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THE SOUTHAMPTON PRESS

January 18, 2001
Arts & Living Section

Finding a Passion for Puppets
by Mary Cummings

 

 

If teaching jobs had been a little less scarce when Liz Joyce got out of college, everything might have been different. There she was back in her native Virginia with a bachelor of fine arts degree, an artist's habit to support, and a teaching license that was supposed to keep her "creative and eating."

 

It was not to be, and Ms. joyce, who has been a year-round resident of Sag Harbor for a year now, clearly has no regrets. While she was waiting for a teaching job to come through, Ms. Joyce, an ebullient young woman with a hip, wholesome charm, discovered an alternative to teaching, something that not only has her eating and creating but keeps her fired up - energized in the way of someone who has found not just a career but a calling.

 

Here's how it happened, as Ms. Joyce told the story during a recent interview in the quaint village home that belongs to her sister, now living in Europe.

 

"While I was waiting for a job, I was very poor," said Ms. Joyce. With more time than money, she decided to make her own Christmas presents, among them a toy wolf made of wool - a puppet, in fact, as she realized when she started to stuff him.

 

She made more puppets. She took them to the Richmond Children's Museum, where she volunteered while awaiting word of a teaching job. At the museum, an overbearing but well-meaning woman took it into her head that Ms. Joyce had a bright future as a puppeteer. She insisted that Ms. Joyce perform puppet shows. She would pay $25 a show. She would make her a star.

 

"She wouldn't take no for an answer," said Ms. Joyce. Beaten, she went to the library for ideas. She did a show, then another. "It clicked," she said. "That was it!"

 

"She was someone who stomps into your life and the next thing you know, it is very different," said Ms. Joyce of her persistent patron, who seems to have known things about her that she herself didn't suspect. She sensed that Ms. Joyce, along with her love of art, writing and music, also had potential as a performer. And she knew that the art of puppetry would draw on all of her young protegees talents.

 

Ms. Joyce said she was more or less winging it at first, "reinventing the wheel," until she connected with the man she calls "a friend and dear mentor," Richmond's well know puppeteer, Terry Snyder.

 

"What is interesting," suggested Ms. Joyce, "is that most puppeteers do not go to school. They are either self-taught or they study with a master."

 

One of the first things she learned from her master was not to scatter her fire. Caught up in the creative excitement, she had intended at first to move quickly from one show to the next - making the puppets, designing and building the sets in great creative bursts of activity.

 

Calm down, he told her. "Do one show and do it over and over again and you'll feel comfortable."

 

There have been other influences as well, not least the feedback she got from audiences whenever "Liz Joyce & a Couple of Puppets," as she calls her one-person, multi-puppet troupe, put on a show.

 

"They tell you what they like," laughed Ms. Joyce, referring to the children. "They are the most sincere crowd. If it's bad, they are going to let you know. They tell the truth."

 

Other tips have been picked up from other puppeteers. Even before she became seriously involved herself, Ms. Joyce attended a children's puppet show in Ireland and never forgot the way the children were integrated into the show, how they were instructed beforehand to hiss at a certain point or shout their approval, so that their attention was always completely engaged.

 

"There you have it," she said. "that is the secret. You've got to keep the kids in the show, so I do that a lot. It kind of shaped the way I perform."

 

In England, she took in the Punch & Judy scene, with all its ritualized outrages and eccentricities, and came back to make her bones as a "professor." Puppeteers who have perfected their own Punch & Judy routines are called professors, she explained, or Punchmen.

 

"I am one of the few women Punchmen," she announced with no small amount of pride. Each Punchman makes up his own gags, she noted, adding that her Mr. Punch is American, while her Judy is English. There is a feminist slant to her slapstick scenario, which takes place in the kitchen and has Judy reading the riot act to her husband, who is going to have to shape up and make himself useful. The wildly incorrect physicality of the spousal spats, so dear to the Brits, takes place offstage in Ms. Joyce's version, but to eliminate it entirely, in her view, is not an option.

 

"I warn parents about what is going to happen," said Ms. Joyce, "but if you get too politically correct, you drain the humor out of everything."

 

Mr. Punch, Judy and the other puppets created by Ms. Joyce are all in residence at the moment in a small studio behind the Sag Harbor house. It is an extraordinary collection, all hand-carved by Ms. Joyce. Some are familiar, like Goldilocks or Little Red Riding Hood — recognizable but engagingly antic. Others are straight out of Ms. Joyce's imagination, which seems to teem with extraordinary characters. A few are modeled on family and friends, "people in my life who have prominent features."

 

There are precious few American puppeteers who carve their own puppets of wood, as Ms. Joyce does, fewer still who do everything from carving the characters to building the sets to narrating the stories. But it is the whole theatrical enterprise that excites her, and Ms. Joyce dreams of the day when it will all come together in her own puppet theater.

 

"People say, 'you should make videos'," she said, but that would be missing the point. "What I do is very modest. I schlep it, build it, repair it - I do it all, but there's something about it being theater - old school, traditional, I love that."

 

For a little more than three years, before she moved to Sag Harbor, Ms. Joyce was based in manhattan where she was thrilled to be part of what she called "a strange little pocket" of puppetry.

 

It was wonderful, she said, but by the time she was getting ready to leave, the city, she felt, was becoming less and less hospitable to creative people. She had been displaced from her loft space and the little Lower East Side theater that had been a lively Mecca for puppeteers of all stripes was shifting its focus. Last summer Ms. Joyce went to Prague, where the strange, the quirky and the wildly imaginative have always been highly prized. She studied carving there with eight people from all over the world and came home with an album full of photographs of marvelous puppets carved by her colleagues.

 

If things go her way, she will stick around this year, she said, working with camps and groups that have already started calling her about workshops and shows. If things go really well, the theater that she has already decided to call The Goat in a Boat Puppet Theatre will be taking shape.

 

"I'm at a point where I have a lot to teach," said Ms. Joyce, and "I would like to find some young folks that want to learn."

 

 

 

 

 

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