2023 Festival Archive: Theodora Skipitares

Theodora Skipitares: Grand Panorama

January 22-24, 2023

Harold Washington Cindy Pritzker Auditorium

Presented by Harold Washington Library and Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

With special support from: Cheryl Henson
and the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation


Scholarship and Resources

“Swaying the Heart by the Eye:” Grand Panorama’s Brilliant Puppet Pastiche Illuminates the Photographic Legacy of Frederick Douglass

An Essay by Jesse Njus

Theodora Skipitares’s Grand Panorama is a grand collage of both ideas and puppetry. Divided into nineteen scenes, each vignette examines the power of representation in the age of mechanical reproduction. While the segments intersect, they do not attempt to generate a comprehensive or linear narrative; this is a play that questions the authority of images by manipulating those images as performing objects for our viewing pleasure. Audiences familiar with Skipitares’s work will recognize the collage of puppetry styles—performers wearing giant photographic mask heads; the incorporation of shadow puppetry, toy theater, and crankie, as well as three-dimensional rod puppets; and the inclusion of historic photographs, all accompanied by music and narration. 

Yet this is a performance in which all these techniques are interrogated, while the audience watching the performance is asked to consider the power and positionality of their gaze. Who looks, and who is looked at? Who is subject, and who is object? Who controls what is seen and how that object is interpreted by its audience? Although Grand Panorama focuses on photography rather than cinema—or, indeed, theater—the responsibilities of spectatorship are analyzed throughout the performance, making the play’s own audience aware of its complicity in the voyeuristic gaze of the spectator.

Grand Panorama centers on Frederick Douglass, who was not only the most photographed man of his time but who also gave four lectures on photography from which the play excerpts sections for narration. As Grand Panorama unspools Douglass’s admiration for Louis Daguerre and his daguerreotype, the play’s central themes come into focus by relying on the connections between the scenes and the puppetry styles, such as the use of photographic figures in the toy theater or the relationship between the process of creating a daguerreotype and the silhouettes of shadow puppetry. Grand Panorama asks us to look at—and think about—the ways in which Douglass wanted to be seen. The giant mask heads worn by performers are of Douglass, created from his iconic photographs, and Grand Panorama demands that we recognize that Douglass consciously made these photographs iconic. Douglass was the most photographed man of his time, not by chance but by design, and his photographs have become iconic because of the manner in which he knowingly represented himself. Douglass carefully constructed the iconic “Frederick Douglass” that we recognize today, and we are asked to acknowledge the effort that Douglass made to be seen—and, more importantly, remembered—as he wished to be. As an African-American man in the nineteenth century, Douglass seized on the new technology of photography as a means of ensuring that he was able to craft his own representation.

While the audience learns the reason why these iconic photographs exist and sees the story of Douglass’s interest in photography unwind via toy theater and crankie, we are consistently looking at Douglass’s photographs themselves, manipulated as puppets. As the spectators listen to Douglass’s lectures on photography with a beautiful, lilting cello accompaniment, we are embodying the very gaze that he was attempting to influence. Does watching his photographs manipulated in toy theater or as masks alter our perception of them? Laura Mulvey may have coined the modern theory of the gaze in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” but Douglass thoroughly understood this concept. The photographer’s gaze is not the only one that matters; in his 1861 lecture on photography “Lecture on Pictures,” Douglass points out that photographs enable us both to see ourselves and to present ourselves as we wish to be seen. A servant girl, Douglass comments, can now buy a portrait of herself that is superior to the most expensive portrait that could have been painted fifty years earlier.

Douglass, of course, was not an ordinary, average American like his imagined servant girl, but Grand Panorama also turns to W.E.B. Du Bois, whose photographs of African-Americans going about their daily lives were inspired by Douglass’s use of photography and served as a central element in Du Bois’s exhibit for the 1900 Paris Exposition (which can be viewed here through the Library of Congress). In these vignettes, Du Bois’s photographs are collaged together into scenes of everyday life. The photographs presented by the puppeteers are notable for their quality and for their obscurity—unlike Douglass’s photographs, Du Bois’s photographic collection did not achieve the fame and influence that he hoped they would. Seeing them presented onstage is a reminder that Du Bois’s project is still needed, and contemporary artists like Bisa Butler have also begun to (re)present Du Bois’s extraordinary photographic record of middle-class African-American life at the turn of the twentieth century.¹ The photographs abound with students, musicians, artists, scientists, and shopkeepers, and the Grand Panorama performers themselves interact with these photographs, placing themselves within the turn-of-the-century collages. Grand Panorama insists that spectators think deliberately about the ways we view history; as the photographic cutouts travel across the stage, we are asked to contemplate how we look at photographs and why we view photographs differently from other forms of representation, such as the shadow puppets or the rod puppets that have been dressed with careful historical accuracy. What is the power of technological reproduction and who controls it?

In the midst of the vignettes about Douglass and Du Bois, Grand Panorama also focuses a discursive lens on lesser-known figures, such as Nicholas Biddle, whose photograph in the Library of Congress has the title “‘Nick Biddle,’ of Pottsville, Pa., the first man wounded in the great American Rebellion, ‘Baltimore, April 18, 1861’ / W. R. Mortimer [photographer].” Biddle was an African-American orderly in a white Pennsylvania regiment that traveled to Washington, D.C. in April 1861. The regiment was attacked in Baltimore—not a Union-friendly city—and Biddle was credited by his colleagues as the first man to have been wounded in the war. He later sold his photograph to raise money for wounded Union soldiers, demonstrating that the power of photography went beyond the control of the gaze.

Perhaps Grand Panorama’s biggest question is about the legacy of both Douglass and the technological innovation he championed. The performance provides constant reminders that technology can intensify and amplify inequality, and the play ends with excerpts from an interview with Joy Buolamwini, a Ghanaian-American-Canadian MIT researcher and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, dedicated to “equitable and accountable AI.” However, the performance locale of Grand Panorama at the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival (CIPTF) also provided a unique answer to the question of legacy. The performances took place at the Harold Washington Library (HWL) Center, which is positioned almost directly behind the Chicago Fine Arts Building where CIPTF’s main offices are located. The HWL is both the main building in the Chicago Public Library System and the building named for Chicago’s first African-American mayor, who served from his election in 1983 until his untimely death in 1987. Completed in 1991, the location of the new central library building was chosen—and its construction funded—during Washington’s tenure as mayor. The performance context of the HWL was an excellent frame for Grand Panorama. The mere fact of sitting in the HWL while witnessing a play that analyzes the ways in which two iconic African-American men harnessed the power of the gaze through technological innovation serves as a reminder that just as Du Bois learned from Douglass so too was Washington a part of that legacy of African-American men who learned to control their narrative to the point that they could make even white audiences (and voters) see them as they wished to be seen. 

While Grand Panorama makes no attempt to provide solutions, watching as a Chicagoan in the HWL during the tenure of Mayor Lori Lightfoot (the first African-American woman and, in her words, the “first openly gay mayor of Chicago”) and, as it happened, on the eve of Brandon Johnson’s election as mayor (the third African-American man to serve as mayor of Chicago and the second to be elected)—the question of how much control the subject of the gaze can exert, particularly when that subject is African-American, seemed far closer than the historic distance of the play might at first lead one to expect. As Frederick Douglass proclaimed in his 1861 lecture “[r]ightly viewed, the whole soul of man is a sort of picture gallery, a grand panorama, in which all the great facts of the universe, in tracing things of time and things of eternity, are painted” (2015: 131).

1   For more about Butler’s work and its relationship to Douglass’s and Du Bois’s photographs, see Warren (2020).

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. “Lecture on Pictures.” In: John Stauffer, et. al. Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American, Liveright, 2015, pp.126-141.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, pp. 6-18.

Warren, Erica. “The People of Bisa Butler’s Portraits.” Art Institute of Chicago, November 17, 2020. Available at: https://www.artic.edu/articles/858/the-people-of-bisa-butlers-portraits. Accessed August 4, 2023.

World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts Entry

Play Video

View Theodora’s presentation above or watch full symposium on Howlround.

Theodora Skipitares at the Ellen Van Volkenburg Symposium

On Saturday, January 21, 2023, Theodora Skipitares was a speaker at The Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium session entitled “Grand Narratives and Petits Récits.” 

The event was co-hosted by The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, moderated by Dr. Paulette Richards, and held at the Studebaker Theater as well as streamed through Howlround.

Transcript of Theodora's Presentation

So I'm really excited to be in Chicago because I've always thought that Chicago had this incredible dynamic theater environment and also visual art environment, and, you know, I don't know what it is about the city, but it's always had a really big impact in those two areas. So I suppose it's kind of natural that we see a lot of puppetry as well. I was, I'm gonna do a really very personal take on kind of my trajectory and I just wanted to read about something that sort of addresses the idea of a grand narrative, or how you put together something.

So, “As I look back on the things that I made as a child, “I see myself as a stitcher. “My mother and her four sisters were experts seamstresses “using skills learned in Greece. “Either with a sewing machine or a hand needle, “I was always creating objects mostly to wear.” So, those are kind of my origins. So, I’ve always been stitching little things together. So the idea of making a well-made play, I mean, never ever crossed my mind. So, I guess I’ve always been butting up against the idea of a grand narrative. Anyway, let’s look at some of my work from the very beginning. I believe an artist’s destiny is so tied up with where they’re from or where they were living when their kind of formative years were happening. So, I was in New York City in the ’70s when the city was a total ruin and real estate was worthless and it was broken and kind of dangerous to live there. But the great thing about being there at the time was that you could take space, people were offering, landlords had abandoned their buildings, so you were offered pretty big spaces just to take the building over and do whatever you wanted. And so this kind of cooked up into a very collaborative, very shared, very innovative number of years that brought forward new possibilities for performance where people from very many different disciplines were coming together to experiment. And a lot of this experimentation took place in a neighborhood called Soho. And I remember being in, in school, in graduate school, and I remember walking down to Soho, and you could walk down on a Monday night or a Tuesday night and there were storefronts that people had taken over and you could just walk into a storefront and you would see a chemist collaborating with a dancer. I mean, there was just tremendous interdisciplinary stuff happening. And I think that was, gave a lot of people permission to, to just make work, and it wasn’t a very judgmental community, so it was just a great place to try ideas out. Okay. So this is one of my earliest performances which were… masks cast from my face. And I was a solo performer. Okay, we can advance. I began to put together fragments of narrative. I think the funny thing about very early performance art was that they were really short pieces. Like people’s works were like 15 minutes long, or 20 minutes long, and they were, again, kind of collage together or stitch together. So I was working with my body, my own body and autobiography, and I was not alone because at that time there was a sort of second wave of feminism and women started being very important in early performance art. And most of us were using our body as a reference and things that were extensions of the body. So the power dynamics were different, because if you were working in theater, there was a very strict hierarchy. There was usually the male director, top of the line, top of the pyramid, and then there were the designers and the writers and everyone else around the director. But what the performance art from this period had going for it was that those power hierarchies had been sort of smashed down, and women were suddenly very important in performance art. And that was sort of very, very interesting and very energizing. So I’m certainly also a child of that too, you know? Okay. I continue to tell stories about the split in my life of being into kind of one foot in a sort of Greek, strict Greek household, and one foot in a experimental American artistic world, you know? Okay. And then I had made about 30… figures, self-portraits, and they were one original clay, or an original clay, and then a mold, and then I had made several of these and there were sitting in, against the wall, in my studio one day, and I was feeling lonely performing solo. So I just took one of these, I called them “Theodora dolls,” I took one of them and I took a saw and I cut her at the shoulders and I cut her at the elbow and I stitched them together and I saw that her hand could move and I brought her on stage with me. And eventually I brought so many of these Theodoras on stage that I left the stage and became the director. And I was much happier because I never really liked to perform. That’s another, that’s another characteristic of puppeteers. Puppeteers wanna be on stage, but they do not wanna be the object of attention. So it’s per, that’s what it was. I didn’t know a thing about puppetry at the time, but I knew that being in the director seat and framing and controlling certain things visually and time-wise, was really, really fun. And it was way more fun than being on stage. So, okay. So I began to make very detailed small environments with these puppets and I found that they were really interesting in terms of documentary material, or real things that happened, that you read about in the newspaper or something like that. So I became interested in a kind of a hyper-realism, and real stories. Okay. So this is early work called “Micropolis,” which was, means “tiny city.” And they were a miniature environments with their own lighting system and little sound system. Okay. And then I began to actually come up against a grand narrative. I would look at scientists, for example, and I would want to kind of challenge them, or knock them down, and write counter narratives to the story of great science, for example. 

So this is more playful, I think Darwin was a real scientist. But, anyway, this was Darwin introducing the chain of life. And Marie Curie was in this piece as well. It was called “Defenders of the Code.” Okay, we can move on. So this is a medieval birth, a woman’s about to give birth and the midwives say, “No, you can’t give birth yet, “it’s not auspicious. “You need the right astrological moment.” This is from the “History of Medicine,” okay. I took on a giant Robert Moses, who was one of the most powerful people that ever determined what became of New York City in the 20th century. Scale, see, scale is the greatest thing that puppetry has to offer, one of the greatest things, and it also is a great playwriting tool. You can really write a play in puppetry, maximizing the possibilities of scale. Okay, keep going, that’s from the “Medicine” Show. I did a piece on the history of women in prison. Okay, we can keep going. I spent, I’ve gone several times to India for several months at a time. And the first time I went was in 2000. And that completely changed my work because India’s stories are so old, thousands and thousands of years old. And some Indian artists do a very interesting thing. They have a tradition where they’ll take a tiny sliver of a story, like the monkey king’s trip from Sri Lanka to the mainland, and they’ll tell it in like 50 different ways. And that can be the, that little thread of a, little snippet of DNA, can be like so versatile and so enriched for possibilities of a story. And I thought, oh, that’s interesting. I never cared about stories. I mean, I think most performance artists didn’t, but suddenly India really made me interested in stories. So, continue. So what happened was, I went back to Greek stories. So I went back, they’re not as old as Indians, but they’re still pretty old, and they’re fragments. Most of Greek plays and poems and literature are fragments. I loved that you could work with a fragment. So this is a story about Helen of Troy who was born out of an egg. And those are humanettes, and that’s such a wonderful form with your face and then a tiny little body. Okay. Great shadow theater based on Greek vase paintings. Yeah, okay. Helen of Troy. Cyclops, “Odyssey,” okay. “Iphigenia.” I became really interested in the female Bunraku style, which is called Otome Bunraku. And I made, you know, several of those. Okay, it’s from “Iphigenia.” This is from “Orestes.” So I was working with plays, but not straight ahead. This, a chorus, you can have a lot of fun with choruses. See, and this is the “Chorus of Medea” with these giant heads and their bodies, the rest of their body. Okay, so this play was based on “The Women of Troy,” and I used four contemporary activists around the world. And I sort of found a way to work with the four heroes of “Women of Troy.” And this is when I discovered that scale was a playwriting tool. ‘Cause I didn’t know how to, I felt the women activists today were so much more interesting than the Greek women, from before, I thought, “How can I do that?” So scale did it. I made, the activists were 13 foot puppets and they had bodies and the traditional Greek characters came out of their, out of their bellies every time they entered and exited. And I found that scale helped me in a way that I could have never imagined if I were working with human actors and doing a production of the Trojan women. Okay. Another moment from the Trojan women, and you see the scale shifts. Puppets that are almost life size and humans, and then the giants. “Lysistrata.” Okay. The chorus from Prometheus. So I did many Greek plays for a while. Prometheus, yeah. Okay. I did a version of “The Chairs,” where the, the chairs were performers and they were puppets, they were performing objects. Gertrude Stein. Okay. Steven Hawking. Okay. I did take on Pirandello’s “Six Characters.” Okay. “Lorca.” Okay, so this was… about police killings in the last 10 years. And they, I made books first of each incident that I wanted to document, and then I translated them into performing objects. Can we go further? This was Amadou Diallo, who was one of the people killed in New York City, actually, in the early 200s. Okay, 2000s. That, okay, these were the books that inspired the, the performances. Okay, can we go on? Sean Bell was another guy killed on the eve before his wedding. These are… Okay, this is Philando Castile from Minneapolis. And they were books that I translated, life size. Okay. Sandra Blair. Sandra Bland. Keep going. Eric Garner. All of these are Eric Garner. And then this is a group of high school students I worked with, and they went to a school called Benjamin Banneker High School. And there was a great African American scientist in the 1800s named Benjamin Banneker. So we did a piece about him. With a marching band. Keep going. It’s a moment from the story of Benjamin Banneker. That’s Benjamin Banneker. And the marching band inside of the production, okay. And this is the current production, “Grand Panorama,” right now, which actually is about the story of photography, and especially its connection to Frederick Douglass. He was the most photographed human of the 19th century. More photos of him were made than of Abraham Lincoln. Another moment from “Grand Panorama.” I think that’s it.

Festival Performances

About the Performance

January 22-24, 2023
Harold Washington Cindy Pritzker Auditorium
400 South State Street 

Frederick Douglass is widely recognized as the most photographed person in the 19th century. In Grand Panorama, his obsession with photography takes center stage illuminating the power of image to “tell the truth” about humanity and the African-American experience during slavery. Directed and designed by Greek artist, Theodora Skipitares, using her trademark larger-than-life size puppets and featuring music by Mazz Swift, artforms blend with panorama, magic lantern, shadow theater and crankies to articulate Douglass’s belief that “Rightly viewed, the whole soul of man is a sort of picture gallery, a grand panorama.” Music performed by Brittany Harris. Puppetry direction by Jane Catherine Shaw.

With special support from: Cheryl Henson and the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation

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