Photos Sarah Holcomb
Have you ever seen a performance with over 300 puppets in it? Have you ever seen a puppet perform surgery? Welcome to the world of performance and puppet artist Theodora Skipitares who has been making work for the stage since her beginnings in the thriving performance art community of downtown New York in the 1970s. Her influences and interests have ranged from early female Body Artists to Indian epic narratives to the stem cell scientist Doris Taylor, among others. Her newest piece, Prometheus Within, which is being presented as part of La MaMa’s 50th anniversary season (April 13-29, 66 E 4th St), brings together a number of currents that have coursed through her work for years. I spoke with Skipitares by phone one morning while she was at work in her studio to learn more about her career and her latest work.
I know that you started your performance work with people like Richard Schechner, who founded The Performance Group, and Omar Shapli of Section Ten, but I wanted to get a sense of what brought you to them in the first place—what brought you to performance?
I was born and raised in San Francisco, and I did my undergraduate work at [the University of California,] Berkeley. Then I came to New York for grad school to study theater design and film. I thought that I would be a theater designer—that was in the early 70s. So, I found myself going to NYU and living nearby in the East Village, and it was very close to SoHo, and what was happening in SoHo at that time was simply astonishing. I found that my courses at NYU in design were confining, but if I took literally a ten-minute walk south, I could find the most amazing collaborations and the most interesting interdisciplinary experiments. And in a way that became my parallel education. So, I continued to be very interested in and involved in the performance scene that was developing in SoHo out of the art world. When I finished my degree I worked briefly as a theater designer, but then I simply got a studio and started working on my own work, which actually originally had been sculpture, but sort of transformed into performance art. It was just so attractive because people were breaking boundaries right in front of you and there was an utter openness about it.
So that’s what I began to do, and in a couple of years I began to do solo performing. But that came to an end point. I felt that I wanted to tell stories that were not autobiographical anymore, that I was interested in working with other people, but I didn't know how. Basically there came a point, this is in the early 80s, where I had about thirty little self-portraits, and they were very realistic. I would say they looked like Egyptian or archaic Greek full likeness of me. One day I just took one of them and took a saw and cut it at the elbow, and I cut it at the shoulder, and I re-stitched it, and then I put a long thread on one hand and put it up by the ceiling and I realized that I had made a puppet figure, but I knew nothing about puppetry. I had kind of stumbled onto using a figure for performance and it became another character in my work. So, I began to populate the stage with likenesses of myself and then at one point there were so many on stage with me that I actually made an exit and became the director. And I found that I didn’t miss the performing that much, I much preferred arranging and composing from the other side.
That led to bigger subjects and, also, I just began to discover things about puppetry that other performers who had been working in puppetry must have known for a long time—that there was just a marvelous freedom of scale. With scale you could basically tell any story you wanted with an economy of means. The thing that most attracted me to puppetry was that the puppet figure was empty and neutral and innocent and honest and it would tell the truth better than actors would tell the truth. And as I began to become interested in documentary material I just found that the puppets were the perfect vehicle for that.
Talk about some of your early puppet works.
My first big piece, Age of Invention, had 300 puppets in it. I mean, I’ve made hundreds and hundreds of puppets. These big themes captivated me—like invention, like a musical on the history of genetics. I did a large piece about the history of medicine that took place in thirteen different places within the large La MaMa space.
So, you were not only playing with scale in terms of the puppets, but also experimenting with space and scale?
Definitely, and that was wonderful. I mean, there were practical downsides to it—you couldn’t have more than fifty people at a time. But the excitement of it was that you could be twelve inches away from a miniature tableau or you could be in a kind of simulated operating theater from the Renaissance looking in on an operation. That was really fun. Then I did a piece on the history of women in prison, also in that style of audiences walking around. By the year 2000, I went to India for six months on a Fulbright and I looked at all kinds of performance, but mostly traditional performance forms. It was really a life-changing trip.
In what sense?
My work up until then was not as interested in contemporary narrative. Storytelling didn’t interest me, except in the sense of a kind of intentionally raw collage—juxtaposing scenes, one against another, seeing what kind of impact they had as a montage. But when I came back I was so taken by the really old, incredible narratives in India, like the Mahabharata the Ramayana. And I began to look at ancient Greek texts, which I had avoided. My parents came from Greece and I grew up in a pretty traditional Greek household in San Francisco. But suddenly I looked at these texts, which now I see as fragments—they’re fragments that have been reinterpreted and retranslated into so many different versions. I looked at the fragments and I became interested in storytelling. And I owe that to India, really.
That was a huge change in my work and it took a few months for that to sort of sink in. But I went back to the Greeks and I was fascinated by how I could use, at first just the ancient myths, as material for puppetry. Then I went to the actual plays and the first one I went to was Euripides’ Iphigenia, which is such a beautiful play. And I devised a one-person puppet that an actor wore. Suddenly I was no longer casting and hiring puppeteers, I now needed actors who could speak text who were also, if not experienced in puppetry, had a talent for it. These puppets were connected to the body, one puppet per body. They were almost life-size and they were connected at four points—the waist, the shoulder, the headband, and the hands. That pretty much marked my work for this last 10-year period, from say 2000 to 2011. And then I seem to be shifting into another style now.
Talk a bit your newest work—what inspired it; what it is about?
This play that I’m working on now, which is called Prometheus Within, works off a Greek text, one of the earliest Greek plays ever written—Prometheus Bound [attributed to Aeschylus]. At the same time I was looking at Prometheus Bound, I just happened to be reading a lot of news and articles about stem cell science and engineering. In Prometheus I’m very taken with this idea of Prometheus’ liver—for punishment, Zeus puts him on a very lonely rock for many thousands of years. An eagle eats Prometheus’s liver by day and at night it grows back, and this happens every day. I actually found an article by an Australian stem cell scientist, who with his partner, wrote an article about whether or not they thought Greeks knew about liver regeneration at the time. They concluded that Greeks probably didn’t, but I don’t know if I agree.
Then there are scientists that interest me a lot. There’s a stem cell scientist named Doris Taylor and she’s been working on getting cadaver hearts, or ghost hearts, as she calls them, to begin beating again by putting stem cells in them. She’s a real maverick scientist, and a really interesting one, and she’s featured in my play. So, actually this play brings back the real spirit of my original work, which was the collaging of many different contemporary events in science, intercut with moments from Prometheus’s story.
I want to talk about something that you’ve been touching on in our discussion—these periods in your career where your work shifted. Obviously there’s a lot of focus across every field on the new and the young, but it seems to me that, in reality, it takes some time to develop maturity in one’s artistic work. As someone who has been working in this field for about 35 years, often in non-mainstream venues, I wonder what you think has helped contribute to longevity of your career in the arts.
For myself, I do think that I was so focused on my work for so many years that I really just scraped by. You know, when you make things you are usually very resourceful. So you could see a piece of mine that had 300 puppets in it and you would just amazed at how small that budget was. I always try to pay people fairly, and I always go into debt over my shows, all the time.
Oh sure, sure. I think the thing that changed for me was that, first of all, I had a very, very affordable studio because it belonged to the City of New York, it was artist’s housing—one of the very few.
And I would take any kind of a job just to keep doing my work. So, what was that—it was many, many years of waitressing, and part-time teaching. But part-time teaching is so badly paid. I did that for so long. And then, I think another big change in my life was about five or six years ago, when I got a full-time position at Pratt—I had a part-time position there for a very long time. So, because I keep a pretty low overhead, and often work with primarily one assistant in my studio, named Cathy Shaw, who is also a puppeteer, I just managed to keep making about one piece a year.
I get modest funding, not very much private funding, virtually no corporate funding, and I’ve sort of styled it myself. And a lot of times I’m very fretful about that. I worry that I lose a lot of opportunities to get more money. And in other ways I realize that, smartly, I’ve kept the pressure on myself very low because I’ve really controlled exactly how I spend the money and exactly what a piece will be. I find myself after many years, being in that sort of in-between place—I’m certainly visible, people certainly know who I am, but I certainly don’t get the really big opportunities. But see, I’m aware of that and I look at it from a viewpoint—I never have a good viewpoint when I’m in the middle of making a show, afterwards I can sort of put things together.
You mention pressure and it makes me think about an implicit pressure I feel and sense among many artists, to just keep doing something, whatever little thing, to keep your name out there, so to speak. So you can end up running yourself ragged doing these small projects, often for other people, that don’t have a lot of artistic payoff.
It’s true, yeah.
I wonder if you’ve managed to avoid that.
Well, normally, a lot of my shows begin as a first draft somewhere else, like at a university or even in a workshop, say in India, or something. And that is priceless. What I miss is that I don’t get to have a lot of drafts or versions of a show before it presents itself in New York—lately I haven’t had that. Certainly it was my preferred method of getting a show on its feet.
The other thing that’s hard is you feel extremely vulnerable when you present a brand new show in New York and you may not be as finished as you’d like to be, in any way shape or form. In puppets that can mean a terrifying variety of things, like the neck isn’t connected yet, you know—really hilarious things like that. A really well-rehearsed show that’s got greatness in it, that’s just fantastic. With my current show, I’m really very much in love with the script and the performers, but yeah, that rehearsal factor is the hardest thing.
Do you have any sense as to why that development time is missing these days. I know you can only speak for yourself, but what’s your sense of it?
I’ve had varieties of experiences. For example, there was a time when I was invited to Europe all the time, and then that segued into a time when I was invited to India to develop works. And then there was a period of time when universities in the US invited me to do residencies. So, things have shifted, it’s a combination of things—it’s a combination of funding drying up, it’s a combination of other artists who are newer and are having a moment, and I think that’s all what it is.
To stay for another minute on the topic of longevity in an arts career—as I’m coming into my thirties, I’m starting to notice a number of people making the decision to leave the arts. My impression is that that’s something that happens in every generation.
Oh, it does, it totally does.
I just wonder for you, what was the thing that got you over the hump, so to speak?
Well, you know, I really think that part of it was that I was comfortable living on very little. Well, comfortable is not the right word—it was acceptable to me. I didn’t think about it. And I think, also, I was a loner. I eventually moved toward working with other people because I needed that and wanted that, but I was a loner. I was a person who worked in her studio happily for hours and hours. And again, the thing is, when you make things you have an edge, you can make things happen. It’s exhausting after awhile to always work on a small budget, but I think that’s what kept me going.
And here’s another thing that’s contributed to my longevity, I believe. I lived around the corner from La MaMA for a very, very long time and Ellen Stewart used to walk her dog around the block and I always knew about the theater and loved that theater. It took me a very long time to connect with Ellen—I think my first piece there was in 1992. In an unconventional way she provided an artistic home for a whole group of artists. It was unconventional in that you were not going to have your piece produced and there was not going to be money coming in to pay your actors, nothing like that, but it was actually an emotional, supportive, artistic home. And that mattered to me. So, that’s a really big feature of my longevity—the fact that from ’92 to now I get a show there every year, except for 2010 or something.
There are so many artists that Ellen supported throughout their career, and it seems like there’s so little of that available to a younger generation, in terms of any kind of enduring commitment.
It’s true, it’s true.
Over the years of your career you’ve clearly engaged in a lot of research, on the subjects of each show, as well as puppetry and theater. I would assume that you’ve built up a large base of knowledge in all that work. Do you feel like there are certain interests or questions that have focused your research, so to speak?
You know, I think that goes back to when I first hit on the idea of puppets. What interested me was my notion, erroneous or not, that the puppet could be a Brechtian actor—that the puppet would transmit information faithfully. When I first started out, I was also interested in having the puppeteer be fully visible because I liked the idea that you would go back and forth between looking at the puppet and looking at what was making the puppet move. I’ve since moved to a more illusionistic kind of approach, but I think that notion of a dialectic always interested me—oppositional things. So, the contradictions and the paradoxes of history or of science, or of power, really, have always interested me.
I want to talk for a minute about your interest in the sciences and medicine, in terms of Prometheus Within, and in some of your earlier work.
I was always interested in science. I was a Pre-Med major, so I shifted to art. I think the creativity of science, the creativity that scientists experience, has always interested me, as well as the dark side of the power of science. Recently I became interested in the scientist Doris Taylor, who I mentioned earlier. One afternoon I was in my studio and I was listening to NPR and there was an interview with her, and she was describing how she had taken a heart from a rat and she had washed it with some kind of shampoo until it was a white scaffold—it was just the architecture of a heart, and she had put stem cells into it. 6-8 weeks later, one night, in the middle of the night, her lab assistants called her to tell her, “Doris, it’s beating.” And, you know, I was captivated by her, and so she had to be in the next show. And for some reason she lined herself up right next to Prometheus, who was also an inventor and a scientist. And then other things just started to sort of attract themselves to the core of the play. Dolly the Sheep is in it—there’s a giant puppet of Dolly. I’m also interested in the fact that the military right now has been given a lot of money to develop devices, technologies, that are treating injured soldiers—research into regenerative medicine to regenerate limbs.
You’ve engaged with subjects around war in a lot of your work, so it’s interesting to see that you, like the military, are looking at how war plays out on the body, particularly given the relationship between your use of puppetry and medicine and your own body as a model for many of your early puppets. When you were doing your autobiographical work, you were literally deconstructing your own body, in puppet form.
That didn’t come out of nowhere. That was because I was seeing amazing women artists using their body for the first time, or maybe not for the first time, but again in this wave and this movement—using their bodies in very explicit and amazing ways.
I like thinking about that in terms of what you said about the potential for puppets providing a kind of distance that allows for truth-telling to take place. It’s certainly an interesting link between puppet work and Body Art—not a link that many people would think of immediately, but it’s kind of a rich idea to work around.
Yeah, I think that must be one of the major connections for me, because, again, I’m a maker of things, figurative things.