, technology is also a driving factor in change. There are many new things possible and at the same time, new questions are arising about what puppets even are. Some practitioners would prefer to see that answered in the purist, traditional form; but others see a lot of overlap with disciplines like robotics, animatronics, and even with computers, which is why one of the festival workshops was about creating digital puppets.

Robert Smythe has been working with puppets for about 45 years. He is the Director of Writing for The Puppet Theater at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and the Director of the 2013 National Festival of the Puppeteers of America. He was also founder of Mum Puppettheatre, which ran in Philadelphia for more than twenty years.

For more information, visit The Puppeteers of America.

Arts to Market celebrates the work of artists, innovators and arts organizations and shares advice on balancing the creative life with arts marketing and business development.

 

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Arts Funding Cuts May Push Growth to the Fringe (Festival)

Leila Ghaznavi, Founder, Pantea Productions

13 Silken Veils-Leila

Silken Veils, Pantea Productions
performed at Edinburgh & Philadelphia Fringe Festivals

As organizations and artists gird for another round of cuts to arts funding, communities may want to take a page from cities like Cincinnati, Rochester and Wilmington where the arts get a boost from city fringe festivals. Financed by the participants, fringe festivals provide the added benefit of supporting Main Street and the larger community, and bringing visibility to area artists.

Many rightly associate the fringe with the granddaddy of them all, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which began in the late 1940s. But today, there are an increasing number of festivals throughout the country and internationally. The United States Association of Fringe Festivals lists more than twenty. Some of the best known are the New York International Fringe Festival, the Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival,  and the more recent Hollywood Fringe Festival. There are also the London Festival Fringe, the Toronto Fringe Festival , and the Adelaide Fringe Festival

“The value of the fringe is that it can provide ready-made audiences for artists and companies that might not be able to attract high-volume crowds on their own, “says Leila Ghaznavi, Founder of Pantea Productions, a multi-disciplinary theater company. Ghaznavi’s taken her own productions, including Silken Veils and Beyond the Light, to fringe festivals and has advised individuals and organizations on how to successfully market their performances at the festivals. She also helps groups evaluate whether the fringe can be a good fit for their needs.

“Many kinds of performances can work in a fringe environment, and it’s excellent for collaborating across disciplines. So you can mix dance with theater and spoken word, or music and performance art with videography. It’s about having quality over quantity, doing experimentation and looking for new ways to engage.

“The more innovative the show is the better because that’s what the audience at a fringe expects. There are performances done in short bursts, at non-traditional venues, and also as site-specific work, where the audience moves from place to place following a narrative as part of experiencing the event. Events can range from a fully cast play at a large performance venue , or I’ve seen a performance where the it was done in an elevator with the elevator going up and down.

“I advise people to think carefully about what they want to gain from being part of a fringe. Some want to test new work and get audience feedback. Others are further along and are prepared to make a big splash. When someone wants to make a splash, I tell them to bring their “A” game and plan to do a lot of advance marketing.

“You need to do more than just the basics – giving out postcards, posters, fliers, and local advertising –to get noticed. You also need to find ways to get directly to consumers; everything from walking the streets in costume to offering creative prize promotions and giveaways – anything to help you stand out from the crowd.

“I remind them of the old marketing adage about the ‘Rule of 7,’ which says that a prospect must hear your message seven times before they’ll buy or take action.”

Leila Ghaznavi who recently spoke at the Puppet Festival R(e)volution conference, is an Iranian-American playwright, actor, puppeteer and the founder of Pantea Productions. Her father immigrated to the U.S. from the village of Rahaghi with fifty dollars and a prayer rug. Her mother grew up in West Virginia and is a daughter of the American Revolution. She has an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, a B.A. from Bryn Mawr College in music composition and is a graduate of the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater. Much of her work explores the rights and roles of women across the globe. Her other talents include acting, directing, writing, aerial acrobatics, puppetry and clowning.

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Arts Initiative Sends Bronx Kids to College Free

Neil Waldman, Illustrator and Arts Educator for Change

13 Nicholas Flachsbart art1

Take motivated students from a low-income area, add art instruction, benchmarks for high grades, and the prospect of a ticket to a first-tier college and, if you’re author and illustrator Neil Waldman, you’ve got The Fred Dolan Art Academy in Bronx, NY. Founded seven years ago and recognized by The New York Times and New York Daily News for its innovation and success, Waldman’s initiative has just gained a new revenue stream, Dream Yard Press, a not-for-profit children’s publishing house founded by Waldman, and which is publishing its first picture book, Al and Teddy.  Here’s the latest on his education art initiative:

What prompted you to start the Fred Dolan Art Academy?

I grew up in the blue-collar neighborhoods of the east Bronx. It was a world of factory workers, plumbers, and shopkeepers. But my love was for drawing and painting, and I soon came to realize that if I wanted to do those things for the rest of my life, I’d have to go to college. I managed to do just that, and eventually became a writer and illustrator of children’s books.
It was during that time that a dream began rising within me – to return to the neighborhoods of my youth, find young artists there, and help them go to college. With this in mind, I created the Fred Dolan Art Academy, named after a recently departed friend. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTy6rqgV9oY&feature=em-share_video_user. The Fred Dolan Art Academy is a free Saturday school whose mission is to help young Bronx artists to build their portfolios, while encouraging them to raise their grades, so that they can be accepted to college. To date, 23 students have graduated from the program, all going to college with scholarships.
We’ve done this by giving the kids hope for a better future. Teaching them art has served as a bridge to academic success because they now understand that if they work on their art and raise their grade point averages, they’ll be eligible for scholarships to college.
Were they kids who had interest or particular talent in art?
The students who join the program are lovers of art, but we don’t require any art background or skill set to be accepted.
I think that talent is overrated. I believe in commitment and passion for art (or any other field). If people work hard and diligently, there’s no reason they can’t succeed . . . And we’ve never rejected a single youngster. All we require is that they attend classes every Saturday, and work steadily while they’re with us. In most cases, our graduates choose art as a career, but some have decided to pursue other fields in college. Some are now majoring in architecture, finance, creative writing, and theatre.
Do you think you’d have gotten similar results with other subjects?
Yes. I think it could happen with any subject. But our expertise is in art. The academy’s teachers are all successful artists and art educators, capable of teaching the skills necessary to succeed in the art field. But our kids come from families where no one has ever gone to college. And so there’s no understanding of the importance of a college education.
We’ve been doing this for 7 years now, and the data bank is growing. Every one of our 23 graduates is now in college with a scholarship. Our success is proving that hope is the most powerful tool. Without hope, there’s no reason to succeed in school. With hope, the goal of a college education becomes real, and our students have begun to realize that it’s possible to spend their lives doing what they love most.
What are your thoughts about future of arts funding?
Unfortunately, when school budgets drop, art and music are first to be cut. That’s a shame . . . and a concern. I’m hoping that through programs like ours, people will begin to realize that art can be a vehicle that leads to academic success, career fulfillment, and ultimately, the transformation of one’s life.
Who has stepped up to the plate to help?
We’ve had wonderful people offering their help and services, and we are very grateful to them.
We started with a Kickstarter campaign and received donations ranging from $10 to $1500. That provided seed money for Dream Yard Press, which is our new publishing venture. Our first book, Al and Teddy, (audio book, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCwJikL7BGg&feature=em-share_video_user) will be published in December. All proceeds will go to supporting the Fred Dolan Art Academy.
Cornelius Van Wright, Robert Casilla, and other artists are serving as teachers there; a lawyer named Mitchell Pines has volunteered to help set us up as an independent not-for-profit corporation; Bill and Beth Johnson have donated their time writing the teacher’s guide for the book, and setting up an educational outreach program, where we’re hoping to get donations of $250 from individuals who want to gift a carton of 28 Al and Teddy books to a teacher of their choice.
This all makes a big difference because we can make more profits on book sales, and use that to support our students. We’ve found that it costs about $1000/year to support each student in the program.
What’s surprised you most about doing this?
Everything has come together in a seemingly effortless manner. One after the other, people have continually come forward and volunteered their time and expertise. I’ve been amazed at how much they’ve done to help us further the program.
What are your dreams for this project?
My dream is that we can help all the kids who want to be part of the program. So far, we’ve helped 23 Bronx kids go on to some of the top colleges with full scholarships, and the schools they’ve gone to – Dartmouth, the Rhode Island School of Design, NYU, USC, SUNY Purchase, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Now, word of the program’s success has begun to spread. This year for the first time, we’ve had to turn kids away. Looking at the faces of those kids was sadder than anything I’d ever imagined So I’ve created Dream Yard Press, a not-for-profit publisher of children’s books in the Bronx. All the proceeds from sales of our books will go to the academy.”AL and TEDDY” is our first picture book. It’s the story of love and friendship between 2 brothers, and the power of art to transform their lives. I’ll attach 2 images from the book, and “A Bronx Diary,” the story of the Genesis of the academy.
We’ve had articles so far in The New York Times, the New York Daily News and others in recognition of this as an important model for what can be done via arts education to make a difference. My goal is for the academy to grow. I’d love to have “AL and TEDDY” considered for awards, so we can help more and more kids. In the long run, it would be great to have our own facility, and to show what’s possible to make a difference in the lives of kids who need help breaking out of what can seem like dead-end situations.
How can people help?
We’d welcome hearing from people who can help as teachers; in fundraising, non-profit and publishing advisors. We also particularly need help in creating an “AL and TEDDY” website.
Individuals can help us to by:
  • Purchasing a copy of “AL and TEDDY” http://raabassociat.es/14e2Rbh
  • Gifting an “AL and TEDDY” book box to your favorite middle school teachers.
Neil Waldman has been writing and illustrating children’s books for 40 years. His books have won the Christopher Award, the National Jewish Book Award, the A.L.A. Notable Award, the School Library Journal Best Book Award, and many others. Notable among these is a gold medal from the United Nations in a closed international competition in which Waldman was chosen to represent the United States. The world body selected his entry as the official poster for the International Year of Peace. Today it hangs in the halls of the U. N. General Assembly. He has designed postage stamps for thirteen nations, written and illustrated more than fifty books for young people, and has illustrated the covers of seven Newbery Award winners
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