Sunday April 1st, 2018 – Today is Easter and it is also April Fool’s Day. A fine day to reflect on recent events. As I write this I am DJing and puppeteering at my regular Sunday afternoon gig at Arsenal Bowl in Pittsburgh, PA. There is a really nice Latinx family in the lane closest to my puppet stage and they are having a blast bowling and dancing with the puppets. I am writing this on my breaks.
One frosty February morning earlier this year I woke up to find out that I was the president of the Puppetry Guild of Pittsburgh. I sat on the edge of my bed dangling my feet. Soaking it in. I took a deep breath and looked at my hands. My hands took a deep breath and looked back at me. I asked my hands “What am I going to do? What am I going to do with all of this power? Yesterday I was just another Sorry Charlie cruising the help wanted ads for puppet gigs- today I’m the puppet president of a major American city. It is a lot of pressure. I basically have my finger on the button. The puppet button.” Some people may look at this puppet presidency as a thankless powerless volunteer arts management position. But I know differently. I believe in the power of puppets and the magic of creating our own realities. It is what we make of it. So I slipped off the edge of the bed that morning and took my first steps into puppet guild presidency. I yelled to no one in particular, “Get me the mayor!” Which scared my cats.
A month and a half later it was March 21st, Pittsburgh Day of Puppetry, in alignment with the World Day of Puppetry. It was an even frostier morning featuring a record breaking snowfall. This time I sprang out of bed and hustled from station to station following the preparations I had made the night before. Shower, Clothes, Breakfast, Puppet Box, and Snow Gear. I walked down the steep hill I live on through the unplowed snow to jump in my man Al’s cargo van and shake a leg to my meeting with the mayor. I can legitimately say that back in my day we walked through the snow to our Pittsburgh Day of Puppetry meeting with the mayor and we liked it. A handful of our guild officers and members met me as we carried our puppets through security at City Hall in downtown Pittsburgh. Every one of them made the machine beep but we got in anyway. Magic. We were there for an official proclamation from Mayor Bill Peduto to forever institute March 21st as Pittsburgh Day of Puppetry. There would be puppets all over Pittsburgh that day and it all started in the Grand Lobby of the City County Building when the mayor took the podium in front of a crowd of cameras and press members, staffers and passers-by, puppeteers and puppets including a nine foot tall rendition of the mayor himself and a set of City Council Finger Puppets- a gift to the mayor from the Puppetry Guild of Pittsburgh. The moment that best expresses the absurd spirit of the proclamation event was captured in a photo where the mayor is wearing the finger puppet version of his city council nemesis and speaking to himself in her falsetto- while a much larger puppet mayor looms in the background- all at the podium surrounded by a crowd. The councilwoman later went on the record saying she “Thought the little puppet was cute.” On a day when it snowed eight inches and the city was in chaos we made the mayor and most of the people who work with him smile. Puppets are powerful and magical.
That night we partied at the Pittsburgh Day of Puppetry Happy Hour at the Brillobox. It was an evening of puppet activities, toasts, songs, improvisational performances, giveaways, and a fantastic original performance by puppeteer Davey T Steinman who had just gotten back to Pittsburgh fresh off a Bread n Puppet tour. He blew our minds with a show crafted just for that event. Then he let us see how it was all built and answered a bunch of puppet questions. It was a great first Pittsburgh Day of Puppetry. We met new friends and hung out with old ones. We got a golden seal from the mayor. We were in all the papers. We gained new members. There were puppets all over Pittsburgh.
You might think that coordinating the Pittsburgh Day of Puppetry event would be enough puppet work for one month – and I can say that it was- However that same week the word went out that Tarish “Jeghetto” Pipkins was coming to town and looking for a place to do a puppet gig. So when the guy who just got two Henson grants back to back, worked marionettes in the Missy Elliot video, appeared on Steve Harvey show talking about puppets, and who is a puppet engineering badass, announces he is coming to his hometown for a visit -you have to come through! I would not want it on my puppet president transcripts that I was the guy who didn’t help Tarish find a puppet venue. So with super short notice and nifty cross promoting The Puppetry Guild of Pittsburgh, Boom Concepts, Black Unicorn Library, and Glitterbox Theater supported “A Night With Jeghetto- mini tour” on Friday March 30th. Both performances were packed with audiences entranced by Tarish’s almost biological puppet engineering and real-movement creations. Just like Davey at the Brillobox Tarish was giving and patient with his Q & As and let the audience explore his puppets hands-on after each show. Of enormous significance and something that makes me feel terrific is the diversity of both of those audiences. I think it is a big step forward for our guild. Toddlers and seniors, black and white, people who are at every art thing, people you haven’t seen in years, people you’ve never seen all squeezed together to share a magical puppet experience. The power of puppets had them all sitting elbow to elbow giggling like kids.
It feels validating and rare to see an idea through it’s completion A-Z. We were able to pull it off because we have a terrific team of complementary skill sets. Tom and Kristen Sarver, Cheryl Capezzuti, Al Pantone, Felicia Cooper, Alison Babusci, Mandee Williams, Kirsten Ervin, Larry Rippel, Davey, Tarish, Mr. Funky, Lou at the Brillobox, Mayor Peduto- the whole gang. I really appreciate everyone playing their parts to make March’s puppet events a big success.
I am headed to New Orleans for the New Orleans Giant Puppet Festival April 17-25 where I will perform in a new puppet production called “Edmond’s Great Adventure”. When I get back to Pittsburgh we are going to have a guild meeting to figure out what comes next. Imagine something you want to do and come share it with us.
Dave T. English