Master of Puppets

04/11/2012 4:00 AM |

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.

Still today?

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.