By Julia Garcia Combs
As an artist and educator, when faced with a question or a problem I always return to the source. Recently the Education staff at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles began a process of investigating the original intention of the puppets aboard the permanent exhibition Noah’s Ark at the Skirball. Through discussion, rehearsal and practical implementation with our visitors, we are experimenting with how best to engage visitors with the puppets and bring the exhibition to life in authentic and imaginative ways.
For a little bit of context—“Noah’s Ark at the Skirball” is an award-winning, permanent interactive installation at the Skirball Cultural Center where visitors are invited to become part of the story itself. As a Cultural Center with a core mission of being “a place of Welcome” for all people, we open the story to interpretation from visitors. We focus on the metaphor of a community coming together to weather a storm in search of a second chance to build a better world. Educators bring the galleries to life through imaginative play, inquiry, oral storytelling, music, dance and puppetry. We use the arts to teach social and behavior skills to our youngest visitors and to communicate valuable themes and messages to everyone aboard Noah’s Ark.
The ark is filled with animal sculptures made from recycled and repurposed materials. There are 386 static animals, 12 animals with partial moving parts, and 24 extraordinary animal puppets designed by Brooklyn-based artist and puppeteer Chris Green. Our puppets serve as an extension of the space, kinesthetically energizing the exhibition. They are a bridge between story and reality, between the make-believe animals and the human animals that roam the ark. Visitors may be collecting food in the Ark’s kitchen when a Fox (made from a shoe, teacups and a rolling pin) emerges from a dark corner, curious about what might be on the menu. A snow leopard stalks by, pausing to survey the area. A hummingbird flutters by in search of nectar, and a Langur Monkey swings from the rafters. As visitors respond to the animals, a delicate interaction ensues.
Recently Chris Green, the creator of the puppets, returned to the Skirball to lead a workshop for all current staff. As the Puppet Lead, it was an opportunity for me to soak up knowledge to pass on to a new generation of puppeteers. It was an opportunity to develop my ability to teach and train puppeteers, and to grow in my own work as a performer. As I listened to the intention and back-story of each animal, the artist’s philosophy of work, and tips on technical operation of the puppets, we discovered that our team as a whole had subtly departed from the original intention of puppetry in the exhibition.
Chris Green reminded us that the animals he created are wild animals, not domesticated. He described the original idea of “animal sightings” as a source of surprise and awe. Over the years we shifted to an approach that was perhaps a little friendlier to our visitors, our foxes behaving like domesticated dogs and our chickens stopping for long moments to allow toddlers to touch their beaks. Green spoke of kinetics, relating to or resulting from motion; of a work of art depending on movement for its effect. He emphasized the movement through the space as opposed to direct interaction with visitors. Watching him work we could see his deep commitment to the purpose of bringing stories to life through objects. He reminded us that by not giving the visitors everything they want we are actually giving them a gift, it is an act of generosity, teaching patience and respect.
I came away from the training feeling inspired, but also wanting to acknowledge that we on Noah’s Ark had moved away from the original intention of the artist. We realized that we had some difficult work ahead to break our habits. It is our instinct as educators to be kind and generous to everyone we encounter, but we have to remember that our objective while puppeteering is to create a sense of authenticity in the movement and behavior of wild animals. As puppeteers it is an opportunity to be more aware of our surroundings, reacting to stimulus as an instinctual creature might respond.
One of the greatest strengths of our education staff is our ability to receive feedback and work as an ensemble to improve our practice in service of the visitors’ experiences. We began to discuss the idea of engaging our visitors with the puppets, yet leaving them wanting more – it became an opportunity for those teachable moments we are all in search of. Intrinsic in the Noah’s Ark exhibit are messages of conservation and taking care of the environment and through this new approach to puppeteering our animals we have the opportunity to teach respect for wildlife. We can also teach a sense of respect for others as we remind children to give animals their space, rather than allowing the approach of ownership one might feel over a domesticated animal.
By taking the time to ask ourselves to look at our process, we serve our staff and visitors simultaneously. In changing our point of view, we have increased visitors’ intrigue in the Noah’s Ark puppets. Suspension of disbelief grows as our puppeteers find new ways to explore on the ark. New and unusual interactions occur that inspire a sense of awe, awareness and respect. These puppets are a rare opportunity for visitors to witness a unique art form and for us to challenge ourselves as educators. By returning to the original intention of the artists’ work we are finding new ways to fulfill the education department’s mission to teach through the arts, build human connections, and foster empathy, thereby bringing new life into our facilitation and in turn, to the visitors’ experience.
This article can be found in Winter 2018 - "Finding the Story: Creative and Collaborative Processes" (Volume 28, Issue 1) of IMTAL Insights.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Julia Garcia Combs is a performing artist, full-time Educator at the Skirball Cultural Center and an Ensemble Member with the Rogue Artists Ensemble (a collective of multi-disciplinary artists who create Hyper-theater, an innovative hybrid of theater traditions). At the Skirball, she develops and facilitates programs for the renowned children's space, Noah's Ark serving as Puppet Lead, training and coaching staff in the art of puppetry.
“Sometimes it takes a long time to play like yourself.”
- Miles Davis