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Liz Joyce

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web convo liz joyce

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.

Puppets, Banjos & Balls, Oh My!

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web_Puppet Show Families_0764

Julie Resnick and her daughters Mae and Chloe, and Joyce Shulman with daughter Maddie enjoy the Dreamlike Puppet Theatre’s “Three Bears and Three Pigs” at Goat on a Boat Puppet Theatre last Saturday.

As a parent, Joyce Shulman experienced first-hand the necessity for parents of young children to find community.

“I think we were built to live with a larger sense of community,” Shulman said at “the Goat” on Monday. “Bringing a sense of community and giving parents the ability to connect with each other – Liz does this so well. I think it’s also good for our well-being.”

The “Liz,” Shulman refers to is puppeteer Liz Joyce, and “the Goat” is Joyce’s Sag Harbor-based Goat on a Boat Puppet Theatre, located on the lower level of the Christ Episcopal Church’s parish hall.

Joyce’s puppet theatre, one of only 50 established theatres in the United States, performs puppet shows every Saturday featuring Joyce’s own talent as well as performances by puppeteers from across the country. Joyce also hosts puppet playgroups on Monday, Thursday and Friday mornings for parents and children three and under, and Tot Art, an hour of crafts on Fridays for children two to four years old, in addition to special events like the celebration of the National Day of Puppetry on April 24, and this Saturday’s Bambini Ball, a fundraiser for the not-for-profit theatre.

Shulman has regularly attended Goat on a Boat with her two children, Mason and Maddie, for the last seven years.

“It’s a community place as well as a theatre and a lot of that is because of Liz’s personality and what she has to offer,” said Shulman, co-founder of Macaroni Kid, an online newsletter detailing regional, family-friendly activities.

Goat on a Boat draws throngs of families with children of all ages to Sag Harbor each Saturday, and Joyce’s Puppet Playgroups allow a younger audience to begin to appreciate theatre, music and the arts, while also giving parents an opportunity to connect with their children, and each other.

Developed in 2001 at the urging of several Goat on a Boat devotees, Joyce said she started out using free play with toys, playing music with her banjo, and developing a puppet series around Minky the Monkey – a puppet now so familiar with regulars that shrieks of joy can be heard when he appears on stage. Joyce has also developed a series of original songs built around stimulating activities designed to keep her young audience as engaged and focused as is possible, given their age range.

“With theatre, they hear sound, they think about what the sound is – their minds are filling in a lot of the gaps,” said Joyce. “The thing I love about it is afterwards, they go home and they talk about Minky. They start making up their own stories, and their own characters.”

The playgroup teaches children not only to appreciate art and theatre, but also the ability to sit and enjoy theatre.

“The nice thing is they do these playgroups and come back to weekend shows with the ability to enjoy them,” said Joyce.

Joyce takes pride in bringing shows to Goat on a Boat that local families might not have access to without a trip to Manhattan or beyond, like Gustafer Yellowgold and puppeteer Tom Knight. Joyce said that fundraisers like this Saturday’s Bambini Ball make all of it possible.

“It has this really creative, light hearted energy,” said Shulman of the ball. “Last time, my kids danced and played for the entire evening while I enjoyed a glass of wine and caught up with old friends.”

The family friendly Bambini Ball will feature a red carpet for parents and children alike to strut their stuff, adorned in their favorite costume or gown, as well as food, drinks, a live auction, dancing under a disco ball and maybe even a fire juggler.

“You have the ability as a parent to be in a party atmosphere where your children are having a ball, no pun intended, and you can hang out and participate in Liz’s goofy activities,” said Shulman. “It’s just got a great vibe.”

The Goat on the Boat’s puppet shows are every Saturday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. It’s Puppet Playgroup is held Monday, Thursday and Friday at 9:30 a.m. and Tot Art Fridays are at 10:30 a.m. The Bambini Ball will be held Saturday, March 20 from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Christ Episcopal Church parish hall on East Union Street, Sag Harbor. The cost is $10 for children, $30 for adults. For more information on the ball, or activities at Goat on a Boat, visit http://goatonaboat.org.