Master of Puppets

04/11/2012 4:00 AM |

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.