In Pursuit of Puppets: A Pittsburgh Romance

In the fall of 2007, I was cozying into an innocuous and increasingly sedentary lifestyle in Pittsburgh. Monotony seemed to have taken hold of my daily routine, and the rest of the world—at least, the little slice of it that I knew—was full of people who were falling in love, shacking up and settling down. Suddenly, all of my single friends were getting married, or “committed,” and my committed friends were having kids. They were moving forward with their lives, but I was rubber-banding—elasticizing at the waist, expanding without growth.

Though I occasionally tripped into a state of reverie filled with images of house boats, tomato plants and shared golden retriever puppies, falling in love wasn’t really my main concern. I believed that love would find me so long as I continued pursuing my interests and getting involved in communities that inspired me. The problem was, I wasn’t doing these things, either.

I blamed some of my inertia on the city of Pittsburgh itself, which makes it too easy to underachieve. Rent is cheap: I pay $275 a month to share a row-house apartment with a roommate and two cats. Bars are cheap: I pay about $2.75 for a Yuengling (the only beer a self-respecting transplant like myself will order if she wants to blend in with the natives) at most neighborhood bars. In 2007, I was just rolling off another summer where, every weekend, there seemed to be either a free concert or a free festival to which I could walk or take the bus—for free, of course. A city with so little overhead and so many activities should have excited me, but it just left me exhausted. There were so many interesting directions where I could focus my energy that I was left unable to choose.

I had just moved into my fourth apartment in four years in a city where I had originally moved “temporarily” to attend a graduate school program … which I never completed. In fact, I dropped out after the first year but was having a hard time reformulating my life. Move abroad? I asked myself. Maybe, but how? Relocate to New York City? Sure, but with what savings? Bike across the country and stop to visit friends along the way, finally see the Grand Canyon and figure out why all the hype about Oregon? Absolutely. Only I didn’t have a bike, a map, a tent or the skills to make that happen.

Furthermore, I wasn’t ready to let go of the original goal I had when I arrived in this city—to become a professional writer. To do this, I believed I needed to gain more life experience, but four years later, there I was: fat and relatively happy, but still stunningly uninspired. My shelf date in Pittsburgh felt expired, and though I can’t prove it, I believe I had started emanating an odor that closely resembled that of curdled milk.

Before moving to Pittsburgh, I had spent a summer traveling. I camped in a Slovenian national park and swam off the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, even after tumbling down a cobblestone hill, injuring my ankle and being forced to maneuver the remainder of the backpacking adventure on a set of crutches, which my travelling partner purchased from a souvenir shop. By 2007, I was spending most days in a cubicle, staring at a computer, inching further away from becoming the creative, off-kilter, exploration-bound person I had imagined I would be by the age of 27.

People do all sorts of drastic things when they find themselves stuck in a cycle where the life they are leading doesn’t add up to whom they want to be: I found myself in a dance performance, wearing a giant puppet costume on a stage at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, celebrating Carnival.

When I first heard there were puppet makers in Pittsburgh, I began to recall the puppets that had performed cameos in my life. I pictured Pinocchio, the famous marionette turned Disney Classic, who made me consider the consequences of telling lies; the “Great Muppet Caper,” the film in which Miss Piggy rappelled from the ceiling during a jewel heist; and Goofy and Minnie Mouse at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, who signed my autograph book. Most of my memories of puppets were from my childhood, though I also knew that puppetry had produced some bawdy classics, like Punch and Judy, the hand puppets who were notorious for their crude senses of humor and debauchery, and that it had a history for being a force of political and social activism.

After more research, I realized that puppetry was brimming with a dizzying array of styles and variations and that it operated on only one strong principle: The sky is the limit. Puppets can be or do anything that the puppeteer can create or imagine. Once I decided to explore the world of puppetry as it existed in Pittsburgh’s art scene, I realized I was facing a new world full of possibilities, one where a cardboard box could become the wing of an airplane, the snout of a talking alligator or a tablet of the Ten Commandments. Whereas the mind-boggling array of possibility in my personal life felt like an impenetrable forest, in the puppet world, it seemed more like a game.

Puppets may not seem to offer the most obvious catalyst for helping a person re-evaluate her habits and learn how to suck the marrow out of life, but they held a particular appeal for me in my current dilemma. I needed to bridge the distance between my hand and my heart, and as I came to understand more about the role of the puppeteer, I understood that, in a very real way, the puppeteer thrives by his ability to communicate his own skills and expression into the performance of his puppet. In doing so, he builds a new world around himself. His success is determined by whether or not the audience is captivated by this new life: If the puppet remains nothing more than the cardboard, wood and string that comprise it, then the puppeteer remains a charlatan. I hoped that by experiencing what it felt like to be a puppeteer, I might learn how to recapture and focus the passion and purpose still bubbling beneath my exterior. And the best part about this possibility was that unlike travel, which still enticed me with promises of new adventures, puppets were practically calling out to me from my own back yard. The first step was to go out and greet them.

For the most part, the American puppet scene can be divided into two groups: children’s theatre and avant-garde puppet acts. I knew that Pittsburgh had a puppet legacy that catered to children through “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” with Daniel Tiger and King Friday XIII. In fact, when I moved to the city, it seemed that every third native Pittsburgher I met had a personal connection to Fred Rogers and could tell stories relating to the show or to the man beneath the cardigan. I didn’t realize experimental and multicultural puppet theatre also had a home in the city.

Pittsburgh is home to the country’s longest-running annual puppet festival, The Black Sheep Puppet Festival, which has showcased the work of many locally and nationally recognized puppet artists and will celebrate its 10th anniversary in October 2008. Squonk Opera, an experimental theater organization comprised of a team of interdisciplinary artists who have been performing in and beyond Pittsburgh for more than 15 years, incorporates puppetry into many productions. The Sudanese Gamelan Ensemble, which consists of students from the University of Pittsburgh’s music department as well as musicians from the local community, performs the gamelan music of the Sudanese people, which is traditionally played as accompaniment to dance, drama, puppet theater and martial arts.

Pittsburgh is also the stomping grounds for a number of well-regarded independent puppet artists. Cheryl Capezzuti, one of the best known and one of the few full-time puppet makers in the city, has been making puppets for over 15 years. Most of her projects are intended to remind people that art can be found in our everyday surroundings—or, if it isn’t, that we can create it. She began attracting attention with “The National Lint Project,” a collection of miniature and human-sized sculptures made from dryer lint. Originally, her sculptures were installed in a local Laundromat, where she held puppet making workshops, as well as in galleries, and they were eventually transformed into puppet shows that were performed in a number of venues and garnered national interest, even landing Capezzuti a spot on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” She has continued her work, often building papier-mâché puppets for parades, community events, educational workshops and more. In 2006, she founded Puppets for Pittsburgh, a lending library of giant puppets available to interested nonprofit or community groups.

Tavia La Follette is an artist whose projects are inspired by political and social conversations that art can help mediate. Recently she collaborated with the Rivers of Steel heritage group to create a puppet installation titled “Magarac Attack!” which debuted at the 2007 Three Rivers Arts Festival in downtown Pittsburgh. With this puppet project, La Follette explored the roots of legendary folk hero Joe Magarac, who is considered to be the Pittsburgh version of Paul Bunyan but is also considered, by some, to have scandalous or racist roots, as well. He represents the long hours and hard work of the steel workers—in many ways, Pittsburgh’s foundation. “Magarac Attack!” featured Josie Magarac, a 15-foot retractable puppet, and prompted conversations about what makes a hero and what type of hero Pittsburghers want to represent their city as it enters a new age. Josie is currently traveling around different local libraries as a way to keep that conversation alive.

Tom Sarver, another local artist, gained his most widespread visibility with the launch of a project called the “Tom Museum,” an interactive, live installation that literally opened the doors of his studio and home to the public and was supported in large part by the Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum in Pittsburgh’s North Side community. Sarver’s “art for everyone” philosophy is evident in a number of his projects; he has also been a part of Black Sheep since its inception, as an organizer and a puppeteer. Tom’s own puppetry group, The Tom Sarver Puppet Express, has performed in many of the Black Sheep Puppet Festivals throughout the years.

At first, I attributed the number of Pittsburgh puppet projects to the fact that Pittsburgh, for its size, offers a multitude of funding resources—such as The Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and The Sprout Fund—for arts projects that benefit community building. These private foundations, along with many others, give hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding each year to artists and arts organizations to create community-driven work. Since, by definition, puppet shows are a collaborative art form that requires community engagement, support for these projects seems like an obvious fit. As I began to explore more of Pittsburgh’s puppet scene, however, I began to wonder if there was another reason that the city seemed to attract so many puppet enthusiasts. Fortunately, I would soon have my chance to see what “the puppet scene” looked like up close: The Black Sheep Puppet Festival was only a few weeks away.

The Black Sheep Puppet Festival takes its name from the fact that, historically, puppetry has a reputation for belonging to groups of people and individuals who, for one reason or another, exist on the periphery of the societal mainstream. However, as Christopher Arnott of Pittsburgh Dish points out, while some people might consider puppetry to be “a haven for rank juvenilia, created by craftspersons [sic] so socially backward that they have to hide behind dolls,” it is actually also “an amazing medium for political theater, social satire, Latin American-style literary fantasies, horror, burlesque and melodrama.” Originally, the festival was envisioned by a group of welders and other artists living in the Brewhouse, an artist co-op in Pittsburgh’s South Side, who were looking to satisfy a funding requirement. The festival planners’ early ambition was to create a community event that would defy some of the standard expectations of what a community event could include; they decided on puppetry because of its anything-goes attitude.

Since its early days, Black Sheep has featured the work of puppet artists at the top of their game: Blair Thomas, who performed in the first annual festival and has since won multiple awards for his work in the field of puppetry; Basil Twist, whose shows have received critical acclaim from the New York Times Review and the Wall Street Journal; and Miss Pussycat, who is credited by Puppetry Journal as “one of a handful of performers integrating puppetry with the club scene.” But in 2007, at Black Sheep Local No. 9, the organizers decided to give local artists a chance to take the stage.

On the October evening I attended the festival, the Brewhouse looked like an abandoned factory—except for the light spilling onto the street from the first floor and the group of people milling about, both inside the gallery and outside on the sidewalk. In the gallery, a number of puppets were on display, ranging from small toy-sized puppets to one whose head grazed the gallery ceiling. Two friends who were supposed to meet me had not yet arrived, so I milled, too. Moments before the first curtain call, while waiting in line for the one bathroom in the public space of the building, I had a passing exchange with Buddy Nutt—a multi-instrumentalist who plays the ukulele, musical saw, kazoo and other instruments, and who had impressed me, when I’d seen him perform previously at a local bar, with his combination of musical mastery and hilariously brash but surprisingly insightful lyrics in songs like “The Ping Pong Song” and “Open Mic Night King.” He was there to perform “Pickleville,” a “tragicomic opera for pickle puppets,” about the perils of suburban flight, which culminated in a spasmodically writhing pickle puppet sending pickle appendages flying into the audience. Later, I also watched “A Monkey’s Heart,” an adaptation of a traditional Indian folktale by Mikey Denis and Colin Fisher, both artists, theatre performers and toy collectors. Their show included comic-book-style backdrops, a Bunraku-style puppet of a mermaid operated by two puppeteers and several musical numbers belted out by a member of their performance troupe.

In an effort to be part of the festival, I had signed up for a “puppet making relay,” with no idea of what that might entail. During the first intermission, after about 50 minutes of puppet performances, I was called to the stage, along with another member of the audience. When my competitor’s name was called, the room filled with cheers and whistles. When my name was called, followed by “Is there a ‘Missy’ in the audience?” the two friends I had dragged with me to the event clapped loudly, and one of them raised her hand to point at me, shouting, “Over here!” Trying to show off my new seize-life-by-the-jugular attitude, I popped up, put on a smile and half jogged to the stage. Be charming, I thought to myself. Then I revised: No, just be yourself.

Tom Sarver, along with Mike Cuccaro, another festival organizer, laid out the rules of the contest:

“Each of you has a cardboard box full of a random assortment of materials. A set of tools has been placed in the middle of the table to be shared: scissors, a hot-glue gun, tape and other tools. Ten minutes will be put on this stopwatch. The goal is to make the best puppet, using only the materials from that box, which will then be judged by applause from the audience.”

It seemed simple enough. Simple rules, however, do not necessarily dictate simple outcomes. Moments earlier, I had been inspired by the myriad themes and range of possibilities used in the performances I had just watched on stage, but faced with the actual challenge, I nearly froze.

“All right, start!” Tom or Mike said into the microphone, and we ripped open our cardboard boxes.

Styrofoam peanuts flew into the crowd, followed by an array of string, blocks, pipe cleaners and fabric that tumbled onto the table. I stared at the objects. After about 30 seconds, when the audience started throwing the peanuts back at us, I figured I had to do something.

I decided to use the cardboard from the box as my base and grabbed a triangular piece of Styrofoam to create the head. I reached for a puffy, round object and the hot-glue gun, aiming to give my cardboard structure an eye. I hadn’t used a hot-glue gun since I was 12, though, and promptly burned my finger, dropping the glue gun to the floor. Quickly, I recovered it and secured the eye. Then, when I realized there were no other circular objects at my disposal, I opted for a wooden peg shaped like a member of the Fisher-Price Little People collection to create the other eyeball. After that, I tried to hot glue tinsel onto the triangular crown of the puppet’s head, resulting in more mottled glue and burnt fingers. I was nearly out of ideas and took a moment to glance toward my competitor, who was stuffing cotton into a fabric costume, which she had somehow managed to sew together at the edges. I was pretty sure I was losing.

“Eight minutes,” Tom reported.

Eight more minutes! I thought. I’m almost finished. I’m creatively tapped out! I got nothing else! In a feeble attempt to keep the momentum going, I fixed a thin piece of red string across the puppet’s face where a mouth might reside, and that was it. For the next several minutes, I mostly busied myself with trying to appear as though I was on the verge of arriving at a groundbreaking idea of how to turn my cardboard box into something that looked less like a cardboard box with some tinsel glued to it and more like an actual puppet with a personality.

“Time’s up,” came the report. Finally. “All right, well, we got Missy here with, well, what appears to be a more amorphous puppet approach. Do we have a name?”

“Owen,” I replied, although I’m not sure why.

“Let’s hear it for Owen!” Tom announced.

Owen looked like a cross between a pirate and that pile of trash you’ve been meaning to throw away but haven’t because you feel like there might be something important hiding between the folds, but the audience’s response, I am pleased to report, was encouraging.

Then Tom turned to my competitor, whose puppet actually looked as though it could have earned a home among the other hand puppets in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe. “And for you—a name?” Tom asked.

I can’t recall the puppet’s name, although I do know it had a first, last and middle name to its credit. Applause exploded.

“Looks like we have our winner.”

I shook my competitor’s hand and dutifully slinked away to the wings of the theatre and then outside to catch up with my friends, who were nearly puppeted out.

“Well, I didn’t win,” I said. “I guess it’s just not my night.”

My friends decided to move on to another venue, but I stuck it out for a few more shows. Ok, so my puppet-making skills were shoddy, but I wasn’t ready to give up on getting involved just yet, and before the end of the night, a pair of total strangers approached me to say they had liked my puppet and thought I should have won. Though I lost, the energy of Black Sheep—of being on stage with people shouting, goading, chiding and supporting all at once; of watching all the other artists put forth their mini-worlds for a group of strangers to see and visit, without expectation of receiving anything in return—stayed with me, and a week later, I decided to contact Cheryl Capezzuti about being a puppeteer for her Puppets for Pittsburgh program.

If Black Sheep represents the side of puppetry that delves into the avant-garde, and Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood epitomizes the role of puppets in children’s theatre, Cheryl Capezzuti’s puppets live somewhere in the middle. Most of them have bright, multicolored papier-mâché features and fabric costumes characterized by a sense of whimsy. Many are larger than life-sized, although Capezzuti also has a collection of rod puppets and hand puppets that resides in her carriage house studio on the North Side.

After I e-mailed her about my interest in being a puppeteer, Cheryl invited me to observe a performance at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. As at Black Sheep, I didn’t quite know what I to expect, but I figured I had walked away from the puppet-making contest with no permanent scars and only one amorphous cardboard cadaver, so I felt more prepared. Besides, I was only going to be an observer this time. Even on my worst, most introverted day, observing was a skill I felt I had mastered.

When I arrived at the museum, Cheryl was transporting three of her larger-than-life puppets from the bed of her truck to the loading dock. Each puppet stood about 8 feet tall even before the puppeteer was inside. Three feet of the height came from the papier-mâché head, which was spiked onto what appeared to be a broomstick backbone, with cardboard shoulders extending below. A fabric costume cascaded over the puppet’s shoulders to shroud the puppeteer. There were no eyeholes, just a patch of fabric that was sheerer than the rest for the puppeteer to peer through.

None of the puppeteers who had been hired for the event had arrived yet, so I jumped in to lend a hand. Moments after offering to carry one of the puppets, I rammed its head into a doorframe and looked apologetically at Cheryl.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “We can fix it.”

Struggling under the puppets, we arrived upstairs at the theatre door, where we met Tracie Yorke, who had hired the puppets to perform as part of a dance exhibit celebrating the history of Brazilian Carnival. Carnival celebrations happen in many countries around the world, but in Recife, a town in Brazil, the Parade of Giant Puppets kicks off the festival. In fact, if the puppets don’t walk, the festival doesn’t happen.

A few moments later, two puppeteers arrived, and the third puppeteer called to say she was stuck in tunnel traffic that was simply not moving. She wouldn’t make it in time for the run-through before the performance.

“How about it?” Cheryl asked me. “Do you want to try it?”

Since this was the real reason I had come, I knew I had to seize the opportunity. “Sure,” I replied. “I think I can handle it.”

John, one of the other puppeteers, helped me to strap into the backpack and secure the puppet costume in place with fabric strips that tied across my chest and around my waist.

Then John and Amy, the other puppeteer, returned to tightening and fixing the fit of their own puppets. The fabric costume of the puppet’s clothing was tucked behind my head, but to get a sense of what I would be seeing during the performance, I pulled it over the front of my body. Suddenly, everything shifted. The lighting in the hallway dimmed, adding a fuzzy illumination to the outline of every object I could see, and while I knew it was scientifically improbable, the ceiling seemed to drop, jutting in my direction as if we were fencing. I tried to take a step backward and felt my puppet head graze a nearby light fixture. I tried to bend and step to the right of the fixture, and the fabric from the costume caught under the toe of my shoe. Stumbling, I tried to reach my arms through the sleeves of the puppet costume to regain my composure, but the fabric twisted, and I couldn’t figure out how to use the arm rods to get myself untangled. My heartbeat drummed in my chest.

Fortunately, I knew that my puppet expression reflected nothing of my anxiety. I took a deep breath and stood still.

“Are you ok?” Amy asked.

“Oh, yeah, no sweat,” I replied, though rivulets of perspiration were pouring from my temple and down my neck.

A few moments later, the music—our cue—began. I had to enter first, so I bent forward as far as I could without falling, cleared the doorway on my second try and burst into the spotlight of an otherwise dark auditorium. Any vision I had was extinguished by the glare of the spotlight. In order to regain my bearing, I tried to turn to my other senses. Smell, however, was not an option because the heat I was generating inside the costume stifled any scent besides my own sweat and body odor. Taste was unavailable because the fear of tumbling and making a giant fool of myself had left my throat as parched as the Gobi Desert. Touch was of no use, either. Beyond the feeling of my hands holding the rods of the puppet’s arms, the fabric against my nose or the weight of the shoulders resting above my head, I might as well have been petting a kitten while wearing giant cotton-stuffed oven mitts. I felt insulated by my puppet but, at the same time, trapped inside.

I turned to the one sense I had left that seemed the most promising: I listened for the beat of the music that was playing and tried to let it enter my soul. Since “Carnival” literally means “the stripping away of the flesh,” being captured inside a giant puppet, with my only options being to fall or to embrace the situation at hand, seemed like the perfect opportunity to focus my energy inward and tap into the parts of me that had been hibernating for the last several years.

I walked to my mark and paused, and then I began pumping my arms high above my head, wiggling my hips and stomping my feet on the ground. I figured grace was way beyond my reach, even with the arm extensions, so I just strived for sheer booty-shaking chaos. And it worked: I felt electric.

When John, Amy and I returned to the back of the theatre, Kristen, the third puppeteer, was waiting. Apparently, she had shown up in the middle of the run-through. “You guys look great!” she said and asked if I wanted to stay in the puppet and go again for the actual performance.

“Are you kidding me? That was amazing! I definitely want another go at it,” I replied.

Amy offered me a bandana to keep my hair out of my eyes the second time around, and now, armed with better artillery, I was ready to re-emerge in sync with my puppet self.

During the finale, Tracie invited audience members on stage. For the last several minutes of the performance, the audience, the dancers and the puppets shared the same moment, dancing next to one another, exchanging gestures of acknowledgement, creating static as only a group rubbing up against the electric current of the stage and the surreal qualities of the puppets could. Fabric or no fabric, tripping, tumbling, stumbling or falling was no longer a concern.

This time, when we returned to the back of the theatre, I couldn’t wipe a ridiculous smile from my face. John and Amy had similar looks, as if we had all just walked away victorious after a grueling bout of capture the flag. Still, the biggest surprise of the day was yet to come. As I was unstrapping and untangling myself from the puppet costume, I looked to my left and saw a scene right out of a puppet show: John was kneeling down with puppet hand extended, holding an aluminum foil ring encircling a small black box in Amy’s direction. Without meaning to, I heard myself say out loud, “Is this for real?” and then watched as Amy pulled the fabric of her puppet costume behind her head and threw her arms around John, who also now stood with his fabric costume behind his head. Two giant, half-costumed puppets hugged in celebration of one of the most incredible moments in any storytelling sideshow—a puppet proposal.

A love story, though not necessarily in the way I would have envisioned it, had found me after all. Even though it wasn’t my moment, witnessing the proposal made me realize that I had built up something of a wall around myself. I had arrived in Pittsburgh giddy with all the possibilities life might hold for me, but when my path didn’t take me on the route I expected, I balled up and became weary of opening my heart to the opportunities that did greet me. When I left the museum that day, though, I knew that I was ready to change, too. I simply needed to welcome the life that I was already living and to enjoy the city where I was already living. I had a good life, great friends, a solid job, affordable rent and all the possibility in the world, close by where I could get at it. On top of that, I had just witnessed two puppets get engaged—that doesn’t happen just anywhere.

As I talked with different people in the Pittsburgh puppet community, a version of this sentiment was shared with me over and over again: “After all, Pittsburgh is a puppet town.” I loved this idea but had a difficult time figuring out what it meant.

Now, having gotten deeper into the local scene, I think Pittsburgh’s identity as “a puppet town” extends beyond the limits of the puppet community alone. It’s about being a city where getting involved can be as easy as showing up on time for an event and saying, “Sure, I can hold that”; where reinvention is encouraged; and where inspiring moments happen in the most unexpected situations. It’s about the many people who are willing to put their hearts into daily life, thereby making life an art in itself.

In “Magarac Attack!” Tavia La Follette asked people to think about what their versions of Pittsburgh’s future superhero might be. I think Pittsburgh already has a number of superheroes who live and work here every day. Daily I continue to meet people who strive to make some type of positive imprint on the city, whether they grew up here or are simply passing through. They may not make a lot of money, and they probably aren’t striving to reach the top rung of any corporate ladder. They are concerned with a greater ideal: to improve the quality of life not only for themselves, but for the people with whom they share meals, take classes, bike, dance, build businesses or create a puppet shows. If there’s one aspect of Pittsburgh that has revealed itself to me time and again, it’s that Pittsburghers have heart. They wear it on their sleeves, they paint it on their faces, cook it into their pierogies and brew it into their coffee. And I realized finally—after four years, one puppet proposal, several puppet parades, and, yes, one puppet wedding—that once I was willing to wear even a little bit of my heart on my sleeve, Pittsburgh is a very beautiful place to be.