If you’ve been following us on instagram or twitter, you may already be acquainted with our newest addition to the Coyote family: Foxy!
Jen Vargas will be puppeteering Foxy the Coyote in our upcoming production of Riley Ann Visits The Outcast Cafe and has been getting acquainted with her (as we finish building her) during our workshop these past few weeks.
Last week Jen took Foxy on a field trip to The Big Apple! Here’s a little photo journal of the experience:
We’re back this #ThrowbackThursday with another #FeaturedFriend! Last month we began a series of interviews with past artists who have come through the Outcast Café. We are delighted to catch you up on their journeys since parting ways and to share a few of their fond memories from their time with us. If you missed our first Featured Friend, Kelsey Hogan, you can check out her interview here.
This month is a special treat as we introduce Jennifer Vargas, one of our Ministering Angels from The Dick and The Rose NYFringe tour in 2012. We are pleased to welcome Jen back to the company this fall as MA (Ministering Angel- solo that is) in our workshop of Riley Ann Visits the Outcast Café. We invite you to enjoy Jennifer’s brilliance right along with us:
OC: Welcome back, Jenny! We’re so happy to have you in the rehearsal space again. Can you take us down memory lane? Tell us a little about your initial collaboration with Outcast Café:
JV: I was attending NYU Tisch for Drama and Barbara Allen was a clowning teacher of mine. It was my favorite class and I asked her if she knew of any other clowning opportunities in the city. Barbara later reached out to me about a show she was choreographing and she told Biggs about me. I auditioned for him and the rest, as they say, is history.
OC: A history we remember fondly! It was such a joy to have you join the team. What was one of your favorite memories from the summer of 2012?
JV: I have so many! One of my favorites was just working with the Ministering Angels. I was the youngest of the four and I never felt like I was underestimated. We all took good care of each other. We also had a lot of fun behind the scenes (and beyond the drape).
OC: Indeed, we did. Getting to show you the Berkshires was a pleasure, and once we arrived on your turf, New York City, it was great for the non-NYC based members of the company to have someone who knew the ropes. We’d love to know what you’ve been working on since we last saw you. When you’re not workshopping in the Berkshires with us, we can still find you in New York, right?
JV: Right. I just graduated from NYU Tisch with my BFA in Drama. I also wrote, performed, and directed my very own piece called An Afternoon Visit; or otherwise known as Pussy. Since then, I’ve officially moved to New York City and have been auditioning. I’m also in the process of writing a web-series, which will hopefully start filming in the next couple of months.
OC: Wow! We are so proud of your hard work and accomplishments. We love collaborating with such a driven and creative artist. Are there any thoughts, feelings you want to share about diving into another show with us?
JV: I’m about to be a part of the cast for Riley Ann Visits…, which I am very excited for!! Every time I get in the room with the puppet babies, there are so many new characters to meet and stories to explore. I can’t wait to start working on the new coyote puppets and exploring the depth of the story of Riley Ann Visits The Outcast Café.
And what an exploration it is becoming! We are now a week into our process out here in the peaceful and creatively nurturing Berkshire hills and are discovering lots of new information about our story as well as developing a heightened puppetry vocabulary. Stay tuned for more tidbits and pictures from our process soon! Go ahead and follow our Facebook, twitter, and instagram accounts for frequent updates.
While Biggs stumbled across puppetry as a device to solve a theatrical story-telling problem (drowning children onstage), object manipulation and animation has become a cornerstone of our work at Outcast Café. Our mission statement now includes: “Using tools that leave room for the imagination. Song, dance, puppets, masks, objects found and handmade, all serving the story. We are bare bones, traveling lightly, making more of less.” Therefore, upon receiving the May/June print edition of American Theatre Magazine we were delighted to come across this article counting our puppets in good company.
Opening with commentary about our favorite cardboard man on a table (Moses from Blind Summit’s The Table) whom we delightfully encountered at EdFringe 2011 and continuing to sight the relevance of puppetry as a dynamic storytelling tool, Scott T. Cummings articulates our shared sentiment; “If we will only listen, the reasoning goes, puppets have things to tell us about what it means to be a person and what it means to be an object”.
We learned a lot about our own local centers of puppetry as well as the international ones we may have been aware of before. But mostly, we were happy to know that we are by no means alone in our reanimation of ” what cultural anthropologist and folklorist Frank Proschan dubbed “performing objects”—puppets, masks, ritual and fetish objects, and other material things endowed with agency through display, manipulation, storytelling, or performance”.
With a few raw materials, an old coyote skull, some petty cash, a rough idea, and a good dose of faith in hand, off I went to make a puppet!
When I returned to the Berkshires in late June of 2013, Biggs presented me with the top half of a coyote skull that he’d found and a plush coyote, about four feet long, constructed of muslin and stuffing, by the lovely Emily Justice Dunn, creator of our Drape and Baby Noah from “The Dick and The Rose”. We had discussed, while I was still in New York, the upcoming story he was spinning into play and screenplay form, and that in this story we needed a talking Coyote. He told me to take inspiration from Emily’s sweet pup, mix it up with what we learned in Tom’s workshop, and dive boldly into the experiment of making an approximately life-sized Coyote puppet for an upcoming short film and play.
So home I went to do some research on Handspring Puppet company, the amazing South African group that Tom worked with on War Horse, a company that has been producing incredible animal puppets that move in lifelike ways while maintaining a creative, homespun, story telling aesthetic in their overall look. I knew this is what I felt inspired by and envisioned for Coyote. Before I moved back up to the Berkshires, I’d had the good fortune of being invited to puppeteer with HiveMind Theatre Company in their short puppet play at St.Ann’s Warehouse’s Toy Theatre Festival. Over the rehearsal period, I watched puppets be tinkered with and built from wood, fabric, paper, glue, paint, staples, and pretty much anything else you could imagine. Witnessing the work behind Chan Thou’s Tuk Tuk also gave me confidence to dabble in the unknown.
And so several months of experiments began as I started on what I envisioned as a two to three person, Bunraku-style, life-sized Coyote puppet. I started with a rough, wooden skeleton. I used the size and shape of Emily’s plush Coyote, as well as photos of coyote skeletons found online, to create templates out of large sheets of masonite that I had on hand. Then, I planned to connect them with wire, dowels, and backpack strap (a useful, strong material that Tom suggested). The main part of the skeleton consisted of a ribcage with a front and back piece of masonite and wire “ribs” connecting the two. A hole was cut in the front piece to allow for the neck stick of the head to come through and the back piece was designed with a wrist rest so that one hand could manipulate the shoulders and head together. The rib cage then connected to a spine, which would have some hips constructed in a similar fashion to the shoulder piece, with an identical, dowel-sized hole for the tale. The legs were built of masonite, dowel,and backpack strap with appropriate joints and as natural movement as possible ( this inspiration I pulled from Handspring), and the feet were weighted to potentially relieve the puppeteers of excess manipulation.
Then came the head. Building roughly in the format taught by Tom Lee, I created a coyote skull out of crumpled paper and masking tape. Mounted on a short dowel (functioning as the neck, and also as a mechanism to control the head from within or beneath the body), I took the rough skull shape and added finesse with fine, transparent paper (similar to the traditionally-used rice paper) and watered-down wood glue. After completing the moveable top half of the skull, I also made a working jaw. Biggs wanted an active tongue, if possible, so I began to play around with trigger systems and got a little in over my head. I’m no engineer and that’s for sure! But, with a little help and patience, I managed to rig a spring trigger inside the mouth to move the jaw from the hand which would be inside the rib cage, and saw potential to make moving ears/ tongue.
However, my patience began to ware thin. I was struggling with maintaining focus and inspiration as well as solving what felt like challenging physics, and I was reminded of why I chose the artistic path that I did. I’m a collaborator, and find my fuel in the melding of my passion with others. I was having a really hard time working mostly alone, in silence, assembling a creature I couldn’t yet bring to life in a satisfactory way. There were other issues, too. The head I’d worked so hard on, was much to large and long for an actual coyote. The body was becoming too complex to manipulate with ease and we weren’t sure that we’d have more than just myself as a puppeteer, especially for the film, so I needed to get back to the drawing board and work on a simpler, smaller, more accurate puppet for a single puppeteer. The good news is that I could focus on just the top half of the body for the film’s sake. I decided to start from a place of necessity, the bare bones of what the puppet needed to do, and to come from a puppeteer’s functional perspective rather than a design-oriented angle. But this a tale for next time…
How long does it take to build a puppet? A minute, an hour, a day, a year? All of the above. The discovery and then simple manipulation of an inanimate object within minutes can create a puppet. The careful stitching and gluing of a collection of materials over several hours, days, or weeks can produce a puppet. The trial and error experimentation with many forms, patterns, shapes, ideas, and animations of a specific character can eventually materialize into an appropriate puppet for a new film and play in development over the course of what has now been a two year process. This hardly marks the end of our development of Coyote, as we are still discovering the ways in which we need the thing and creating more and more uses for it as we continue development of Riley Ann Visits the Outcast Café.
If you were to ask me, I’d say this puppet began over a conversation about a workshop held in Williamsburg, BK in April 2013. After closing The Dick and The Rose in the summer of 2012, I decided to return to NYC in hopes of some artistic and general clarity. Biggs continued to develop the next chapter of his tale at home and on the farm, and knew that puppets had become an inviting, compelling, and powerful way to tell his stories. Not knowing the exact form, but knowing that they would return and I’d most likely be the one putting my hand up their butts or wherever else they might call for, he contacted me with a fantastic offer to hone my natural draw to puppets as a storytelling mechanism. Right down the street from my then apartment Triskelion Arts happened to be hosting a weekend long workshop with the incredibly talented and knowledgable Tom Lee and we were to attend!
Tom is one of the original creators and animators of the puppets used in the international hit War Horse. He’s also built puppets for many other renowned works and teaches as a professor of theatre and puppetry at Sarah Lawrence College. Having studied and observed the traditional (rather laborious and extensive) Bunraku form of puppetry in Japan, Tom developed his own form of building, manipulating, and teaching the art of puppets to many others. So, Biggs and I spent an eye-opening weekend with Tom, and a diverse smattering of fellow artists with varying puppetry experience, refining our skills in storytelling through the animation of inanimate objects. We also discovered the magic, the power and delight, of the puppeteer as the puppet maker. There is a certain ceremony in bringing life from scratch to the thing we will call ‘puppet’. From this place comes our inspiration, and our patience and persistence, to embark on a brand new journey with Coyote Girl/ Riley Ann Visits the Outcast Café in which I, as puppeteer, and Biggs as creator, dive head first into the unknown territory of building our own puppet: Coyote.
Stay tuned for the next installment of “The Evolution of Coyote” coming soon!