marionettes and Roses at the O'Neill

National Puppetry Conference, photo Richard Termine

Because YOU helped send me to the O'Neill National Puppetry Conference again this year, I had the great joy of spending 11 days intensively studying and making marionettes. 

For the pre-conference strand I got to participate in The Language of Material and Objects: Movement and Experimental Puppetry with Alice Gottschalk of FAB theater of Stuttgart, Germany. A student of the preeminent string master, Albrecht Roser, Alice's sensitive way of discovering new relationships between the body and things through play and attention will be a method I'll use and teach with from now on. It was one of the most liberating and creatively fruitful workshop I can remember.  

Alice Gottschalk's class, National Puppetry Conference, photo Daniel Gill

The next week was dedicated to traditional marionette construction with Jim Rose, with some performance training with Phillip Huber. Rose is a big name at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, it graces the entrance of the Margo and Rufus Rose performance barn in honor of Jim's parents who were local Connecticuters and famous puppeteers (the creators of the Howdy Doody puppets) and helped found the Center. Much more about this important puppetry family here.

Margo & Rufus Rose with son Jim, photo Henson Foundation

This week was extremely special to me, because my grandfather David Bogdan was a great fan of the Rose family and studied their techniques for building, which Jim is still teaching to this day. Here's a photo my grandfather took of Margo and Jim teaching a mold making workshop at a Puppeteers of America Festival in the 1970s:

And here's my photo of Jim teaching the same workshop this year at the O'Neill: 

I spent every minute I could with Jim and his wife Judy, who are in their 80's and have been coming back to the O'Neill every June for 25 years to help ensure this tradition carries on. It was a tremendous honor to learn and spend time with them, including their famous daily 3 o'clock tea times, when everyone in the shop is required to stop working and connect with each other in philosophical conversation for an hour.

Getting to sit with Jim while he demonstrated old marionette tricks went pretty deep emotionally for me. My grandfather passed away when I was 15, long before my grown-up passion for puppetry emerged. He had helped raise me in his puppet shop, taught me how to sculpt clay and put things together, and gave me a remarkable education I didn't recognize the specialness of at the time. Getting to talk to Jim, who is of the same era and dedication as my grandfather, was like getting to know my grandfather as an adult for the first time. This accounts for all the red-eyed, wet-nosed photos of me during this week. Here's me with Jim after I convinced him to sign the rear end of my puppet, which was of much amusement to him.

A particularly amazing moment was sharing my grandfather's marionettes with Jim and some of the other marionette masters at the O'Neill. They were able to show me the process my grandfather went through to build each puppet- how extra holes were where he'd experimented with alternative stringing, what particular lineage of puppet building he'd tried on each character, how one puppet had possibly once been rigged to emit smoke from his mouth. Below is me barely able to contain myself in the presence of Annette Mateo, Phillip Huber, Ronnie Burkett, Kurt Hunter and Richard Termine.

photo Richard Termine

In all the years I've had his collection of 20 or so marionettes, not once had I attempted to operate them. I think I was holding onto a childhood habit from when I'd probably not been allowed to touch them for fear of a child's fingers tangling the strings. So this year for the first time, I played with my grandfather's puppets.... and they were marvelous! They also encouraged me to begin a serious digital archiving of his puppets and the accompanying photos, the start of which is here on my Stringpullers website.

Dana Samborski, myself and Fred Thompson, photo Richard Termine

I can't leave out a major element of the O'Neill: Fred Thompson, exquisite puppet maker, shop manager and generous mentor. You'd have to meet Fred to get the full effect, but he's a character like no other. A sometimes seemingly prickly outer layer over the sweetest man you can imagine, rolled in a sparkling sense of humor that pervades the entire conference. My puppet life would not be the same without Fred.

National Puppetry Conference, photo Richard Termine

I also completed my first marionette (above). Named Rosabella in honor of the Roses, she's been my constant companion this summer as I discover this whole new feeling of bringing life to an object through delicate strings.

Then there were my fellow participants, 5 builders, and 5 manipulators working with Phillip Huber, and Kurt Hunter his assistant. By the end of the week these puppeteers were family.

I'm continuing to make more marionettes in my studio on my own. Most fascinating is the real dance with gravity they create, and how inserting a string just a little differently can change the posture of a puppet enormously. It feels much more related to my love of gestural figure drawing and dance than I ever expected. It's a whole new world!