Puppets, Projectionists and Other Guests Enrich Theatre and Dance

Janni Younge's puppetry in "Ouroboros"
Janni Younge's puppetry in "Ouroboros"

 

For 35 years, the UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance has invited guest artists, many with international reputations, to work on productions and provide students with insights into careers in the performing arts. Most have been directors or choreographers, but this year is more of a mix: a director with extensive experience in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area who is also a UC Davis graduate; an Obie Award-winning projection artist; and a master puppeteer formerly with the acclaimed Handspring Puppets.

“We have the time and the space here, so let’s see how we might click with these artists and how their residencies will fit with our curriculum and goals,” said David Grenke, department chair. “The department has made a concerted effort to think of what we are doing as a lab for research. This in an investment in the creative dialogue and creation of new knowledge.”

The quarter-long residencies are organized and funded through the Granada Artists-in-Residence Program, established in 1982 in conjunction with Granada Television in the United Kingdom. Mindy Cooper, who was a Granada artist several times and is now a professor in the department, has seen from both sides how well the program works.

“When I was an artist-in-residence, I saw how you can give the students a germ of an idea and watch them run with it,” she said.

Deep ties to UC Davis

The first visiting artist this year is Kent Nicholson, who is directing the season opener “Gibraltar” while also teaching and holding master classes. The play, which runs Nov. 9–18, is a magical story in which a young woman whose husband has disappeared meets a traveler searching for his runaway wife.

Director of musical theatre at Playwrights Horizons in New York, Nicholson is also a 1995 graduate of the UC Davis theatre and dance program. When he was working on his master of fine arts degree, Nicholson worked with Granada artist Peter Lichtenfels (who, like Cooper, became a theatre professor at UC Davis.)

“One of the reasons I attended UC Davis was the Granada visiting artists program,” said Nicholson, who regularly directs plays and musicals around the country.

Embracing theatre technology

Cooper and projection artist Laurie Olinderwill collaborate on the musical “Pippin,” running in February. In “Pippin,” a mysterious performance troupe tells the story of a young prince on his search for meaning and significance.

Olinder has won two Obie awards (the top awards off-Broadway) and designed projections for “The Glass Menagerie” and “Suddenly Last Summer,” and many opera and musical performances with composers and musicians John Adams, Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at venues including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.

“Laurie has been on the short list of theatre artists we’ve wanted to get here for a while,” Cooper said. “I really wanted to use projections for the show, and we have some new toys here to work with. We are delighted to have her here and have her influence the students. Projection art as a theatre craft has become so important and multilevel. It’s such a unique marriage of visual and performing arts that can take you deeply into a place.”

Puppets help tell difficult story

Associate Professor Margaret Kemp met puppeteer Janni Younge when Kemp was a visiting artist and professor at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and performed at a festival there directed by Younge.

They will co-direct “The Bluest Eye,” Lydia Diamond’s 2005 adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel. “The Bluest Eye” is set in 1940s Ohio and centers on Pecola Breedlove, a quiet, passive girl who is continually told she is unattractive and dreams of having blue eyes.

Younge, the former director of Handspring Puppet Company, worked on the play “War Horse” and created puppets for the Bristol Old Vic’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“I was lucky enough to take workshops with Janni, and her patience and enthusiasm for sharing her art and ability to communicate really impressed me,” Kemp said. “I fell in love with the empathy that puppets can stir in an audience.”

“The Bluest Eye,” performing in May 2018, is structured in a way that will benefit from puppetry, Kemp said. “The action in this play is often described rather than lived in the moment,” she said. “Having seen this type of narrative script work, I thought we could deepen our audience and student engagement by using puppets. This also speaks to my research on empathy as an element of actor training and audience experience. I don't know of any theatre – professional or university – that has used puppetry to tell this story.” 

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