A man of many faces: David Lane creates puppets with a range of materials


North Adams - It was quite by accident that David Lane found his career as a puppeteer. As he recalls, a friend had heard a story involving murder, the president of Czechoslovakia and his wife, and the president's head later being found in a jar of formaldehyde in his wife's cupboard.

Like any artists inspired by a historical event, they knew they had to retell this story for others to hear in the best way they knew how: art.

"It was too good of a story to pass up," Lane said.

His friend wanted to retell the story in the form of a puppet show and Lane knew he had to help. Of course, those were the days where one "couldn't just hop on the internet to learn how to make puppets," he said, so he headed for the library.

Since then, Lane has read several hundred books about different styles of puppets' bodies and the effect different materials can have on the puppet. Many of these books sit in rows of long shelves, which stretch across his studio apartment at the Eclipse Mill Artist Loft in North Adams.

The mid-morning sun shines through the large panes of glass onto the tall white walls and hardwood maple floors. Lane is sitting at his desk, sipping water from a mason jar. The desk is laid out with different models and molds of puppet profiles made from silicone and injected latex, which bears a strange resemblance to the feel of skin.

The puppets Lane creates nowadays are much different than those he made in the beginning. Back then, Lane used foam, rubber, glue, Ping-Pong balls with Sharpie-drawn eyes, and sometimes his own hair. He found that, for the most part, there was no true right or wrong way to create a puppet, and that he would find his preferred material and methods along the way.

"So much of the decision on how to make it relies on what you want to do with it," he said. "It's a backward engineering process. What it has to do influences the creation and design. Will it be light or heavy? Does it need wheels?"

Lane says he likes to experiment with wood, leather, clay and papier-m ch .

"Clay is super-forgiving and fun to use. It's easy to add and subtract clay and you can mold or cast. With wood, you can only subtract, and it's easy to accidentally lob off a nose," he said.

Some puppets can be worn like a glove on a hand. Other puppets have long sticks attached to the hands and legs and wooden handle grips on the back of the head. Some of Lane's puppets are meant to be worn so the hands of the puppeteer go through the puppets sleeve, and both become one. And finally, some puppets can be worn as a head piece or mask.

Inside the loft, Lane finds two suitcases. One is filled with leather masks, which have both human and animal features. To make them, Lane says, he soaks the leather for four to six hours and then he stretches the leather over an apparatus or mold for the mask to cure. Using a mix of shiny man-made tools, as well as a hollow steer's horn, Lane smooths out the surface and pushes out the water. When the mask is dried, Lane stains the mask and adds ornaments, as well as foam and support pieces on the inside of the mask so it can be worn for long periods of time.

The second suitcase is filled with the characters of his latest show, "The Chronicles of Rose." The puppets wear different textures of clothing, some have fur coats and some wear long skirts. One of the puppets, based on the German art collector Cornelius Gurlitt, wears only a bathrobe, and although the audience is able to see his wooden mechanisms on his neckline, Lane says in some ways that was intentional.

"It's OK to see that it's a puppet," he said. "Our brain is working on understanding what they see. It's a back-and-forth between knowing it's a puppet and yet it has another reality, spirit, life or whatever you may call it." By having to use their imagination, the audiences are actively watching the performance.

This production was originally shown as a part of five episodes in Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' Puppetfest in 2014. Since then, it has been created into a single, longer performance. It tells the story of Rose Valland, the curator of the Jeu du Paume Museum in Paris, which was taken over by the Nazis during the occupation of France in World War II. Many paintings were stolen and destroyed, but Valland worked hard and risked her life to save as many of the artworks as she could.

Many of the puppets in this show are built with marionette bodies, with a torso that moves and arms and legs that bend, but move with small handles instead of on strings. Because there are so many moving parts to a puppet, it may take two or three people to move one puppet, depending on the scene.

Puppet shows, unlike large-scale theater performances, are often plot-based, and the performance is driven by physical movement rather than dialogue. For "The Chronicles of Rose," Lane said he wrote the main action of each scene and then discovered the narration though what happened in rehearsals.

"We tell stories in a visual way, based on what the eye is seeing," he said. "We link puppets' actions in the rehearsals to what the puppet is thinking, what its immediate needs are."

Puppeteers are actors, acting through the puppets.

"We use masks or puppets as an extension to tell a story."

Lane has been a part of several theater groups throughout his career, including the Green Fools in Alberta, Canada, which is a non-profit dedicated to teaching physical theater arts, such as clowning, puppets, stilt walkers, mask making and circus acts. Lane learned more about mask making at the school of Dell'Arte International in Blue Lake, Calif.

After some time, he split with the Green Fools and began a new chapter with The Old Trout Puppet Workshop, whose members are spread all over the country. Currently, Lane and Peter Balkwill, also of The Old Troup Puppet Workshop, hold 15-day workshops at Buxton School in Williamstown. There, they teach students character development, set and prop building, and puppet design, which is later presented at Mass MoCA.

In the New Year, Lane is excited to spend some time working on Larval Masks, which are white, not fully formed masks.

"It's a simple character, and you don't have to do much to them. It doesn't take much to turn them into a full on puppet you can put on," he said.

Although the design of these masks is simple, it is this freedom that allows the imagination to take over and see emotion and expression.

"It's kind of amazing, I'm only limited by my imagination," Lane said. He also said that time and materials are other important factors, but it is the journey of discovering what works and what doesn't work that makes the end performance so rewarding.

"There are dozens and dozens of ways to imagine. There is such a rich tradition [of puppeteering] around the world to draw on. It's my life's work I'm always discovering a new artist who does something interesting and worth considering."


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