Tuesday, April 19, 2011

From One Puppeteer to Another

New Victory teaching artist and master puppeteer, Spica Wobbe, had a conversation with Shona Reppe in between performances of Potato Needs a Bath. These two whimsical women puppeteers talked shop while Spica got to the heart of what Shona does and truly demonstrates how Shona has earned the nickname, "the fairy godmother of puppet theater."

Spica: Your performances are always full of the sense of PLAY which is also why they are so charming. Can you share the process of how you create your shows?
Shona: You said it—“playing” and that is how I start. I allocate time to play in a room with the idea, and start that way. It is absolutely essential. We [collaborators Andy Manley and Ian Cameron] can play without pressure. There is no pressure to come up with an ending at the end of the week. We might throw it all away, no pressure at all. We play in a constructive way with a lot of objects. As you know I have a lot of props and objects, the visual side is very important to me. It is a workshop process. I do not approach it with a script.

Cinderella Photo: Douglas McBride
Spica: Each show in your repertoire targets 3 specific age groups of children. Did you work with children when you created those shows? How did you decide the age range of the audience for your shows?
Shona: I don’t work with children when I create shows. But some people do. I think when you ask children what they want, they don’t necessary tell you what they want. I find it is my job to push the subject matter. I will say all my shows are quite surreal and a little bit odd but they are not disturbing or anything like that. So the challenge is I don’t want to confuse the audience but I want to push the subject matter at the same time.
[Potato] is for ages 2 to 4. Now I think 5 is fine but it’s different if you have 6 or 7 [year olds] in the audience. They are in a different stage of development. They want to know how things are done, which means they question everything. The idea of “play” has moved on.

Olga Volt is for 7 and up. The character I play is quite tricky and the subject matter is also quite matter of fact. She is a Russian performer who talks about life and death just like that, because that is what life is like. A 7 year old knows that humor. They understand it is okay and they are safe, but it might upset a 4 year old.

Cinderella is for 5 and up. If you get a group of 12 year old boys, you know it’s not a boy story so much, then, you know that you will have a big challenge. Not all children are exactly the same. So this is a guideline. You won’t get everyone in those categories perfectly.

Photo: Douglas McBride
Spica: According to your bio, you studied “Theatre Studies and the History of Art” and “Stage Design.” What made you turn and focus on Children's Theater?
Shona: I am not a trained actor either. My background is in [stage] design. Before, when I designed something for others, it was like my baby but I had to walk away from it. I wasn’t really good at it. Then I went to a puppet festival in 1995. I saw some amazing shows and then something triggered me. I thought, I want to do that. I want to make my own worlds and I want to stay in them.
For me, puppetry is my connection with the audience. I love children. I still remember what it was like when I was a child. But I make theater for everyone.

There are also bits for adults but nothing in the show that can not be explained to a child. That is my rule. The parents can explain the double meanings, for example very often the cherries join together like twins, to extend their experience if they want to. There was one line I put in at the very beginning of the development stage then I took it out, the one when the pear is going around and I said “what a lovely pair.” Someone said to me it could be taken as a wrong kind of adult joke, so I took it out. If adults enjoy themselves, children will enjoy themselves more because they feel that everyone is having fun. It’s important that they are all with me.

Spica: The two shows I have seen of yours are solo performances. As a creator, what do you think is the most important element in making a solo puppet show?
Shona: When I start a show I always think, how do you tell the story with two hands using puppets? How do you solve those problems? I love problem solving. I never go with the easy solutions. It kills me sometimes.
I also always say, I am not on my own because I have the audience. That is very important. The show requires certain things from them, not necessarily the laughter. A trap that I can fall into is to constantly keep the kids laughing, shouting or joining in. Sometimes they just want to watch. It’s nice to let them just watch. When working solo, it’s very important for them to know that we are all together.

More about Potato Needs a Bath: New Vic Voices, Show information and Education for 2-4 year olds.
Want to hear more from our teaching artists? Read TA Josh Matthews' interview with Jamie Adkins here.

New Vic Teaching Artist SPICA WOBBE (Shu-yun Cheng) is an independent puppetry artist from Taiwan. She has worked with the Shiny Shoes Children's Theater in Taiwan since 1991 as a producer, writer, designer and puppeteer. Her work has been seen in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Germany, Holland and the U.S. She has worked and studied with master puppeteers Damiet van Dalsum (Holland), Albrecht Roser (Germany), Peter Schumann and Ralph Lee (U.S.). Now based in NYC, she has worked as a puppet/ mask designer and puppeteer with Chinese Theatre Works, Creative Arts Team, Theater for the New City, Great Small Works, and Australian Aboriginal Theatre Initiative since she received her M.A. in Educational Theater from New York University in 2003. She has also been a teaching artist for New Victory Theater since 2003.

New Victory teaching artist Margot Fitzsimmons also contributed to this interview. 

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