2022 Festival Archive: Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium

The Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium

January 22 and 29, 2022

Streaming on Howlround

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival


Scholarship and Resources

Puppet Talk: The 2022 Ellen Van Volkenburg Symposium

An Essay by Alissa Mello

Okay, I am going to start with a confession—there is little that I enjoy more than a great puppet show, except maybe excellent conversations about puppetry with artists, enthusiasts and folks who enjoy thinking about it. So when asked to write about the Ellen Van Volkenburg Symposium sessions that were held as part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, my first thought was: What better way to spend a day than listening to and thinking about puppetry in its many forms and meanings? This thought was thoroughly fulfilled as I participated in this thoughtfully organized symposium co-curated by festival artistic director and founder, Blair Thomas, and artist and researcher Dr. Paulette Richards. The series delivered four dynamic panels that offered a window into contemporary puppetry, meaning-making, race and creative practice that will resonate for artists and audience alike.

Each of the panels included presentations followed by conversations among the presenters sparked by questions raised by the moderator, the presenters and the audience. This series highlights ongoing discussions among artists and thinkers that, like much of the art world, has taken a turn toward Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology, Bill Brown’s thing theory, and Jane Bennet’s vibrant matter, as well as more recent issues of race, cognition, colonialism and care. They question the centrality and dominance of humans, explore meaning-making from a material perspective, and the interconnectivity of process, history and neuroscience. Broadly each panel interrogates what puppets do, their capacity to inspire empathy and reveal interior landscapes, the processes that inform artistic practice and conscious attention on the part of artists to dismantle dominant social structures by rethinking/reimagining/remaking worlds. 

The first panel “Staging the Non-Human Character; Animal, Alien, or Architecture,” moderated by Richards, started the series off with presentations by four artists: Maria Camia (creator of New Mony!), Nick Lehane (creator of Chimpanzee), Marsian De Lellis (creator of Object of Her Affection) and Basil Twist (creator of Dogugaeshi, postponed until 2023). Each production uses puppetry to foreground interior states of being from an encounter with the other in New Mony!, the unraveling of the animal mind in Chimpanzee, the desire for and physical attraction to architectural structures in Object or Affection and the celebration of a now-obscure, though once central, Japanese theatrical element in Dogugaeshi. The panel addressed three core themes—agency of objects/material, decentralizing humans and world-making—that also permeated subsequent panels.  

Maria Cama’s multidisciplinary art and practice includes fashion, comics and performance, all with the intention of positive world-making, healing and spreading “good vibes” through visual entertainment. Cama asks: What energies does an object hold? And how can the energy and intention of objects in performance empower individuals and inspire a more joyful, spiritual space? These questions about material/object energy and its ability to shift the human experience inform New Mony!, a spiritual sci-fi that explores duality and ancestry via the interior dream space of the central character. The piece, like much of Cama’s art practice, questions current social structures and hierarchies to imagine a place of healing and empathy. It connects to something that many are longing for in light of deep historical inequities, the past two pandemic years and ongoing global crises. 

Social structures and behavior are also at the center of Nick Lehane’s somewhat darker production, Chimpanzee, a 2020 UNIMA USA Citation winner. Drawing interspecies connections through the impulse to animate objects, which humans share with our primate cousins, Chimpanzee imagines a day in the life of an individual held in a medical test facility after having been raised since infancy with a human family. The power of puppetry, Lehane says, is its ability to inspire empathy and to see through another’s eye by breathing with them. The production blurs the line between human and animal while raising questions about rights, care and responsibility, and it compels the audience to question their role(s) and actions in relation to the larger community.

The next two presenters—Marsian De Lellis (who has a spectacular onscreen entrance) and Basil Twist—shifted the discussion from living beings to architecture. (Though arguably all objects and puppets in these performances are to a greater or lesser degree built structures.) De Lellis, whose body of work deals with obsession, elaborates on the creative process for their production, Object of Her Affection, that explores objectfilia, or intimate relationships with built structures. Puppetry offers the artist a multivalent accessible space to explore diverse identities and sexualities. Twist’s work takes us from the intimate to the abstract. Inspired by a museum exhibition the artist saw in 1992 during the Word Puppetry Festival in France, dogugaeshi, for which the piece is named, is a Japanese puppet theater sequence of sliding decorative screens. The sequence became so popular, Twists tells us, that companies would compete for who would have the most screens. The production, Dogugaeshi, is the artist’s homage to a Japanese art form that is close to extinction. The conversation among the artists was initially prompted by questions posed by Richards. These prompts guided them and those in the audience into a deeper exploration of why animals, objects and things matter, and in what ways can attending to different nonhuman worldviews shift how humans experience and exist in the world.  

While the first panel decentralizes the human and brings our attention to the power of the object and puppetry to evoke empathy, the second panel, “What We Leave Behind: The Plastic Object Geological Layer,” examines how theater uses empathy and materials to address pressing issues affecting our planet’s environment. The conversation between Dr. Sasha Adkins, a lecturer at the School of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University in Chicago, and artist Robin Frohardt, creator of Plastic Bag Store, was moderated by Julie Moller, a festival board member, environmental advocate, volunteer and philanthropist. Adkins started us off with a presentation about plastic waste, its impact on our planet and the fallacy of recyclability. The scope of the problem is so big and so much a part of our every day, she argues, that we need the imagination of artists to even begin to approach the true scale and scope of the problem that we have created. She asks: How can we begin to think about the problem and impact of plastics? 

This question usefully led us to Robin Frohardt, who shared her motivations and processes to create The Plastic Bag Store. The production, Frohardt, tells us, is her means of processing the problem of plastic. Most objects in the store are made of plastic bags, which were either recovered from the trash or gathered as part of day-to-day living. The show takes place in parallel timelines—the past and distant future—to investigate issues such as cultural values, disposability, legacy of material things and misinterpretation. The discussion following the presentations took us more deeply not only into the problems of plastics and how the show highlights this but also into the roles of art as an instigator of action. It and the panel ask us to pay attention to what we are leaving behind today and to reexamine our role in the quickly degrading environment of our own making with humor, while not skirting the severity of the problem we currently face.

The third panel, again moderated by Dr. Richards, “Race & Representation in Puppetry,” featured an exciting group of artists: Torry Bend, associate professor of Theater Studies, Duke University and creator, Dreaming; JaMeeka Holloway, adaptation and associate director, Dreaming; Ty Defoe, creator of Skeleton Canoe; and Margaret Laurena Kemp, professor of Theater and Dance at the University of California, Davis, and director of The Bluest Eye. While each of the projects represented on the panel use object and puppetry performance as a means to resist colonization, and the initial presentations focused on the staged works, equally exciting were the deeper questions the artists raised during their presentations and subsequent conversation about care. The idea of care was introduced by Holloway who asked: How do we center care for artists throughout a process and consider all of the elements of what it means to create the work, including the physical and mental? How might we embrace care as a way of working not only when working with difficult and potentially traumatizing ideas but also for all bodies in the room throughout an entire process from conception to performance? How do we care for the histories, cultural contexts and world-making of a piece of work? Defoe expands the notion of care and considers: How do past, present and future coexist to create our now and the care that we hold, the conversations we engage in and the actions that we do/take? How do we hold ourselves accountable, decentralize the self and open the circle to make room for many? 

Accountability for self, action and art practice is eloquently taken up by Kemp, who articulates the creative process through a responsibility to elders, the work and the people in the room. Building upon one of Defoe’s ideas about thinking seven generations into the future, Kemp says that care begins at the very earliest stages of conception and carries throughout practice—whether that practice is creative, pedagogical or life. When centralizing care, she suggests, we create a safe space to ask fundamental questions, such as: Can we care? Can we hold space for the Black body onstage? Can we be challenged in the moment? How can we model disagreement and still create and be respectful in the process? And we create a safe space to fail, to get things wrong and to try again.

The final panel, “How Objects Make Meaning on Stage: New Perspectives,” moderated by Dr. Dassia Posner from Northwestern University offers a deep dive into new research and the generative ways that materials and objects are part of meaning-making for artists and audiences. The panel features five presentations by Marissa Fenley, Ph.D. student in English and Theater and Performance Studies at the University of Chicago; Dr. Skye Strauss, Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama, Northwestern University; Kezia Waters, interdisciplinary/performing artist and MFA Candidate in Studio Art/Performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Jess Bass, art director/creative director/designer and MFA candidate in the Sculpture Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and Ana Diaz Barriga, a puppetry practitioner and scholar in the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in Theatre and Drama at Northwestern University. The moderator invites presenters and audience to keep four questions in our thoughts:

  • How do the materials of which a puppet is made shape the stories it tells?
  • How can listening and responding to objects shape the creative process?
  • How does puppetry allow us to both see and remake the world differently?
  • What is unique about watching puppetry performance that is distinct from watching any other kind of live theater?

Fenley offered an investigation into the ways that puppetry performs the limits of what it takes to qualify as a person through the work of Ellen Van Volkenburg, after whom the symposium is named. Fenley argues that Van Volkenburg’s use of puppets in her staging of A MidSummer Night’s Dream is a means to artfully disarrange the “gushing, nervous, convulsive,” often feminized, body that artists such as Edward Gordon Craig, as well as others at the time, were working to eliminate from the stage. Though human in form, Van Volkenburg’ puppets wiggled and giggled with extra joints and often moved in unexpected ways to reorder and recombine elements into a less controlled form, thereby questioning patriarchal notions of restraint as aesthetic perfection. The next presenter shifted our attention to the idea of active listening to and with objects and materials. Strauss asks what it means to collaborate with objects. She argues that in puppetry human and nonhuman performers are not competitors but partners in meaning-making and that only through working with and listening to the propensities and limits of materials will collaboration that aligns with function emerge. Puppet theater makers have implicitly known this for a long time, Strauss says, and she prompts us to contemplate what it could mean to know this explicitly and how this conscious knowing might inform the creative process in new ways.

Waters takes up the notion of explicitly collaborating with materials as part of the creative practice in their work. Waters asks us to think about what makes an object sacred and what does it mean to explore Black functionality through objects. Water’s presentation takes us on a nonlinear journey through their work in which they share the role and influence that working with puppets has had on their performance. Through their work with puppets and materials, they have come to understand the interdependence among all creative partners. Humans are not above but rather alongside objects, animals and other things within the creative and performance spaces. Bass furthers the idea of the partnership with puppets and materials in the context of the ways that materials can simultaneously expand meaning and limit physical space and movement, thereby creating narrative tensions. 

Each of the first four presenters on this panel centered the partnership and meaning-making of/with puppets and materials from an artist’s point of view. Although also a practitioner, Barriga offered a different way into meaning-making—through cognitive science. Barriga is not alone in finding neuroscience to be a useful tool through which to better understand what puppeteers are doing onstage and how what they do makes meaning for audiences. Her research compares gaze tracking—a device that creates a map of where spectators are looking—with what these same individuals say about what they see. The investigation, similar to others who have turned to cognition, seeks to reveal the sophisticated manipulations that puppeteers use to direct spectatorship in order to untangle modes of watching and its relationship to meaning-making. 

While this final panel was seemingly more grounded in theory than the previous three, all of which also raise complex theoretical ideas and pressing sociocultural issues, it also highlighted the ways in which theory and culture are not some esoteric notions discussed in classrooms. Rather, they are aspects of creative practice and everyday life as we humans travel through and attempt to understand ourselves, the societies we have made and our impact on the world around us. Each of the Ellen Van Volkenburg Symposium sessions that were offered during the 2022 Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival touch on central questions in the field, such as materiality, decentering the human, the agency of things, environment, race and care. The conversations reveal aspects of the creative process not typically visible or top-of-mind when we sit in a theater or other space to witness a performance. Yet these aspects of the process are the foundations of the very event we are engaged with and, at least for me, enrich the experience of theatergoing.

Watch full symposium on Howlround.

Staging the Non-Human Character:
Animal, Alien, or Architecture

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Dr. Paulette Richards, puppet artist and independent researcher

Maria Camia, creator, New Mony!
Nick Lehane, creator, Chimpanzee
Marsian De Lellis, creator, Object of Her Affection
Basil Twist, creator, Dogugaeshi

What We Leave Behind:
The Plastic Object Geological Layer

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Julie Moller, Chicago Puppet Fest board member, environmental advocate, volunteer, and philanthropist

Dr. Sasha Atkins, PhD, MPH lecturer at School of Environmental Sustainability, Loyola University Chicago
Robin Frohardt, creator, Plastic Bag Store
Dr. Sarah Newman, PhD, assistant professor of anthropology and social sciences, University of Chicago

Watch full symposium on Howlround.

Watch full symposium on Howlround.

Race & Representation in Puppetry

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Dr. Paulette Richards, puppet artist and independent researcher

Torry Bend, associate professor of Theater Studies, Duke University; creator, Dreaming
Ty Defoe, creator, Skeleton Canoe
Margaret Laurena Kemp, professor of Theater and Dance University of California, Davis; creator, The Bluest Eye
JaMeeka Holloway, adaptation and associate director, The Bluest Eye

How Objects Make Meaning on Stage:
New Perspectives

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Dr. Dassia N. Posner, associate professor of theatre, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Northwestern University

Ana Diaz Barriga, puppetry practitioner and scholar, doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Theatre and Drama at Northwestern University
Jess Bass, art director/ creative director/ designer, MFA candidate in the Sculpture Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Marissa Fenley, Ph.D. student in English and Theater and Performance Studies at the University of Chicago
Skye Strauss, Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama, Northwestern University
Kezia Waters, interdisciplinary/ performing artist, MFA Candidate in Studio Art / Performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Watch full symposium on Howlround.

Festival Events

About the Symposium

January 22 and 29, 2022
Streaming Online via Howlround

The Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium brings together practicing festival artists with scholars to consider the intersection of puppetry with other disciplines and ideas. Before 1912, the year the Little Theater of Chicago was founded in the historic Fine Arts Building, the term “puppeteer” did not even exist. Little Theater director Ellen Van Volkenburg needed a program credit for the actors she had trained to manipulate marionettes while speaking the text of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and she coined the word “puppeteer.” That marked the dawn of the movement that has brought us to the rich art form now practiced around the world. In Van Volkenburg’s honor, the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival presents four discussions featuring festival artists and key topics from the works presented in the Festival.

Further Reading