Complex, expressive, charismatic figures, who confront real-world problems with a compelling mix of humor and vulnerability.
Made of cut wood, foam, fabric, patterning. A balance of precision and imperfection.
Such intricacies were displayed in the puppets brought to life by alumna Danielle Jordan '12 (Theatre Arts), created and featured in special new programming at SUNY New Paltz that culminated in a campus performance of "Avenue Q" in spring 2018.
When you build a puppet, no matter how simple or complicated, you’re building an object whose sole purpose is to be brought to life by another person,” said Jordan. “A puppet needs to be well made, but it also needs to have a personality.”
The Department of Theatre Arts expanded its puppetry program in fall 2017 by bringing in Anika Larsen, a Tony Award-nominated Broadway actress with extensive experience performing with puppets, to lead a new course – the first ever “Acting with Puppets” course at SUNY New Paltz.
Needing to obtain professional-quality puppets, the department’s research led them to alumna Jordan, who works professionally as Crafts Artisan at the First Stage Children’s Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“Danielle Jordan landed this great early career and I knew she could meet our needs,” said Department Chair Ken Goldstein. “I reached out to her, and she was really enthusiastic.”
Jordan created a dozen puppets in one month, while working a regular full-time job.
Clearly passionate about the task, she found her groove and focused on building five foam and fleece puppets for the Acting with Puppets course while simplifying the construction of the remaining seven.
“During creation, you want to keep joints like the hinges of the mouth, the neck, and the wrists loose and easily manipulated so that even the slightest movement from the puppeteer will evoke emotion from the puppet,” said Jordan. “This way they can maintain their energy for the duration of the performance. Sometimes the smallest, simplest puppets are the most expressive.”
When Jordan’s puppets arrived at New Paltz, Larsen was immediately impressed with their quality.
“I was delighted to discover how well the neck moved, and that it was attached to the body, but not too rigidly, almost as if they were two pieces,” Larsen said. “She did her homework.”
Supporting without distracting
Puppetry is an ancient form of performance that involves manipulation by a “puppeteer” that supports the puppet without distracting from it. It is about learning to animate them, bringing them to life through creating a character and causing a suspension of unpredictability. Puppets range from simple finger puppets to complex marionettes that are suspended and controlled by a number of strings.
Some of the American 20th-century puppeteers whose genius graced stages and televisions were Bil Baird, who earned the title of master puppeteer; Burr Tillstrom, who created the improvisational television masterpiece "Kukla;" Jim Henson, who captivated audiences with the “Muppets” and other noteworthy creations; movie director Frank Oz, whose contribution to the “Muppets” and “Star Wars” is immeasurable; and Shari Lewis, a puppeteer, ventriloquist and author of children’s books, known for her famous character, Lambchop.
Puppet Play at SUNY New Paltz
The puppets Danielle Jordan created for the Department of Theatre Arts fueled a successful first offering of the “Acting with Puppets” course and gave students a rare opportunity to learn the basics of an ancient, but still relevant, mode of performance. It also allowed the alumna to gain perspective and experience that exemplifies clear parallels to her work in costume construction.
“The puppet-building process combines traditional elements of both costume and prop making,” said Jordan. “One of my favorite things about building costumes for theatre is being able to create something that helps a performer become a character and tell a story. The garment transforms the person and vice versa. Puppetry does the exact same thing, if not more.”
Jordan continues to consult with student and faculty costume designers and she returned to New Paltz to teach a two-day “crash course” on puppet craft early in the spring semester.
“It was incredibly rewarding to share my knowledge and passion with a new generation of students,” she said.
Jordan spends her summers as a First Hand with the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y. She creates costumes and crafts for a broad spectrum of theatre.
A Conversation with Danielle Jordan
New Paltz: How did you end up at New Paltz?
Danielle: I’m originally from Westtown, N.Y., a rural town about an hour southwest of New Paltz. I had applied to several colleges along the east coast and SUNY New Paltz wound up being the most economical choice for my family. Luckily it turned out to be a great choice for many other reasons too.
NP: What was your experience like in the Theatre Department?
D: I was involved with the theatre department for the entirety of my four years at New Paltz. Going in, I wasn’t sure if I’d go the route of costume or set design, but the liberal arts nature of the course requirements allowed me to explore a little bit of both before I made my choice. Over the first year or so I found myself gravitating toward the costume department, and made the costume shop my home for the following three years.
One of my favorite things about the SUNY New Paltz theatre department was the level of involvement of the students in almost every aspect of the mainstage and more independent works produced on campus. I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, but it was quite a microcosm of a professional theatre, with students playing many of the leading roles in design and production - under the supervision of the faculty of course.
NP: Did you always have an interest in costume/puppet design?
D: I’ve been involved in theatre for most of my life in one way or another.
I first joined my elementary school’s drama club as a performer at ten years old and continued all the way through middle and high school. I attended the Minisink Valley Central School District for the entirety of grade school, and even when I was that young I was always impressed by the quality of production we were able to produce with seemingly so few resources. There were always parent and student volunteers banding together to make something great out of noting and that always inspired me. High school graduation was quickly approaching and I had no idea what to go to college for. I’ve always had an aptitude for the visual arts so I thought maybe graphic design, but had no experience with it. All I could think about during that time though was how much I would miss making theatre. Then, mostly by accident, I discovered theatrical design.
I knew I never wanted to pursue performance professionally, but design and production seemed right up my alley. So I began my time at New Paltz as a general design student, gravitated toward costume design, then eventually discovered that it’s not actually the designing of the costumes that I enjoy, but rather the production and engineering.
NP: How has your career taken shape since you graduated?
D: The fall following my graduation in 2012, I immediately began attending the costume technology graduate program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There are only a handful of graduate programs that allow students to focus solely on costume production, and this was one that I got into and could also afford. I spent three years there refining my skills, all the while working for summer opera festivals during my summer “breaks”, and graduated with my MFA in 2015. After that, I applied to every job listing I was qualified for.
The work has always been more important that the location to me, so I applied to companies from California to Alabama and everywhere in between. I knew New York City seemed like the obvious choice, but I’ve never liked it enough to live there, so I kept it in my back pocket as a backup plan if nothing else came through. I wound up being offered a part time job as the assistant costume crafts artisan at the First Stage Children’s Theatre in Milwaukee, WI. I knew it was risky to move to a brand new city, sight unseen, for a part time job but it just felt right. With the help of some new friends and a wonderful arts community I was able to scrape together enough extra work to get by and the following year I became First Stage’s full time crafts artisan, a position I am still happy to occupy today.
NP: Did you have prior experience building puppets for a theatre performance?
D: Not quite, so this was a huge learning experience. My first task at First Stage was to help make a handful of pumpkin puppets for a production of Spookley the Square Pumpkin, but I was working alongside my colleague Brandon Kirkham who had much more puppet building experience than I did. I’d had a prior interest in building puppets, but that experience really lit the spark for me.
NP: Would you want to do more work with puppets in the future?
D: I would love to do more work with puppets. From a construction perspective, the puppet building process combines traditional elements of both costume and prop making - cutting wood, foam, and fabric, patterning, gluing, sewing, and so many others. I love the constant balance of precision and imperfection.
A puppet needs to be well made but it also needs to have a personality, which is usually helped by subtle asymmetries and imperfections. From a philosophical standpoint, I also find many parallels to costume construction. One of my favorite things about building costumes for theatre is being able to create something that helps a performer become a character and tell a story. The garment transforms the person and vice versa. Puppetry does the exact same thing, if not moreso. When you build a puppet, no matter how simple or complicated, you’re building an object whose sole purpose is to be brought to life by another person. When both parts are done well, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience.
NP: How does the design and construction of a puppet affect a performance?
D: A puppeteer might be better able to explain this, but from my point of view comfort is the number one priority. The puppet should be operated as easily as possible in order to prevent fatigue. You want to keep joints like the hinges of the mouth, the neck, and the wrists loose and easily manipulated so that even the slightest movement from the puppeteer will evoke emotion from the puppet. This way they can maintain their energy for the duration of the performance. Sometimes the smallest, simplest puppets are the most expressive. That being said, there are adjustments to be made to the scale of the puppets and their features for stage as opposed to screen since they have to be big enough to be seen from the back row. Then weight becomes a concern... it’s a balancing act.
NP: How did it feel to be back on campus to work on a project like this?
D: I owe so much to this institution and it warms my heart to be able to be give back to my alma mater only six years after graduating. Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it back east to see the finished production, but I’m thrilled to be able to come out next month and lend a hand to the puppet building process for a weekend. I’m excited to work alongside the people who taught me so much in a professional capacity.