Maria Nicklin is a graphic designer, illustrator, and art teacher, as well as the founder and director of the SPICES Traveling Peace Troupe, where she guides volunteers through puppetry projects. Maria writes newsletters for the UNIMA-USA, one of 101 national centers of Union Internationale de la Marionnette. Before writing the February 2022 e-newsletter, she sent emails to the members of the organization with three questions about developing adult puppetry audiences. I responded with my reflections. Below I am posting Maria’s questions and then my slightly edited responses.
- Would you agree that most adults here in the U.S. do not think of puppetry as an art form aimed at them as an audience—that it’s just for children?
- What factors do you feel perpetuate this perception?
- What steps could be/are being taken to build new (and older) audiences while sustaining puppetry’s young audience base?
Most puppetry programs are aimed at children; this is not only an American phenomenon. The same is the case in my native Poland and, I am almost certain, in most European countries. So, because puppetry is primarily present in society as an art form aimed at a child audience, it seems natural that it is mainly perceived as only being for children.
To build new audiences, programs of high artistic quality should be supported, produced, and promoted. Is it as simple as this? Well, yes and no. You are asking about changing the cultural habits of society. Your question leads to the next questions. How should we support programs of high artistic quality? How do we produce such programs and how could we promote them?
For me, it does not really matter if a puppet program is for children or adults. What matters for me as an artist and a cultural worker is artistic and social value of the creative process, practice, and completed artwork. Talent, skills, proficiency, and mastery of an artist are usually among the requisites for artistic work of high value. But this is not enough and does not even need to be one hundred percent true. It is something about puppetry’s connection to folk and popular art. Some elements of the work may be “primitive” or “underdeveloped,” but when combined with other powerful, excellent, or extraordinary elements, the artistic work can reach a high level of artistry and influence cultural and social transformation.
A puppeteer may be an artisan with highly developed skills in recreating or interpreting traditional or popular stories and building and performing styles. He can supplement his income by accepting assignments from local theaters, or augment his earnings by responding to the most popular demand of party entertainment, selling his skills to the advertising industry, or working as a teaching artist and assisting in the teaching of history, math, language arts, science, or social studies. This way, a puppeteer can support herself and be proud of it. She may be fine with conforming to the rules of the world around her and with doing what society expects of her and is accustomed to seeing. However, this way of practicing puppetry without a doubt influences how people around us perceive our work—our art form—and how they value what we do. Accepting all these earning opportunities may be necessary, but also detrimental to the goal of developing a new audience.
Fortunately, there are those among us who are strong enough or crazy enough to rebel, to understand art as an act of rebellion and self-transformation, and they seek out new types of spectators, develop new audiences, and transform the cultural reality around them.
In dialogue and through meetings with our potential new audiences, we may have a chance to discover our new audiences and new ways of practicing our art. This is usually a risky business, no matter if the goal is to develop an adult audience or to find a child or family audience in areas and communities where puppet theater has been absent.
It is a demanding enterprise, whether the goal is to find an audience for a project in which we experiment with new forms, aesthetics, performing styles, and narrative structures or explore territories of social justice, environment pollution, or the impending climate catastrophe. It is economically tough, no matter if our objective is to discover and create new audiences in disadvantaged communities or to turn, say, a corporate event into an examination of values. As rebels, we go against the current, or we dig canals to bring puppetry to lands devoid of our art form. This is good to have allies, recognize associates, support each other, and promote change.
The beginning of high artistry in puppetry is a high level of education and training of puppeteers. If we, as a community of puppetry artists, want to develop new audiences, we had better try to educate ourselves and create educational opportunities that inspire awareness and recognition that being a puppetry artist also means having the ability to choose, shape, and build our audiences. It would be great if such learning opportunities could provide models and teach us known and practiced strategies, if they could inspire us to create strategies, empower us in setting goals and shaping our action plans, and provide guidance in finding and developing our audiences and our place in society as artists and agents of transformation.
I am convinced that if independent artists, including puppeteers, are better supported and there are more of us presenting our work to children, society and communities will be richer, healthier, better, and happier. When children grow up surrounded by art, they grow into art fans and supporters. Developing child and family audiences would not be of insignificance for developing adults’ participation in art, be it puppetry or any other art form.
Eric Booth, “the father of the teaching artist profession,” proudly states in his 2010 essay: “The U.S. has the best teaching artists in the world, the most advanced understanding of teaching artist practices, and the broadest application of those capacities in an increasing number of settings.” Well, I wish American schools would support, at least to the same extent, professional artistic practices addressed to children. I wish educators and policymakers responsible for shaping education systems and after-school programs would provide children with opportunities to witness and participate in high-quality artistic presentations. I wish schools had the funds not only to turn artists into teaching assistants but also to support independent artistic projects aimed at children. Wouldn’t this be a way to influence cultural change and raise the next generation of adults that would value and enjoy art, including the art of puppetry? Can we do something about that? Can we do more to convince our audiences, potential presenters, and cultural and education policymakers of the value of our art, our missions, and our goals?
In my practice, I strive to create high-quality art for children, and I am assuming that when my presenters and audiences see and recognize the quality and value of this art for children, they may also notice the value of puppetry programs for adult audiences. So far, Dream Tale Puppets has produced shows for children and families with the goal of making them attractive to adults through the richness of artistic form, engaging content, and masterful acting. With our current and upcoming productions, we are moving slightly toward a more complex and multidimensional theatrical style, and we will gradually allow ourselves more experimentation. If the chosen direction of the theater’s development is accepted by our spectators, we will consider dividing the repertoire into two or three age categories, one aimed at younger audiences and the other at older ones.
Still another way to work on developing new audiences is through education. There is nothing wrong with using puppetry in schools as a tool to support academic subjects. In educational circles, it is called “arts integration.” It introduces children to the art form or its existence. However, if we are to aim to develop new audiences, it would be reasonable to do more. Puppetry is an amazingly rich art form, and there is a multitude of puppetry traditions and styles that are highly developed and demanding of a puppetry artist’s proficiency in using complex techniques, and extensive knowledge about an art form and creative process. Multitudes of puppetry companies and artists (in history and the present day) were and are developing refined practices and ways to create and perform their art. Puppetry as an art is enriched by connections with other art forms. Teaching puppetry to children, youth, and adults, to those who are passionate or curious, to those who want to use the skills that puppetry training can provide, or to those who simply enjoy learning and developing skills for the sake of learning and developing skills is an important way to popularize our art and lay the groundwork for developing new audiences.
Again, this is easy to say, not easy to do in a way that would broaden people’s perception of puppetry and us. It is comparatively easy to find a group of parents interested in a two-hour-long workshop for their five-year-old children in building simple puppets. It is a common understanding that this is how puppetry functions in society. It is harder to gather a group of 10- or 15-year-olds or adults interested in a week-long project, ongoing training, or a production. This is much less popular and often understood as unattractive and unworthy since parents and teenagers consider puppetry as an art for small kids. But I am convinced that it is worth trying to offer more demanding programs addressed to older participants, and to keep trying, learning from the experience, and trying again.
During the last summer, I offered six puppetry workshops to children aged nine and older. Each one consisted of six meetings, four online and two in person. I cooperated with libraries and one art center. To run the group, we needed a minimum of four participants. Only three libraries were able to attract enough participants. Nevertheless, I still consider this to be a success. All the partnering librarians recognized the value of the offer. The parents and children engaged with the kind of puppetry most of them did not know existed before. For me this was a lot of work, but it allowed me to promote our way of practicing puppetry and to develop and strengthen relationships with cultural centers and communities.
I believe we can see more and more examples of the presence of puppetry elements in school productions (from elementary to college), community theaters, and professional theaters (including Broadway). This proves that our art form is and could be attractive to adult audiences. Bringing puppetry elements to other performing genres definitively popularizes our art form, and promotes development.
So far in this letter, I have neglected to point out probably the most obvious way of building new audiences: finding and partnering with presenters—well, if a presenter has an audience for us, it would be more about not losing it than developing a new one. If the audience has to be developed, we “just” have to convince the presenter of the value of our offer and then work together to attract an audience. I do believe in such a partnership. Many cultural workers are aware of this kind of mission and are open to partnership. Some are willing to discuss and try out ideas and strategies.
Creating new audiences is an ongoing effort and a learning experience. It is great to join forces with like-minded artists, presenters, and educators, to work together with other cultural workers and people passionate about changing the world we live in.