Puppet intensive involves serious artists, no matter their form of choice

WILLIAMSTOWN — When many people hear puppets, they think Muppets.

But the New England Puppet Intensive (NEPI) is an annual reminder that while inanimate, human-manipulated characters are at puppetry's core, visual creativity, movement techniques and acting chops are also essential to the art form.

Now in its seventh year at Buxton School, NEPI draws actors and others from around the U.S. and beyond to Williamstown to advance their skills in visual art, designing and constructing their own puppets. By the end of the 15-day program on Friday, Aug. 10, the 13 participants in this summer's intensive will have created their own work-in-progress puppet shows and contributed to the Berkshire Lantern Walk at The Clark Art Institute with abstract, illuminated creations.

"Puppetry is such a specific discipline, and it encompasses a number of other disciplines," NEPI Co-Director Dave Lane said Monday night, donning a dirty apron as participants worked on making larval masks and other early-stage works in a studio behind him.

That artistic diversity draws participants from a variety of different backgrounds and experience levels with puppetry.

"I'm yearning to do something with my hands," said documentary filmmaker Karen Cantor of Santa Fe, N.M., while working on a plastic and paper egg creation.

Jess Rassp has considerably more of a history with puppetry, working as a freelance puppet maker and puppeteer in Baltimore, Md. She is not only absorbing the program's contents but also its facilitation.

"I would love to lead an intensive like this someday," she said.

She was molding a horse's head from water-based clay, occasionally glancing at an iPhone photo that she was aiming to replicate. She prefers oil-based clay; this water-based type required "a good spritz." She was in a more advanced place in the construction-and-design process than most.

"A lot of puppeteers are visual artists, but not always," Lane said.

"I'm not a designer," said Charlene Van Buekenhout, an actress from Winnipeg, Manitoba, while working on a mask at a table across the room from Rassp's.

Van Buekenhout is part of a large Canadian contingent at NEPI. Co-directors Nan Balkwill and Peter Balkwill are among this bunch, hailing from Calgary; Lane, who now resides in North Adams, is originally from the Albertan city. Lane felt Buxton School was an ideal setting for a residential puppetry intensive, and the Balkwills soon agreed.

"We came out here on our honeymoon and loved the area and started thinking about how we could work together," Nan Balkwill said of the program's beginnings.

Part of Lane's interest in puppetry stems from working at a science-focused camp in Calgary.

"We had to tell the story of science by using theater," he said, "so we started to play around with puppetry as another way to do that. At the same time, there was an interesting thing about being out in nature and finding pieces of wood and seeing what happens when you carve them out and turn them into characters for a camp fire story."

For Nan Balkwill, puppeteers have freedoms that other actors don't.

"They can break rules that actors can't really break around gravity or body transformation, or things can transform very differently," she said.

They can also add layers of intrigue.

"We specifically here work with silent narratives, so we're not working with talking puppets. It's working with physical vocabulary to be able to tell the story and how that shifts in a different way. As an audience member, you're watching a story unfold where you get bits and pieces, and then you're an active member to connect all those dots," she said.

"[More conventional theater] is highly symbolic, but puppetry is actually saying, quite overtly, that we're playing with symbols, and these are representations of people and what have you," Lane said.

Much of the program is more abstract than a casual observer expecting to see Bert and Ernie might anticipate. While construction and design work fills nights at the school's studio, yoga and other physical training workshops take up much of the day. Articulation and performance labs prepare participants to stage their own pieces. For some, the performance aspect lives outside their comfort zones.

"A lot of the exercises we do are pretty scary," said visual artist Ren e Poisson of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

On Tuesday morning, Peter Balkwill was leading some of those workshops in the school's theater. In one exercise, about half of the participants would freeze in various poses, or statues, when Balkwill clapped. Downstage, Balkwill scanned the participants' facial expressions.

"Don't wonder; know," he said.

Another exercise involved marching in unison — and then not — to "Linus and Lucy" from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Balkwill subsequently shifted the group into articulation exercises, helping the participants learn to manage puppets by working with cloths. In one, the participants paired off, one person "journeying to the floor," per Balkwill's instructions, and the other mimicking this downward spiral with his or her piece of fabric.

"You may find it easiest if you give yourself a little knot," Balkwill said, and many obliged, forming pseudo-heads for their makeshift puppets and holding them.

Sustaining balance and proper breathing were both vital.

"Are you connecting to your low-center, finding the weight over the balls of your feet?" Balkwill asked.

Before lunch, Balkwill instructed participants to start upstage with their cloths, slowly moving downstage until their puppets saw a tree. After this point of discovery, they were to pivot and return to their starting positions. Balkwill called it "the journey of abstract expression." Some did better than others.

"Sometimes, you saw somebody indicating the puppet seeing the tree," Balkwill said.

The goal, he said, was for the puppet to be "simply seeing the tree."

During a group debrief, participants reflected on each other's performances.

"You just had such a natural connection with the puppet," Rassp told Van Buekenhout.

"I really saw a character in Jess' puppet," Kate Kanne Smith, a faculty member at Central College in Pella, Iowa, told Rassp.

Many participants cited the program's collaborative, devised-theater approach as one of the reasons they had ventured to Williamstown. They could all benefit from sharing their different areas of expertise.

"It's really an artists' colony," Nan Balkwill said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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