Puppets of New York: Theater Pioneers and Downtown Virtuosos

New York City’s first-ever official Puppet Week features, besides a fringe festival, exhibitions both downtown and (way) uptown, honoring the art of celebrated theater artists who work with puppets. Some, like Basil Twist and Theodora Skipitares, are known primarily for their puppetry; others, like Julie Taymor, Ping Chong and Mabou Mines, are viewed as adventurous theater makers who employ puppetry as just one part of their artistry. Most of the artists featured are still actively innovating, but one died more than 70 years ago — Remo Bufano, who worked with Eugene O’Neill (!), and directed the marionette unit (!!) of the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project. He also created and manipulated the puppets for 15 shows on Broadway.

Above are photographs of puppeteers in action shot by Richard Termine. Clockwise from left: Basil Twist and team performing his most famous work,  Symphonie Fantastique; Julie Taymor’s production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the Metropolitan Opera; Kalan Sherrard performing on the 6th Avenue subway platform; Charlotte Lily Gaspard’s Mia M.I.A at La MaMa ETC. All of these photographs are part of the “Puppets of New York” exhibition opening tonight at the Museum of the City of New York, curated by Monzo López. But below are photographs of the actual puppets on display at either this exhibition or its companion “Puppets of New York: Downtown at the Clemente” at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, curated by López and Leslee Asch, which opened yesterday; it looks at the work of a dozen “important downtown artists.”

Hover your cursor over the bottom of each photograph to read the sometimes extensive captions, many of them quoting verbatim from the exhibits. (Or, if that doesn’t work for you, read the captions at the bottom)


Robert Moses from “The Radiant City” by Theodora Skipitares, 1991. “A 12-foot-long version of New York’s master builder Robert Moses surveys development in New York City in the play The Radiant City. One of the city’s foremost puppeteers and playwrights, Theodora Skipitares is known for work dwelling on urban planning and other complex and often traumatic social topics, such as famine and incarceration.” I interviewed her last year (six weeks before the shutdown) for her latest brilliant work, “The Transfiguration of Benjamin Banneker:”

Underground by Theodora Skipitares, 1992. “When a 1960s radical resurfaced after hiding ‘underground’ for more than 20 years, Skipitares became fascinated with people who live, work, and hided underground. the show is composed of various scenes, from bomb shelters to baby Jessica McClure who fell down a well in Plano, Texas. In the scene shown here, we explore Egyptian stories of the hereafter, as the puppets in the canoes paddle to the underworld.”

“Silver Devil” by Remo Bufano (1935-1945)
“Born in Italy and raised in Greenwich Village, as a child Remo Bufano was enthralled by the puppets in nearby Little Italy. He became the foremost avant-garde puppeteer of his time, part of the ensemble of Provincetown Players in New York and a creative partner of Eugene O’Neill, Manuel de Falla, and Igor Stravinsky. In the 1930s, he directed the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project marionette unit, and became famous for his massive puppets for Broadway.”

Trekkie Monster from “Avenue Q” by Rick Lyon.
“Trekkie is Oscar the Grouch’s and Cookie Monster’s alter-ego, in the award-winning Broadway play* Avenue Q, an adult parody of Sesame Street. He is obsessed with social media and has made millions of dollars by investing in it. (In a previous iteration, the original Trekkie was obsessed with Star Trek, hence the name.”
*To be more precise: Avenue Q was the 2004 Tony-winning best musical.

Kwaidan by Ping Chong,1998
“Kwaidan is a haunting stage interpretation of three Japanese ghost stories adapted in 1904 by Lafcadio Hearn…The stories were effectively told through a series of split screens, and the constantly shifting scale and perspective added to the mystery. The scene depicted here is one window of three…from the story of Jikiniki. The character in the foreground is the priest Muso Kokushi and the shadow figure is that of the eldest son of those in which the priest is a guest.”

Peter and Wendy by Mabou Mines, 1996
“The Mabou Mines production of Peter and Wendy was commissioned by the spolette Festival, USA and was presented a few months later at the 1996 Henson festival. A poignant interpretation of J.M Barrie’s classic novel, it was directed by Lee Breuer, adapted by Liza Lorwin, with puppets by Julie Archer. This tale of lost childhood was told in an all-white set, which made audiences feel as if they were enjoying the whole tale in the Darling children’s bedroom, as the Darling children never had to leave their bedroom to experience the wonders of Neverland. This effect was particularly striking in the Public Theater’s all-white LuEsther Hall.
Here we see the battle between Captain Hook and Peter Pan, as Peter is being made to walk the plank. As you see, the plank was actually an ironing board. Hook was performed by lead puppeteer Jane Catherine Shaw, and Peter was performed by lead puppeteer Basil Twist. Actress Karen Kandel narrated, and gave voice to all the characters…”

Cheetah from The Lion King by Julie Taymor and Michael Curry. “A true performance arts renaissance woman, Julie Taymor began her performance career at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in 1980. She quickly became a staple of the city’s New York downtown scene, and then added film to her already impressive career …But perhaps Taymor’s best-known work is her design for the innovative puppets for the Broadway production of The Lion King. Taymor’s work in The Lion King continues an old tradition of puppets on Broadway. From Remo Bufano’s Alice in Wonderland in the 1930s to the stage adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors to such recent productions as King Kong and Frozen, puppets have made the impossible possible on the stage.”

“The Araneidae Show and Other Pieces” showgirls, lonely streets, cats, deconstructing theaters, sex, despair, magic, metamorphosis, and the fragile web of illusion sometimes called “reality” — and brought early attention to Basil Twist, a third-generation puppeteer, he sole American to graduate from the École Supérieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mezieres, France, and the winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” Award. He is the head of the Dream Music Puppetry Program at HERE in NYC.

Toad Lord of Death by Ralph Lee, 1994
Lee, best known as the creator of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, created this Toad Lord of Death for a play called A Popol Vuh Story, an adaptation by Cherrie Moraga of a Mayan creation story.

Food for the Gods by Nehprii Amenii, 2018. is a multimedia performance installation inspired by the killings of Black men, which was presented at La MaMa.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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