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Bringing the Puppets Home…

by Kat Lilith

Once upon a time, in a land that seemed far, far away from San Francisco, there was a puppetless town. The people of this town were good people, and creative people, but they had no puppets. Because the town had no puppets, the people did not realize that they had no puppets, and because they had no puppets, and because there was no realization that they had no puppets, they did not know what they were missing. And because they did not know what they were missing, they were more susceptible to the brainwashing of the imperialist society in which they, most unfortunately, lived. Behold! In the dreary pits of oppression, there was still magic and serendipity in the world! And so one young woman, on her travels from her puppetless town, was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the magical creatures. In her quest to obtain the knowledge to work this magic herself, she met the Fairy Puppetmother, who brings puppets to the streets.

The Journey

I am infatuated with giant puppets. I first saw them at a Reclaiming Beltane ritual in San Francisco. Invoking center, they deepened my experience of the ritual so much that I was sad at later rituals when they weren’t there. As non-ordinary visuals, they help induce a non-ordinary state of reality. They create a shift, an opening that is similar to the ecstatic state of children, who approach everything with wonder and joy.

I live in Petaluma, a place where I have never seen puppets. I really wanted to learn how to make them, to offer them to Petaluma as a gift, to educate and to build community. We have an annual parade for Butter and Eggs Day that is attended by 30,000 people (the population of the town itself is about 54,000). My vision was to have puppets in the parade, to move the masses, and to bring art to the streets

Street theater does not require that its patrons be of a certain social class. It does not cater to the bourgeoisie. While certain demographics might be more or less inclined to go to a gallery, for example, street theater transcends social and class stratifications by bringing art to the people.

I have never personally identified with the word “artist.” I have never painted, sculpted, or willingly created visual art on my own. Nonetheless, I knew that I wanted those puppets in Petaluma! My first step was to check out the website for Wise Fool Puppet intervention, a well-loved Bay Area street theater group that has been teaching giant puppet construction, stiltwalking, and other street theater basics for 11 years, in addition to creating performances in the street. They have developed a tradition devoted to community, celebration, and change, and visual support of social change organizations. I ordered their delightful and informative handbook, Wise Fool Basics, (Wise Fool Puppet Intervention, anti- copyright 1999), and in November collaborated with a friend to create a pre-election street spectacle. We made giant cardboard images of Al Gore and George W. Bush, adhered fake money all over them and acted ridiculously in the street. People loved us; even those who disagreed could not help cracking a smile.

I then applied for the first Wise Fool Internship, four months of instruction in giant puppet construction, stilt walking, shadow puppetry and other “basics.” I was selected and in mid-February began the internship, which consisted of weekly meetings of six or more hours in Oakland. Around that time, I started connecting with other people in Petaluma who were interested in building puppets for the parade.

The Transformation

Three weeks after the internship began, we started building in Petaluma on Thursdays and Sundays. A local filmmaker, Julian Blair, filmed the entire process.

I would learn one phase of giant puppet construction on a Tuesday and a few days later teach several other people, sometimes as many as 10, how to build. It was crazy and completely chaotic. People would say, “Can we do this?” and it would be a different method than I had learned three days before and I would say, “I have no clue. Try it and see and then be sure to let me know!” Although it was hard on the group as a whole to be led by someone who only had three days of experience, that three days was simultaneously crucial! I definitely would not have taken this on without the instruction from Wise Fool. My learning style requires person to person instruction before I can read to enhance my knowledge. Thank you, Wise Fool!

Our idea was to help people remember their connection to the earth in the hope that remembrance would renew love and commitment. We built six-foot puppets to represent the elements: earth, air, fire, and water, and an 11-foot Earth Mother. We also built an elder and baby puppet to represent two groups that are most affected by our poor choices.

Many different people participated in many different ways, probably about 40 overall. We recruited people through word of mouth and by showing puppet movies at City Hall. There was no core group of people who were accountable for completing the project — people simply came and went, helping out as their time allowed. While I had a lot of help on many different facets of the parade entry, including building the puppets, I was definitely the driving force behind it. This was problematic for several reasons. The structure was not conducive to shared leadership, and towards the end, I was spending about 30hours a week on the project. About two weeks before the parade I was completely burned out, and, therefore, not very effective as an organizer. It was often difficult for me to see that I had already accomplished my goal of building puppets in Petaluma — and that everything else was just details!


In exchange for the free instruction we were receiving, the Wise Fool interns helped K. Ruby (co-founder and current artistic director of Wise Fool) with the many tasks involved in producing PuppetLOVE!, a festival of radical puppetry produced by Wise Fool and Cellspace. PuppetLOVE! is three days of workshops, performances, gallery exhibitions and puppet-related movies. Puppeteers come from all over the country to participate in the festival. They bring with them many different types of puppets and puppet shows: giant puppets, shadow puppets, marionettes, and more. Many of the performances are politically oriented. Workshops this year included marionette making, giant puppet construction basics, shadow puppetry, and sock puppets.

PuppetLOVE! Is a profound example of theater inspiring social change. The performances were thought provoking, moving, and often hysterical. One of the gifts offered by artists’ sharing of creativity and vision is the permission for self-expression. Art and Revolution told stories of the indigenous peoples affected by NAFTA and the FTAA. David Morley spoke to the detriments of TV. While educating the audience through theater, they also modeled how one person speaking their truth can help to expand the consciousness of those around them. Those moments that we can see clearly the positive change created by one person living out their dream and heart’s visions are rare and life-changing. All the people who were there have been empowered to take their inspiration and creative vision to their communities, and enact change.

The Circle Completed

Parade Day! Two-and-a-half months of hard work pays off! The parade was surreal. It was extremely windy and hard to work the puppets. (Of course, there is a method for working puppets in the wind that I read the day AFTER the parade.) We were behind several big cars and in front of walking pizza — it was really strange. Because I was inside the 11-foot puppet, I could not see very well, but the puppeteers working the Earth Mother’s hands kept me apprised of the spectators’ reactions. They really loved it. We handed out lyrics to Let It Begin, two-liners, and a piece by Dana Meadows. The wind made me really cranky; I got out of the Earth Mother puppet as soon as the parade ended. Julian was right there with his camera: “How was it?” “It sucked!” I yelled. So much for the perfect day. Afterwards, people told me that they were beautiful, and how happy they were to see that type of art in the parade and in Petaluma. To top it off, we won second place in our category! I never thought that I would be so happy to have a Butter and Eggs ribbon!

The puppets have been busy. The week before the parade they went to an Earth Day Festival in Sonoma County and the week after they went to two May Day celebrations. Their next stop is Santa Rosa for the Health and Harmony Fair. Their presence at different events has inspired others to become puppeteers. They are so well-loved and so powerful because people really want to believe that they are connected to something larger than themselves. Puppetry has the ability to reach deeply, to speak directly to that part of the Self that holds that knowledge, that remembrance. And it is from that place that our magic springs forth.

With the help of the Fairy Puppetmother, the young woman brought puppets to her town. And the good and creative people of the town welcomed and nurtured them, and they multiplied. And as they multiplied, they traveled to other towns. And as they traveled to other towns, light followed. Soon there were no more puppetless towns and all the people in the world remembered that they were connected, and that all of Nature is magical. They changed their world. Sometimes they lived happily, and sometimes it was hard, but the spirit and magic of their work prevailed ever after.

To contact Wise Fool or to order their handbook (you know you want to!), contact (415) 905-5958,,