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Up Against Myself and My Doubts on a Transformative Adventure in Puppetry
Something about creating a character out of paper mache melted my heart
I don’t have time for this.
That must have been my mantra cause I kept saying it over and over all May long.
Yet back in April, when Stagebridge’s catalog announced Words Into Life, a puppetry class with master puppeteer, Jessica Stanton, and consummate acting coach, Jeffrey Lee, I knew I had to be there.
No way was I going to miss this larger-than-life experience.
Yet I missed the first class thanks to a bout of vertigo.
When I got to the second class, Jessica plopped a human skull in front of me. The armature she’d made for my puppet, Aurora’s head. Life-sized. Ready for a final layer of paper mache and a coat of gesso prior to painting.
Hold on! Nowhere in the catalog did it say we were making life-sized puppets.
A shit-load of fear came up.
It’s going to be heavy. What if I physically can’t hold and operate my puppet?
The time to bow out gracefully would have been right there and then. But I have a motto — I can fail, but I can’t quit. So Instead I tore newspaper into strips, dipped them into glue, and slapped them on Aurora.
One by one, Jeff sequestered us over by his computer to discuss our emerging puppet characters and the stories they would tell in our final showcase–four weeks away.
Four weeks! Yikes! This is all s’posed to come together in four weeks?
I took Aurora home and finished plastering her with paper mache.
When I got back for the third week, I gave her a coat of gesso to prime her for paint. Then I began making her lif-sized hands. Actually, they’re even larger than mine. Jessica made the armatures out of coat hanger wire. We padded them with newspaper and masking tape and covered them with paper mache. Again I took mine home to work on.
But when was I going to work on her?
Paper mache’s slow going. Between classes and medical appointments, I did not have time.
I made time.
I multi-tasked, slapping strips while on Zoom. With my video off.
Why? Because I have a motto — I can fail, but I can’t quit. Damn it. Maybe I could make an exception here. Or get a doctor’s note. After all, I’m dealing with vertigo, lightheadedness, a cardiac monitor, and musculoskeletal issues all at once.
But when I did my AWE journaling, She Who Shouts or Whispers Depending reminded me what a blessing it is to have a character emerge out of wire, cardboard, and newspaper. This is the first-ever puppet class at Stagebridge. Besides, look how much our teachers were doing to help us. Jessica made Aurora’s head.
I had a feeling I would learn more than how to craft a life-sized puppet.
One week at a time I told myself. Hang in here and have fun. It’s a welcome distraction from all my woes. It’s therapeutic. Just what I need right now.
On week four, I painted Aurora’s head.
Now she no longer just had ping pong balls stuck in her face. She had eyes. And a funny-looking sunburnt nose, pink tongue and lips, and an operable jaw that moved when she spoke.
Now when I looked at her, she looked back at me.
She spoke to me.
By that I mean, like Gipetto’s son PIncochio, she was coming to life. As a twelve-year-old daughter of burnt-out Berkeley hippies, starting her period for the first time.
At, of all places, Burning Man.
A story emerged along with the puppet–thanks to her Godparents, Jessica and Jeff. I couldn’t let the three of them down.
But I didn’t have time for this.
Before our fifth class, I had a Cat Scan revealing stones in each kidney.
Now I really didn’t have time for this.
Yet I couldn’t quit. I could fail, but not quit.
Not on Aurora. Not on Jess and Jeff. And not on myself.
That Friday I glued a shaggy red wig onto Aurora’s head. Now she looked like the bumbling teenager she was. That Friday Jessica helped me make her a cardboard torso and tubular arms. That Friday I dressed her in a Costa Rica Surf Diva floral pink and brown top from Goodwill. And I gessoed and painted her hands.
That Friday, with Jeff coaching me, I practiced moving her mouth in time with actual words. Open on the vowels, he said. That worked. It really did.
Lots happens in three-hour classes!
Now there was one week to showcase. Needle drop them from Drag Net. Dum da dum dum.
I took Aurora home to practice. I put my hand in through her back and out her neck hole, positioned her head in place, grabbed her hand, and introduced her to my roommate. Invited her to our party.
Now we just had to practice moving her mouth and arms and hand and remembering the bloody–literally–story.
But I don’t have time for this.
I have to go to Physical Therapy, and Chiropractic and meet with my Urologist about the stones. I did not have time to practice.
Again I found the time. Once on Monday and again on Thursday. For about ten minutes. That was it.
At class six I had to fix Aurora’s elbows. They’d become detached from her arms. It took almost two hours.
Oh, but fortunately, we had three. I had enough time to do a quickie run-through in the lady’s room mirror. Phew!
Now it was showtime!
I went second. Perfect.
As Jessica called me up front, Jeff whispered in my ear, slow down, speak loud, and make eye contact. In other words, Aurora had to keep looking at everyone looking at her.
She did fine. She told her story in her shy way of speaking. She didn’t move as much as I would have liked, but when you’re gushing warm, wet, and sticky down there, and cramping, you really don’t feel much like moving.
They loved her.
They loved all of our alter-ego creations.
We bowed to applause. We thanked our teachers. We debriefed with a jobs-well-done pep talk. Would we do this again? Heck yes.
Even if I didn’t have time.
I’d make time. And a companion puppet for Aurora to play off of or fall in love with.
At Burning Man.