The serious side of puppets

Fred McCormick

Professional puppeteer Lisa Sturz found fertile ground in the minds of six creative, socially aware Warren Wilson College students this semester.

The results of their months-long study will be on stage Dec. 17 during the Warren Wilson College Puppetry Slam, which advertises itself as “wacky, humorous, political, satirical, sensitive, fantastic, imaginative, goofy, poignant, personal, unconventional, striking and socially relevant.”

Just don’t expect a children’s puppet show. Sturz can do that too, but this isn’t that.

Sturz established Red Herring Puppets 30 years ago after earning her Master of Fine Arts in puppetry from University of California at Los Angeles.

“I did do puppets when I was growing up. I was shy, so puppets were good for me,” she said. “While studying directing at the National Theatre Institute in Waterford, Conn., I actually met and worked with Rufus Rose, who was the creator of Howdy Doody, along with his wife Margo.”

Two decades ago, Sturz moved Red Herring Puppets to Asheville, where it has continued to gain recognition. The company earned a Union Internationale de la Marionnette citation of excellence, the highest honor in American puppetry.

Sturz has extensive experience doing curriculum-based puppetry in classrooms around the country, where the puppets are used to supplement traditional classwork. The course at Warren Wilson College, however, is a dramatic departure from her work with school-age kids.

“Before I started teaching there, I had several Warren Wilson graduates work for me in the studio. They have all been great,” she said. “The students at Warren Wilson are very creative and committed to social justice and ideas. They’re great at working together, and all of those things makes it a great environment.”

Puppetry has proved to be a unique way to address a variety of topics. The art form is typically associated with shows for young children, but the slam puppetry genre being taught at Warren Wilson is something else entirely.

“It’s more equivalent to being a singer-songwriter, where you’re creating your piece and performing it,” Sturz said. “There’s a huge movement called the puppetry slam, which is short-form, usually for adults. Heather Henson (daughter of Muppets creator Jim Henson) has a company that funds this form of puppetry. That funding has really allowed a lot of artists from other disciplines to try their hand at puppetry and express through puppets.”

The performance at the White Horse will include contributions from assignments the six Warren Wilson students have been working on during the semester.

“A lot of the assignments that I have given the students have been geared toward this” performance, she said. “We had an assignment on social justice where they had to pick something that they were passionate about. We had an assignment on dreams where they had to use one of their dreams and do a toy theater presentation on it. Another one was on mythology. All of those feed into this performance.”

The production at White Horse will address socially relevant issues such as dementia, mental health and homelessness, Sturz said. The use of the puppets creates a space in which difficult topics can be examined from a different perspective.

“It’s a visual vocabulary,” Sturz said. “Part of what we try to do is come up with a visual metaphor that expresses emotion in a way that words are unable to. When you’re dealing with tougher subject matter, people tend to be more receptive to the puppets than they are with people. Somehow puppets just allow you to open up more.”

Tickets for the show are available at whitehorseblackmountain.com.

More serious than silly

What: Warren Wilson College Puppetry Slam

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17

Where: White Horse Black Mountain

Cost: $10 advance, $5 Warren Wilson College students and staff