Jim Henson Foundation grant recipient teaches puppetry at Duke this spring

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Jim Henson Foundation just awarded a workshop grant to faculty designer/director/puppeteer and Drama Desk award nominee Torry Bend for further development of her work-in-progress DREAMING, which features as this spring’s mainstage production class here at Duke (THEATRST 350). The Theater Studies department is very excited about this experiment, the first time that a faculty work-in-progress has been considered as a mainstage production, and also the first mainstage puppet show.  The class has been conceived as a laboratory to involve students in each aspect of creating new work with the goals of introducing students to the art of puppetry and advancing the project towards its final shape. (There’s still time to join the class and no experience is required.  Students can email theater@duke.edu for a permission number.)

Torry proposes to teach total beginners to design, build and perform with puppets in one very intense semester, while working with award-winning local playwright Howard L. Craft to develop a script based on the work from 1905 comic artist Winsor McCay’s strip Little Nemo In Slumberland. Although the source material has been extremely influential due to McCay’s inventive use of scale and perspective shift, as well as his unique approach to the frame, the overt racism (in the depiction of one character in particular) set up a big red flag.  Torry is struggling with responsibly adapting the work for contemporary audiences and wants to involve the class in discussion led by Craft on ethically adapting historically important work.

The students will research the time period of the source material, becoming familiar with McCay’s work.  Torry will acquaint the class with a variety of puppet techniques, including shadow puppetry, toy theater and table top puppets.  Students will develop characters and scenes that tell the story of Little Nemo with a contemporary sensibility. The end product will be defined by the discoveries made during the semester.  Torry’s dream is for final performances to include conversation about confronting the original material, a reading of Craft’s script and performed scenes developed over the semester. 

Normally the department would have a game plan nailed down with an exact goal and an exact timeline for production.  There would be a team of professional designers in place studying the script and by the end of January, designs would be going to the technicians of Theater Operations in UCAE to begin construction on set, props, and costumes.  (There would be students involved in the shops as well, work-study and students enrolled in the THEATRST 350.2 class.)

However, this semester we are letting the process lead us and learning to be comfortable with not knowing all the answers at the beginning. Instead of starting with an incomplete script that all other things are built on, this workshop allows the design and rehearsals to inform the writing process. As Torry Bend points out, “By making puppets while writing, we hope that the visual world can inform the storytelling. This also allows us to bring the builders into the conversations, allowing their voices to have authorship in the work.” Embracing the process will certainly be a challenge, but a rewarding one.

photo credit: Nick Graetz