Matt Cotten and Charles Swanson from Tucson Puppet Works tell us the story of the collective, talk about their process, and discuss the folk-art of puppetry and the joy of home-grown entertainment!
Charles: I had finished college with a degree in creative writing and I didn’t really have any art or theater experience prior to getting together with those guys. When we started off, it was just goofing around and I never really thought of it as art or theater. I taught myself more about what puppetry was and started getting into it and everyone else taught me a lot; Matt (Cotten) is an incredible artist in 2-D painting and drawing, sculpting, and I learned a lot from him. And also all those guys have been in musicals and theater. Eric, Matt and Brett have been in musicals and theater a lot. They have a little bit of background theatrically, and I play music, too, so I brought that to the group, even though in the beginning we weren’t playing our own music too much. That happened about halfway through, in the mid 90’s, I suppose. We started getting Jimmy Carr and Golden Boots playing with us a lot back in those days. So like I said, most of what I picked up was from doing it. Let me just say, I wasn’t there at the very beginning. I was working abroad when a lot of the first things were going on with Matt and Jeff Thomas, Jess Daniels. They were doing a lot of street theater and fire performance. They had made giant puppets for a St. Patrick’s Day parade and also they made giant Conquistadors and went down to Nogales and crossed the border in big Conquistador puppets on Columbus Day. And I wasn’t here to see any of that. And then that winter –I guess that was ’96– they got a small grant from the Children’s Museum to build a production of Where the Wild Things Are. I was living in Korea at that time and they were telling me about all the fun stuff they were doing. So I was like, “I’m going back to Tucson and joining in the fun.” And that was how I got into Puppetworks. We were Big Head Puppets back then, Burn ‘Em in Effigy Puppet Theater, Circus Wee Wee….
jhon: So I’m going to guess that the people who have been involved with Puppetworks throughout the years haven’t been the same repertoire of folks, that people have kind of come and gone, or has it been mainly the same people all along?
Charles: Matt’s really the only person who’s been with it from the very beginning. But for the last five years it was pretty much the same core of four guys; Matt, Brett, Eric and I. And we’ve always had other people jumping in to help and doing different things like the musicians I mentioned, and also other puppeteers and other designers. Artists have come in and made stuff but never performed. There was always tons of collaboration, so the line between what Puppetworks is and kind of a broader thing was gray.
jhon: So who were the original members?
Charles: Matt Cotten, Jeff Thomas, Jess Daniels, Yvonne Gonzales , and then even back then a lot of people were just joining in.
jhon: So it was pretty nebulous?
jhon: (to Matt Cotten, who is just joining in) So we were talking about Charles’ background, what training he had that helped him in his endeavors with Puppetworks. And now why don’t we hear from you what education or background you had that you utilized in that work.
Matt: A lot of experiences, not just my training per se in school. I come from a family of musicians and performers and my house was a rehearsal space growing up. A pretty consistent aspect of life was preparing for performance. So there’s that, and I went to school to learn how to make stuff, to be a sculptor. My roll in Puppetworks sort of started with the making of the objects. That was my main roll. I kind of feel like it was my job to spearhead, making sure things got designed and made. But I grew up in a household where that was what we did, and besides that I just always identified as an artist, so I’ve been training to make things my whole life.
jhon: What were the events that led to the formation of Puppetworks?
Matt: The very first spark for it was Jess Daniels and me and the big (Tucson) St. Patrick’s Day parade, like 15 years ago. And he was hell-bent on making a dragon…
Charles: That was spring of ’95
Matt: Was it? And I was starting my graduate work at the university and I wanted to do stuff that was outside of the gallery. I was interested in having a more immediate interaction with the viewer. Something just more interactive and maybe ritual based. I wasn’t sure what. We realized how easy it was to be in a parade –all you have to do is a week before, sign them a check for $15 and you’re in. So that’s what we did. We decided that the St. Paddy’s Day parade had a very Christian foundation, but with the whole idea of St. Paddy driving the snakes out, we thought, “Well, we should at least represent the snakes, whether we’re driving them back in, or they’re just there to be part of the story, let’s make a bunch of snakes”. So Jess made an amazing, beautiful dragon that was terribly overbuilt, but, you know, we’d never done anything like that before. So it was hard to puppeteer. It was heavy and cumbersome, but it was beautiful.
Charles: The scales were made out of rose petals because he dumpster dived hundreds of rose petals after Valentine’s day, so it smelled and looked pretty cool. It was heavy.
Matt: He also used plaster for the horns. He was a trooper, man, he stuck with it for most of the parade, almost all of it. And I made just a whole bunch of masks and right away with that very first event, it was an open community workshop-type format where friends just came to my grad studio and we just made masks. So from the very beginning, we’ve been doing that. And then soon, just a few days later after that event, I met Nadia (Hagen, of Flam Chen and MMOS). She was having a little meeting, and Jess had seen a performance that she had done. So she was having a meeting for an event for April Fool’s Day that same year. She had gotten a grant, Then Tingari (Nadia’s mid-90’s performance group) had gotten a grant, and they wanted to make dragons, too. And they were like, “Hey, you’re making dragons, we’re making dragons, let’s get together.” So that was really cool getting to know Nadia through that format, putting together essentially the same kind of thing we do now with All Souls, a very ritual-based march through town.
Charles: That was the first thing that I had ever made a mask for and jumped in.
Matt: Then me and Jess and Jeff and in some capacity, Charles, and Eric, we were doing puppet shows and fire stuff….well, Jess and Jeff were doing fire, fire-spinning and chain stuff, poi, back when Downtown Saturday Night was every Saturday night. I was doing some puppets…. it was total, really chaotic stuff; there was no rehearsal at all. And then we met Dennis the Red and he got us interested in the small puppets, but we’d been making big puppets and we got a grant to do Where the Wild Things Are. Once we got that grant, we started figuring out, “What else can we do besides giant puppets?” We were making some smaller stuff, costumes, and that’s when we met Dennis Eustice (Dennis the Red) soon after. He had been making small puppets.
Charles: The first hand-puppet show that Puppetworks ever did was joining Dennis doing a show at the Spring ’96 (4th Avenue) Street Fair. I wasn’t in that show but I watched it and it was pretty funny. I think there was some throwing-food-at-the-audience element to that show.
jhon: How did that go over?
Charles: It was great (laughing).
Matt: We learned a lot from that first show.
Charles: And then there was Matt’s Masters show.
Matt: That was for my thesis work in ’97, and that involved large puppets. That was basically a circus act and I think it was a 45-minute circus we did, but it wasn’t really a conventional circus. It was in this humongous space in a building that was the old YMCA. So it was when we were just starting to renovate that building and that big gymnasium was one big empty room…
Charles: With piles of rubble (laughing).
Matt: But that’s where I had my thesis show. It was kind of a song and dance, kind of vaudevillian, I guess.
Krishna: What year was that when you guys got the space on Congress? I think it was ’99.
Matt: That sounds about right.
jhon: And you held that space for how long?
Matt: Two years.
jhon: And that’s when you moved into the…
Matt: 6th Street Studios.
Krishna: But I remember when you guys held that space at Congress, that was really integral to Tucson Puppetworks to have the shows you guys were having on a regular basis and having the workshops.
Matt: Up till that time, it had been really low profile workshops with just a handful of friends each time. A lot of what I was doing was installations for Hotel Congress which all of us were working on really, so it was pretty low profile. So when we moved into Congress (studio) and joined our forces with Dennis, we became a thing to do on the weekend. We were right there on Congress so it was like a place to have events. We had lots of big ideas and people making sacrifices just to be artists. I think people were identifying themselves as artists for the first time like Eric.
Charles: Me, definitely. Once I started dedicating many hours, it was like, “Alright, this is what I’m doing.”
jhon: So at some point, you guys became more involved in doing community stuff. What led you to that, and when did that get started?
Matt: I think it’s always been there. I don’t think it started at any time. It’s always been intrinsic to our creative process.
jhon: What sorts of things were you doing?
Matt: Well, just all those things were loose enough to incorporate whoever wanted to be involved. I guess we started being more out-reachy and open to people that we didn’t know with All Souls. It just kind of grew slowly, but I don’t think that was something that just appeared. It was always part of our process, people coming and going and collaborating with folks. I think when we started getting grants specifically for public-accessible workshops, we started meeting a lot of new people. A lot of people that didn’t know us would come down for the workshops, so maybe that was the difference.
jhon: And when did that get started?
Matt: It was the Congress Street thing, just being in a more visible place, being more high profile, that was when it really happened, I guess. And it wasn’t really because of the grant stuff, it was just being there. We weren’t thinking about money very much. It was just an opportunity to do whatever.
jhon: Can you explain what Puppet Church was about?
Matt: That was a basement brain child, hanging out in the basement thinking up grandiose ideas.
Charles: And it was one we stuck to.
Matt: The idea was to do inspirational stories from around the world, family-style for kids and adults every Sunday. There would be like four stories maybe tied together with a narrator or MC puppet and every weekend would be totally different. I don’t know how long we did that but it was really high energy. And that’s where we really developed our improv skills. We didn’t rehearse that at all, we just put it together sometimes the morning of. But sometimes it would be something that was worked on for a month. That was really exciting because it was puppet shows every Sunday. It feels like we did that for a year. Then maybe we changed it to once a month or something.
jhon: When did that start up?
Matt: That was while we were at the Congress space and extended a little while longer when we moved into the other space, but then we kind of dropped it. It was just too hard after a while.
Charles: Too much work. It was too much of a responsibility for all of us.
Matt: Because it took the whole troupe to do usually. One person could sit out but really you couldn’t do it by yourself. We were always depending on each other. It was great in its day; it was really awesome. We learned a lot through that process. None of us had kids at that time so were kind of clueless in terms of, “Well, what’s appropriate? What would kids like?” Because we had just been entertaining each other for years. We pushed some buttons for sure.
Charles: I’m always amazed throughout the years how many people are surprised that there is a notion of adult puppetry at all, or puppetry as an art form. But that’s where my mind is; when I think of puppets, I don’t think of kids necessarily.
Matt: You want to make something that would be interesting to you to watch, but then little kids, they want to watch Teletubbies, or they just want to see the puppets squeeze each other. It’s really limited.
Charles: But in the puppetry field, they tend to make a distinction between children’s entertainment, family entertainment , and then you’ve got adult. Consider family entertainment like the Muppets, for example. And like Matt said, the kids just want to see a cute, fuzzy thing jumping around doing silly stuff. But the Muppets are full of adult entertainment, there’s tons of innuendo.
Matt: With Puppet Church, we tried to get stories from as many different places and times as possible so that was a good education for us and our audience.
Charles: It totally was my course in world mythology and folklore and stuff like that.
jhon: How much of what you guys would do would be based on original work versus something classical like you were talking about or something folklorish. How much of that did you create on your own, or were you using a lot of that sort of material?
Matt: Most of what we did—and what we do—was original stories. I think Puppet Church specifically had a theme of history and bringing forgotten stories and different cultures together but typically the way we work, I think, is starting with a clean slate and making up a story. Wouldn’t you say?
Matt: We span the whole spectrum, I suppose, but… I mean, when we would do stuff for adults; like we did quite a few shows at Nimbus back in the day when they first opened, and those were great collaborative shows. I remember those Nimbus shows being just really bizarre because a bunch of us were sitting around the table just coming up with the strangest narrative twists and some disturbing stuff, and I just remember that creative process being wholly original. And we did that a lot. I think that’s what we thrived on.
Charles: Back in those days, we didn’t really know much of what other puppeteers were doing in this country or the world for that matter, and we were coming up with some funny stuff that either had or hadn’t been done before. And a lot of those shows were really multimedia, mixed media; different kinds of puppetry and clowning within one show…
Matt: …moving from shadow to glove puppet to giant puppets to clowns and live actor, all in one story.
Charles: Allen Reilley was deejaying for those shows back in those days. That was a lot of fun. Those were the salad years.
Matt: Salad or solid?
Charles: Salad. Definitely not solid. We were learning so much, a lot of it was just off-the-cuff, we were making stuff up that later became our signatures.
Matt: From my point of view, it was really interesting to see—as I said, I’ve always identified as an artist—but all the people that were hanging out with me and doing this stuff didn’t really have that context or that background. So it was really cool to be doing this multimedia expression and seeing people’s abilities that I’d never had any idea of. Like to watch Allen draw some amazing prop and be like, “Oh my God, Allen, you’re such a good drawer, that’s amazing.” Or to see Charles make a puppet, or anyone. There were so many things happening for the first time for people, from my point of view, in terms of their ability to express themselves artistically and that was really cool; that was awesome.
jhon: It seems like that’s probably been one of the highlight aspects of what Puppetworks has done. I’m sure with the All Souls workshops that was the first opportunity for a lot of people to get their hands on that kind of thing and then a lot of those people would come back and keep doing it and hang in there with that thread. So it’s been an educational process for a lot of people.
Matt: Yeah, hugely so.
Charles: And I can speak from experience, that just blows people away when they go through these steps and they make a puppet or a mask and when it’s done, they put it on and they’re just so pleased, just so like, “Damn, I did it. I made this….I MADE THIS!!!”
jhon: It’s a life-changing thing.
Charles: Yeah, it is. I don’t think people have a lot of opportunities for creative expression in their lives and that’s no surprise seeing how consumptive our society is. So that’s really important for people to take time to express themselves that way. Not just moving through life, you’re creating something, and that feels good.
Matt: That’s been our roll for a long time, that’s what we’ve been, to show people it’s within their grasp to come to the workshops and just watch us bumble through a project and it turns out really good. And then it’s like, “Well, I can do that.” (laughter)
jhon: And without a formal education or training of some kind. Maybe it’s some person who’s never known that they had that inclination or interest, and it’s just a big surprise all around that they were interested and that they could do it.
jhon: When did Puppetworks start hosting the All Souls workshops?
Krishna: Congress, right?
Matt: Well, before Congress, too, because…it was more of a backyard scene, though. It’s hard to draw the line. I feel like we were having workshops where we had 18 people in my backyard every Wednesday afternoon for a month or something. That had been going on a long time since like ’96, ’97. It’s just slowly grown and incorporated more people, different kinds of people.
Krishna: So since you guys have closed the 6th Street space, what comes next?
Charles: One thing that’s for certain is the All Souls workshops. We’ll still do that.
Matt: We’ll still work together as a troupe or as an organization for All Souls in the same capacity that we always have.
Charles: And beyond that, we’re all still doing puppetry projects and we’re still helping each other out with projects.
jhon: Let’s talk about some of those things that you think are the more important features of the work you’ve done.
Matt: I think our work over the years, especially since we moved to 6th Street studios, has been consistently organic. For example, we’ve always had live musicians, and that just became like a trademark, something intrinsic in our creative process to have live music. There’s tons of awesome musicians in this town that are really fun to work with and as a puppetry troupe, that sets us apart from almost everybody.
Charles: And we didn’t realize that until we started going to festivals and seeing these great troupes playing recorded music, and we were like, “What the hell?”
Matt: That just seemed like an ingredient that was absolutely necessary in a good show. We’ve worked with James Gordon, Jimmy Carr, Molehill…. some of the best musicians in town. Golden Boots. It’s like how could we not take that opportunity. So that’s been an important part of it that made our shows exceptional. I don’t ever really want to go back to not working with live musicians.
Charles: I think that the best stuff that I enjoyed were the productions that we would work on for a long time and perfect , which was kind of the antithesis of Puppet Church. I love both styles, but there were a few shows that we would do for a run, one season, and then rebuild it, re imagine it, and perfect it. Shows like Stolen Smell, Harvest, Gruff, Tales of Malabari, we got to know a lot more intimately and they were fun. They were less taxing than if we were to do improvisation, which you just have to be *bing!*, completely on, but if we’d been running a show for a while, we knew the show inside and out and we could be loose in a different way. And that’s still improvisation, like in jazz music, there’s the structure but there are places where you can improvise and get loose and I thought that was a real sign of our art maturing and ourselves as manipulators and performers. We were getting really good.
jhon: Did you guys start off with more improvised performance and then over time you began to do more structured, premeditated work?
Charles: Yes, correct.
Matt: Yeah, but we also still do the improv once in a while because we’re good at it, and as a group, we have a group dynamic that we’re very familiar with. We still do that but we did grow into it.
Charles: Rehearsal has always been kind of a struggle for Puppetworks, for better or worse.
jhon: And how do you think that the work became centered around puppets? I mean, there’s so many things and you guys were trained in different disciplines, how did it crystallize around work with puppets and why is that special or significant?
Matt: I just remember doing puppet shows off the cuff as a source of entertainment for ourselves, and I look back over the years and realized that I had to build an acknowledgment to myself that I had a respect for the audience and what they were seeing, what they were experiencing. When I started doing puppetry, all I really cared about was the act of doing it and how much fun that would be. And so if you can imagine three layers; one layer is the audience, another layer is the puppets and another layer is the puppeteers. The show is happening with the puppets, that’s where the focus is. But I think both sides are audience; the puppeteers are an audience, too. I think that we were entertaining ourselves, and puppets was the way to do it. You can’t do that so much as a live actor in the sense that, when you’re doing a puppet show, and you’re having an improv conversation between two puppets, and the puppeteers are looking at each other, cracking up and laughing…
jhon: There’s a kind of objectification about the performance as the performer that you have when it’s with objects that you’re manipulating, rather than doing a straight theatrical performance. Is that kind of what you’re saying? You can look at it more.
Charles: One cool thing about puppetry, and this really shows in Punch and Judy, you can get away with saying stuff with a puppet that you couldn’t as a live actor. Like back in the day, Mr. Punch was the only “person” who could be critical of the powers that be and nobody was thinking there was a smart puppeteer back there saying this stuff, fitting it into the whole structure of the Punch and Judy show which was already hundreds of years old by that time, too. So there’s a certain thing about puppetry that I don’t think you get from any other kind of art in terms of communicating through an object that you can manipulate. It’s kind of like one step away from yourself in a way, but you can dig deep from within yourself and use the puppet and the stories, which in a lot of cases are ancient stories with archetypal characters , and I can’t think of other things where you can do that. And it really seemed to fill a niche, too. We kind of got into it when a wave of new interest in puppets started coming on with Julie Taymore and I know back east in New York there was a real puppetry boom for adult entertainment, and high-falutin’ art scenes started doing a lot of tabletop puppetry and stuff like that. Bread and Puppet.…
Matt: …Heart of the Beast. Although they’ve been around since the ‘70’s.
Charles: But puppetry gets to people unlike anything else, for some reason. It’s a folk art so I think people respond to it really well.
Krishna: But what you guys mentioned about that separation or distinction with the puppets is kind of like body painting, too, where when you get all painted up, or as you guys know, clowned up, you can do things or express yourself…
Matt: You’re not chained down by…
jhon: …your normal persona.
Krishna: Yeah, it’s a very, very interesting process, the way you guys described creating the puppet and doing the show for yourself and then the interaction with the audience, it’s like that for me with body painting when I paint myself, take a picture, show the pictures, get feedback from people.
Charles: I like puppetry because, like I said, it’s a folk art and I don’t know why more people don’t do it.
jhon: It probably just never occurs to people. It’s a pretty obscure thing, today anyway, less so in the past. It’s kind of off the radar screen of people’s attention for the most part.
Matt: But you’d think with all the Henson-produced puppet movies, you’d think a response to watching Henson do his process –adults as well as kids– there’d be more people attracted to it.
jhon: I think that goes back to what you were saying before; their process is more consumptive and they’re just used to somebody else doing the puppetry, watching it and not actually doing it themselves. That’s probably true for lots of things. They’ll go see a movie but it never occurs to them, “I could…
Charles: …make a movie, with my digital camera. I read a really good article about keeping things local, buying food that’s local to eat in season and what grows in your bio-region, and he was also talking about keeping entertainment local. I’ve had that notion in my head but I’ve never seen anyone else write or talk about it. But I think puppetry is a perfect vehicle for that, especially for kids. I like the notion of keeping puppetry kind of cozy and close to home and like a local entertainment that’s accessible to everybody. Pick up a spoon and put on a funny voice, you know. I really like that notion of keeping entertainment local—let’s entertain ourselves.
Matt: Which is traditional, too, with a piano in every American household. That doesn’t happen anymore. But everyone used to know how to sing, or be willing to sing songs within the family structure.
jhon: That’s considered hokey these days.
Matt: Yeah, but it’s a lot more fun than just going to a bar and getting drunk, watching TV.
Charles: But I think the renewed interest in puppetry in America might be a really good vehicle for people to start entertaining themselves and their friends and families and stuff like that. We’re doing it, and hopefully, it catches on.