Weekly Feature



2012-07-26 / Lifestyles

Give them a hand

Puppeteers create life, preserve storytelling
by JOLENE ZANGHI Reporter


Cameron Garrity smiles during an interview with his two puppets, Mr. Johnson, left, and Scraps. Garrity is a senior at Daemen College and has been involved in puppetry for more than a decade. 
Photo by Jim SmerecakPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com Cameron Garrity smiles during an interview with his two puppets, Mr. Johnson, left, and Scraps. Garrity is a senior at Daemen College and has been involved in puppetry for more than a decade. Photo by Jim SmerecakPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com It starts with an inanimate object. Maybe a sock or a few scrap pieces of fabric sewn together. Or perhaps some fur.

But even after the hours of painting and the addition of ears, teeth and eyeballs — or the omission thereof — a character doesn’t seem to form until after a puppeteer adds movement and voice to an otherwise lifeless piece of art.

Mr. Johnson, for example, a handcrafted creature who wears a spotted tie and has a professional demeanor, is nothing more than a pile of blue fur until his creator, 21-year-old Cameron Garrity, picks him up and begins manipulating his hands and arms.

Garrity, a senior at Daemen College, has always had a love for puppetry; when he was young, he was inspired by a documentary on the late Jim Henson — the man behind the characters from “The Muppet Show,” “Sesame Street” and “Fraggle Rock,” among others. Garrity admitted he watched that documentary more than the shows.


Michele Costa and her puppet perform a scene from “Box” at the Crane Library on Elmwood Avenue during the Buffalo Infringement Festival in July of 2009. Costa said the puppets in the production were were very small, and the props and characters came out of the box that hung from her shoulders. Michele Costa and her puppet perform a scene from “Box” at the Crane Library on Elmwood Avenue during the Buffalo Infringement Festival in July of 2009. Costa said the puppets in the production were were very small, and the props and characters came out of the box that hung from her shoulders. Another one of Garrity’s creations, a rod puppet named Scraps, explained some of the techniques puppeteers use to bring life to their characters.

“You see, right now I’m talking softly to you like I normally would, but if I wanted to, I could come closer to you and wouldn’t open my mouth as much,” whispered the green four-eyed creature with protruding white teeth. “However, if I then wanted to yell at you, I’m going to punctuate my words, and my mouth is going to get really, really big.”

Garrity held the rods attached to Scraps much like chopsticks, using one hand; his other hand controlled the puppet’s mouth, synchronizing it with his voice. When using Mr. Johnson, who is a hand puppet, Garrity is typically assisted by a second performer who is responsible for controlling the creature’s other hand.

His characters are crafted from fabric and foam, which keeps them at a light weight. That’s important because most of the time the puppets need to be lifted above the top of his head when being filmed.

“I have been working on performing for around 10 years,” Garrity said. “It truly is a part of yourself that you’re extending into your forearm and into this piece of cloth.”

In 2011, Garrity was able to travel to the set of “Sesame Street” in New York City, meeting a few of his puppeteer idols such as Caroll Spinney — who performs characters such as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch — and Pam Arciero, who performs Grouchella, Oscar’s girlfriend on the show. Daemen may not have a puppetry program, but Garrity said the college awarded him a $3,500 grant as part of its “Think Tank” program, which allowed him to travel to Connecticut in June to participate in the O’Neill National Puppetry Conference. While there, he learned tips and techniques from professionals around the country.

“I’ve always viewed puppetry as an all-inclusive art form,” he said. “You need to illustrate and draw sketches, build off those sketches to see the art in three dimensions, and then be able to put it on, manipulate it and become an actor.”

Michele Costa, the creator of theatreFigüren, agreed.

Costa has been a puppeteer for more than 20 years and began by working with a theater group called Das Puppenspiel. It was there she was able to travel around to various conferences, which helped her to learn and understand the more serious side of puppetry. “We would attend these festivals where we would see puppet companies from all over the world,” Costa said. “If you think about German or Japanese puppetry, it’s serious theater. Adults in those countries go to see the performances in the evening, and it’s very much respected.” Since the inception of theatreFigüren, Costa has created hundreds of marionette puppets and dozens of productions. Her latest production, “Symphony,” will be held during the Buffalo Infringement Festival. The production includes two intricate string puppets and an entire storyline, which is told using yards and yards of hand-painted imagery that strolls by as the plot progresses.

Set to Aaron Copland’s “Symphony No. 3,” the story is set in 1946 and centers on a man and his dog who have been living underground in a hand-dug hole off the side of the road next to a billboard. One day, they emerge and take a journey.

“Creating the puppets themselves or an animal or object that is going to personify some sort of emotion is very powerful,” Costa said. “It’s a metaphor for whatever you want to create.”

Both Garrity and Costa agreed that they love the challenge that goes into puppetry, from the initial idea to the design of the characters and finally the techniques used in a performance.

By adding a voice, movement and music to each production, the audience is drawn into the story.

And the artist becomes immersed in the creation.

“Any art process will sort of transport you,” Costa said. “Puppetry involves so many facets of different kinds of art that it’s really kind of a trip.” email: jolenez@beenews.com

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