By Kathryn G. Menu
The mastermind behind The Goat on a Boat Puppet Theatre in Sag Harbor talks about finding her way into the world of puppetry, why puppet shows are still relevant in a technology driven society, and how contending with two-year-olds is actually a rewarding experience.
What are your first memories of puppets? Did you have your own puppet theatre growing up? Well, I was a first generation Sesame Street viewer. I remember my mom plopping me down and watching the show, and I got an Oscar the Grouch puppet when I was three. But then I gave up my puppet addiction for some 20 years.
When did you find that addiction again?
I had graduated art school in the early 1990s, during the recession, and I was making Christmas presents one year and one was a puppet. I made a bunch of them because I had some free time on my hands. I was a certified art teacher, but I thought I would do a little resume building so I went to the Richmond Children’s Museum and Phyllis Biddle saw me and said, “You are going to do puppet shows here.” And I said, “I am not a performer, I don’t do puppet shows.” And she said, “No, no, you are going to do puppet shows and I will pay you $25.” She just would not take no for an answer. So I had my first puppet show, and it was a little tough, but then I had my second one and it was good and I was hooked. It brought together my teaching skills, my artistic skills and I had some musical talent, so it all balanced out. It never got boring — one day you are writing, the next you are performing, or building or sewing. It was this weird thing that I never planned for.
How did you find your way to Sag Harbor?
I moved to New York City because I wanted to be around puppeteers. We are kind of a dying breed in that there are not too many of us; but in New York there were festivals and this whole international scene. It’s a tight, vibrant community and we worked on each other’s shows, attended performances. It was a great time, but then I lost my artist’s loft. My sister and her family had this little beach house on Jermain and Division Street and they were living in London so she let me stay there while I figured out what I wanted to do. The first winter was very long. I carved probably 20 hand puppets, but then the summer came and I was amazed. I thought, this is a place I can do this, I can have a puppet theatre.
Is there something about parents on the East End, or Sag Harbor in particular, that has enabled Goat on a Boat to thrive?
I think it is because a lot of families have relocated here from New York and they are used to doing things like this with their kids. I started in 2001 — the Goat’s 10th birthday is this summer — and it was only going to be a summer thing, but parents said, “No, no, no” and that is how our play groups formed. But then, September 11 happened and there was a huge wave of people who sought refuge here and it felt like people wanted to be around other people, have a sense of connection and rebuild their strength. And the Goat was there, and it was an important thing somehow.
In addition to puppet shows featuring yourself and guest artists each Saturday, you also host bi-weekly puppet playgroups and tot art programs. How did that develop?
A mom and some of her friends said, “Liz, we are coming on Monday at 10 a.m. and bringing 10 kids.” At first I had no idea what to do with these kids, they were one-year-olds, but I did some experimentation and realized they liked visuals, music and sound effects, they like tactile experiences. I find them to be these amazing little creatures. I get a lot of energy back from them so it’s a symbiotic relationship. I have come to appreciate those new life forms.
Have you ever had a kid throw up on you?
Oh yeah. Throw up on me, pee on me, pee on the floor. We have had it all. Morgan Taylor’s “Gustafer Yellowgold” will be coming back to the Goat this February. He has opened for Wilco and is something of a rock star for tots. What is it about Gustafer that is so enthralling? I think what is successful about Morgan’s work is he is a very creative person, a wacky, loveable mind. He has created this whole mythology around Gustafer and his friends. This is his baby, his creative project and he breathes life into it that you can see. His humor is like mine, not just for the kids, the adults enjoy it too, which is important because the parents have to sit through this too and if they don’t like it, they are not coming back. Morgan is also an accomplished musician. He has really complex, beautiful music that works for everyone. He is a kind of Beatles-like storyteller.
Puppet theatres are an international artistic medium. How do they differ culture to culture?
I spent a lot of time in Prague and they are very well known for their puppet shows. In the Czech theatre, puppets are integrated into all forms of theatre, including for adults, which is really amazing. It is real time special effects, a suspension of reality. It is one thing to get it through CGI, but it loses its integrity. We have always had a lot of Europeans commit to the puppet theatre year round and I think it is because it is a part of their culture, a part of their childhood, and they want their children to have that too. The thing I love most about it is the kids see the shows, and then they go home and perform them themselves. It is a part of their creative vocabulary that they can’t get from a DVD or other toys, which is why puppets have a special place for them. They are also symbolic, they can be in another world, they don’t have to be literal, which kids really get.
Is it that connection that continues to drive you as an artist?
You cannot help but be a little nostalgic to be a puppeteer. It is that Old World embrace of a story, play, imagination and do-it-yourself attitude to create an imaginary world. That is what we do. It is the glue that keeps us together. The shows we get at the Goat are Old World, embracing that kind of creativity and understanding our relationship with the audience. We stay attuned to our audience so there is a level of attention that is kind of sweet, and I think people pick up on that. This isn’t a pre-packaged conglomerate coming your way, it’s child sized. And that translates to a kid’s world perfectly, and makes them want to go home and create. Goat on a Boat Puppet Theatre is located behind Christ Episcopal Church in the parish house lower level on Hampton Street in Sag Harbor. It hosts puppet shows each Saturday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., this week featuring The Puppet Company’s Marionette Variety Show. It also hosts puppet play groups on Mondays and Fridays at 9:30 a.m.