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The art of puppetry is one of the oldest art forms in existence and is practiced all over the globe. The Center for Puppetry Arts is a unique cultural treasure in Atlanta and the only place of its kind in the world. But, like so many other arts nonprofits, the Center is facing uncertain times. We need your support NOW more than ever to ensure it remains alive and vibrant for future generations.
For over 40 years the Center has offered children and adults an immersive experience into the art of puppetry through live performances, hands-on workshops and the interactive Worlds of Puppetry Museum. Our Museum features the world’s largest collection of Jim Henson puppets and artifacts. That’s right, Big Bird lives here! However, the Center faces serious challenges related to COVID-19, which threatens our ability to reach and serve our patrons.
Meet some of the people who support puppetry and hear their stories.
Alice Dinnean, Actress, Puppeteer & Former Intern at the Center for Puppetry Arts
Alice’s one word to describe puppetry: Timeless
Even in this age of perfect computer graphics, immersive gaming and virtual reality, puppets– even the simplest ones, in a skilled busker’s hands– have the power to stop passersby on a busy street. Why? What is so magical to people of all ages and cultures about these small crafted beings? To me, puppets bring out the best in humans. Someone says, look: here is a thing that is real, yet not real. Let it tell you a story. Don’t look at me. This is for you.
I was lucky to be in the right time and place for puppets to work their magic on me. I was the target audience for Sesame Street in 1969 and for the Muppet Show in 1979 and for the Dark Crystal in 1982. I lived in Oakland, California, home of the Storybook Theater at Children’s Fairyland and was taken there many times as a kid. I wound up working for and with all of these; after a high school job at Fairyland, but before heading off to Sesame Street, I spent a year and a half at the Center for Puppetry Arts, as an intern and then as a mainstage performer. The same is true of a number of my friends and colleagues in the world of professional puppetry beyond the Center. Many consider it a spiritual home. Certainly, it is a place that from its very start has guided, inspired, and supported puppeteers both established and just beginning. It is a vital part of American puppetry, past and future.
Dr. Paulette Richards, Scholar, Puppeteer & Volunteer at the Center for Puppetry Arts
Paulette’s one word to describe puppetry: Joy
“African American puppetry is a mode of resistance to the objectification of Black bodies… if I pick up an object and animate it, then I’m asserting a power that was taken when slavery reduced African Americans to commodity objects.”
Throughout these stories, we have asked every interviewee for one work to describe puppetry. For Paulette Richards, the choice was simple: joy. Her answer was quick and sure. In fact, she was incredibly sure of all her answers, open and ready to discuss her journey. Having come so far, her passion for puppetry simply poured out of her, but from where did this passion arise? Well, it all started with a writing collective she joined in New Orleans. It’s called “NOMMO Literary Society,” founded by Kalamu ya Salaam, an influential writer known for his contributions to the Black Arts movement from the 1960’s and 1970’s. The collective met every Tuesday evening for about ten years. Some of its attendants have gone onto bigger things, having won several Pulitzer prizes. It was here that Paulette discovered her love for video production. Kalamu ya Salaam taught his mentees that storytelling transcends text. It should be conveyed through sound, light, and the written word, so Paulette turned to film, a medium that can tell stories from every sensory angle. She started off by making short documentaries, getting the feel for camera work, but she wanted to do more, to tell dramatic narratives. Even though she had very little funds or training, she managed to problem-solve, using dolls as her actors and making her own costumes and sets. She would move the dolls around the frame and voice them as characters. Sound familiar? All along, she was doing puppetry. Here it is again, showing up in unexpected places, all around us.
Once she figured out that her passion was in fact puppetry, she knew that the Center for Puppetry Arts was where she was meant to be, so she signed up for their docent program, learning to give tours in the Museum. She wanted to absorb as much as she could, using the information from the Museum and shows and people at the Center to inform her own art. In this way, the Center was her main resource to receive an education in the arts since she couldn’t afford to go to school for it. She likes to call it her “home-grown MFA.” She is living proof of the Center’s ability to engage with people, integrating the arts into people’s lives. Without the Center, Paulette would not be where she is today. For years, she would come to the Center once a week and just spend an entire day there, enabling her to make life-long connections.She is currently curating a forthcoming exhibit of African American puppetry for the museum, coming full circle in her journey at the Center because she was a part of the first docent class to volunteer at the new museum. She was there the day it opened, and she’ll never forget how badly she wanted to be a part of such a momentous occasion. She had been stationed in the Henson gallery where they have the TV camera set up. She doesn’t remember ever wanting anything as badly as wanting to be stationed in that spot, surprising even herself in her unrelenting desire to be there for the opening. “I’m usually a very low-key person,” she said, so the intensity that she felt on that day was a sign for her. A sign that this was her calling. This was where she was meant to be. The Center has given her so much, allowing her to build her career from scratch and facilitating such artistic growth within her. “They say that puppetry is something you really have to love, and I really love it in that way,” she said.
Yanique Leonard, Collections Manager, Center for Puppetry Arts
Yanique’s one word to describe puppetry: Unique
Walking through the Museum at the Center for Puppetry Arts, there are so many iconic puppets on display: Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, and countless others. The average museum visitor gets to see all of these amazing puppets in person, but there are only a few people that get to be really up close and personal with them. One of these special people is Yanique Leonard. “I have the best job at the Center,” she says, boasting about how one of her favorite things is fluffing Big Bird’s feathers, something that regular audience members never get to do. She gets to be the caretaker for so many puppets, making sure that they are preserved for years to come. Her official job title is “Collections Manager,” preserving the puppets in the Center’s permanent collection so that people can continue to enjoy them. Her job allows her to learn about all different kinds of puppetry, taking care of everything in the collection from muppets to marionettes, as well as traveling back in time with some truly nostalgic puppets, such as the Cookie Monster or Mufasa from The Lion King or Victor and Emily from The Corpse Bride. She spends most of her energy making sure that these puppets are preserved and cared for, giving her a fondness for every puppet. However, for someone who works so closely with puppets, it might come as a surprise that she saw her first live puppet show only a few years ago. Like everyone, she has seen puppets in TV shows and movies, but never had she seen them come to life in front of her. This job has given her so much appreciation for the art form. She describes her first experience with live puppetry as “jarring,” seeing adult actors running around with puppets for hands. However, she remembers a distinct moment where the puppeteers faded away and all she could see were the puppets themselves, performing and acting as separate entities with personalities and feelings. This is puppetry.
Yanique’s background is in museum collections management. She always thought she’d be working with historic objects like paintings and sculptures, not puppets. When she got this job, she was hesitant. It was nowhere near what she was expecting to do. “I thought I was going to be taking care of objects, not puppets,” she said, making the differentiation between a puppet and a painting or sculpture. She thought of them as two separate things because puppets have the capacity to come to life and become characters. They are not objects. In a way, they are performers themselves because of the life that is breathed into them. Intimidated by this idea that she was taking care of something with a life and a soul, she rose to the task. Now, she is proud to call herself one of the “people behind the puppets.” As a lover of museums, she is exceptionally proud of the Center’s collection. In her eyes, walking through a museum is like going on a journey. A collection as a whole should tell a story, and the Center’s definitely does. It tells the story of puppetry and sends people on a journey back to their childhood, allowing them to rediscover their love of Sesame Street or The Lion King or Muppets. Besides the feeling of nostalgia, she hopes that people leave the museum with a new understanding of the art form. What a puppet is can be broad. Puppetry exists everywhere if one just expands their mind to see it. She pointed out that even Barney is a puppet, technically, so are claymations and mascots. The Center works to unlock the imagination of its audience, something which Yanique is very proud to contribute to.
Beth Schiavo, Executive Director, Center for Puppetry Arts
Beth’s one word to describe puppetry: Storytelling
Beth loves stories and she believes that the Center for Puppetry Arts is a magical place where stories help inspire joy, educate, and mesmerize. Like many men and women from her generation, Beth felt she was raised by Sesame Street and the Muppet Show. “I learned my letters and my numbers as well as some words in both English and Spanish from my friends that lived on Sesame Street. By the time I started kindergarten, I was an avid reader. I attribute my love for learning to my years watching Sesame Street.” Her brother Thom performed puppetry during his adolescence, creating rich characters and stories to share with his younger sister.
Beth has been a passionate audience member, patron and community leader in the Atlanta community arts and cultural community. When she was provided the opportunity to work with the Center for Puppetry Arts, first as a consultant and then as its Executive Director, she was humbled by its history and by the great people that work every day at the Center to connect with children and adults alike to tell their stories.
When the Center theaters went dark in March, Beth’s number one priority was finding ways to continue telling stories. “I am thrilled with what this team has done to remain connected to our audiences and to grow our reach outside of Georgia and the United States. It was an emotional day when we learned of families in Italy were watching our free programming while their country was in complete lockdown. Despite our many differences, we all benefit from a shared story – a connection to each other. Puppetry is accessible to children in a uniquely special way. We were overwhelmed by the positive feedback we received from parents across the globe, thanking us for bringing joy into their homes.”
As the Center for Puppetry Arts continues to tell its stories through the magic of puppetry, Beth hopes that people will find the same amount of humble gratitude for this art form that she has. “To watch a child interact with a puppet, to study the technical mastery required to create, build and perform the Center productions and to walk through the halls of the museum, I challenge anyone to not feel just a bit more connected to the world during a time when so many of us feel isolated.” Beth hopes that more people around the globe will learn about the Center for Puppetry Arts, and to passionately participate in the story of our future.
Sundeep Reddy, Board Member, Center for Puppetry Arts
Sundeep’s one word to describe puppetry: Imagination
One of Sundeep’s earliest memories is a field trip he took in Kindergarten. He was only five years old, but he can recall how they all piled in the school van that morning to see a show at the Center for Puppetry Arts. He remembers the moment they arrived and how delighted he was by the performance — he can’t remember what show it was. “I want to say it was Peter Pan,” Sundeep said. It was the very first time Sundeep got to witness a live performance. His artistic experiences up to this point had consisted of cartoons and Disney movies on TV. He was utterly baffled by the fact that an art form, puppetry, could combine both the visually stunning aspect of animation and the tangible reality of live-action film. He described his experience as “seeing animation come to life” and it stuck with him. “The Center means a lot to me because I grew up with it,” he said. Growing up in Atlanta, Sundeep continued to visit the Center, saw countless shows, and yes, one of them was “Peter Pan.”
Thirty years later, Sundeep has grown, and so has the Center. With its museum, programming, and artistry, it has become the premier place for puppetry in the country. Sundeep couldn’t be prouder to see how the Center has blossomed. However, he is personally thrilled to have the opportunity to give his kids a similar experience. He has the ability to offer that artistic enrichment that he received as a child to his own children, connecting with them through a shared love for the arts. This chance for connection is truly a gift, one given not by a person, but by a place. This chance is given to everyone, and it’s something the world needs now more than ever. We need to connect with one another outside of our collective strife. We need an uplifting distraction. The Center is a magical exception to the world.
Throughout the pandemic, kids have been removed from normal life, including opportunities for socialization and new experiences. By missing in-person school, they not only miss out on the chance to be around other kids but also on opportunities to be involved in the arts programs at their school. Tuning into a music class over Zoom is nowhere near close to the real thing. It’s not natural for anyone, child or adult, to be so disconnected, but to be safe, we must.
One way for us to reach out to one another is through storytelling. It has unified communities for thousands of years, forgetting about it when we need it most is doing the world a disservice. Art doesn’t have to be just for happy times. It is meant to uplift us through the bad times as well. Although the Center has closed its doors to field trips during this difficult time, there are still countless ways to enjoy the art of puppetry through the Center’s Digital Learning Program. They are working around these obstacles and pushing through. The Center remains a place for everyone, uniting people across generations through shared experiences. The same experience that proved formative for a five-year-old Sundeep Reddy. The same experience that impacts his kids now. Whatever may divide us, age, culture, beliefs, art can mend.
Allen Yee, Chairman of the Board, Center for Puppetry Arts
Allen’s one word to describe puppetry: Accessible
“Inspiring every generation” and “unlocking imagination,” two of the cornerstones of the Center for Puppetry Arts, may seem pretty straightforward upon first glance, but after investigation, they can be incredibly difficult to achieve. Inspiring every generation? Between Gen-Z, Millennials and the Baby Boomer generation, each group differs in their values and tastes. How does one create a place that inspires all? For Allen, the answer is: arts education. Arts education is what spurs creativity and imagination at a young age and throughout life. Before serving on the Center’s Board of Directors, Allen’s did not have any particular connection to puppetry beyond seeing characters like Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird on Sesame Street.
On his first tour of the Center, Allen was surprised by the production value and professionalism of what he saw. He never really appreciated the sophistication of puppetry as an art form and that it is not just for children. It can tell stories of great importance and convey very profound messages. It is a highly complex art form, requiring immense talent, with endless possibilities. “That surprises a lot of people; that surprised me.”
But it is the accessibility of puppetry, according to Allen, that makes it truly special. “Puppetry is unique among major art forms in that the tradition exists in every culture. This offers the ability to share diverse and multicultural stories.” He adds, “And puppetry is available to everyone.” It has the ability to educate, entertain, and enchant people of all ages from all walks of life. Puppetry carries no airs of pretension, welcoming all no matter their arts background, whether it be extensive or nonexistent.
“It is, for many children, the first and, potentially, only exposure to the performing arts.” A school field trip to the Center may be their first experience visiting a museum or seeing a live performance. This might be where they first learn when to listen, applaud, laugh, or even shed a tear during a show. For Allen, never was the importance of this experience clearer than when his family sponsored a field trip to the Center for the students of the Boyce L. Ansley School, named after Allen’s dear friend and past member of the Center’s board. The Ansley School was founded to educate children experiencing homelessness. Because of his connection with the school’s namesake, it was important to Allen for the school’s first-ever field trip to be to the Center where he met Boyce Ansley. On the trip, Allen noticed a young girl quietly playing with a puppet. All he could think was “Oh, what an angel.” — she looked as though she was around five-years-old, and the way she played with that puppet was so pure and gentle that Allen couldn’t help but rejoice in the simple moment’s beauty. She was so calm, engaged, and gentle. He pointed her out to the school’s Executive Director. She explained that only a few weeks ago, that same little “angel” had been so traumatized when she first came to the school they were afraid she could not stay.
It was a powerful moment validating Allen’s belief in the power of education and the arts — and specifically puppetry in changing young lives. It also confirmed the value of his support for both the Ansley School and the Center and his desire to ensure the most “accessible” of art forms is available to everyone regardless of circumstance. This is the nature of puppetry: simple, yet powerful — enough to inspire creativity and happiness in anyone, whether they are eight or eighty, and fosters an appreciation for the performing arts that can only be found at the Center.
Martha “Mot” Dinos, Board Member & Supporter
Beth’s word to describe Mot: Pistol
Earlier this year, the Center for Puppetry Arts community lost one of its own: Martha “Mot” Dinos, a beloved, long-time board member of the Center and many other organizations around Atlanta, including the Opera and the Georgia Museum of Art. A self-proclaimed lover of all things happy and sparkly, Mot would often drape her petite frame with vibrant, brightly colored outfits. Although Mot didn’t have any children of her own, she loved to be around them, and the Center’s fantastic educational programming for children of every age provided her with an outlet.
At heart, Mot was a kid as well, and she was attracted to the imaginative, bright, and colorful things that are to bring fun and happiness to children. Mot believed educating young people on the arts should be a priority. She spent a lot of time with her nieces and nephews when they were young. Beth Davis, Mot’s grandniece, recounted the beautiful influence in her life that was Mot Dinos. The two were incredibly close, bonding over their shared love of the arts. Mot took Beth to her very first show.
Beth was so excited to visit her great aunt Mot because they were going to see the Nutcracker. Mot had to be the one to give Beth this artistic experience, and her desire to provide every child with magical artistic experiences motivated her to involve herself in as many arts organizations as possible, reaching countless people with her influence.
However, the Center held a special place in her heart because of its focus on children. She saw it as a way to give back, integrating light and happiness into the lives of children who may not get a lot of that every day.
But what was Mot’s favorite thing? One might think it was the performances or the Museum or the Center’s Wiggle Wednesdays programming for toddlers, but they would be mistaken. Mot’s favorite things at the Center was none other than String Fling, the Center’s annual fundraising gala. It’s what she looked forward to every year. In anticipation, she would order her dress months before the event.
A few weeks after her passing, Beth found a package addressed to Mot. After opening it, she realized that Mot had custom ordered a dress for String Fling 2020. The dress itself was made of a fuscia satin that flowed to the floor like water. It would have had a lovely effect as she walked. She had paired it with a little matching jacket that hung over the ruffled, voluminous sleeves. It has been a few years since she has attended, and she wanted to be beyond ready.
However, even on the years where she couldn’t go, having been such a busy and successful woman of the arts, she would still buy an entire table at the event and task her grand-niece, Beth, with filling it. Her only requirement was that anyone sitting at her table had to be willing and ready to bid on things and participate in the fundraising. In the week following, she expected a full report from Beth: who bid on what, what they wore, how much money they raised, etc. Beth was expected to have a detailed recollection of the night as well as pictures to back it up.
Mot’s devotion was unmatched. If she couldn’t be there herself, she had to know that she was helping the Center in some way, furthering their mission to provide artistic enrichment to everyone, especially children. She could trace exactly how her influence impacted the kids that came to the Center. She had tangible proof that her money was being used for good. The peace and satisfaction that brought her must have been unmatched. No wonder she was so joyful; she was fulfilled.
Judy Garland, Board Member & Volunteer
Judy’s one word to describe puppetry: Intimate
Forty-five years ago, Judy Garland worked at the Woodruff Arts Center, coordinating the “Children’s Festival of the Arts.” They had invited every group in Atlanta that had children’s programming. Hundreds of people showed up to enjoy this massive event, but still, Judy felt as if something was missing. If you’ve ever been to the High Museum, you’ve witnessed the massive atrium that connects all of the galleries. It’s a big, hollow space where the sound bouncing off the walls magnifies volume tenfold. Judy felt like it needed a focal point, something to unify the space.
She reached out to Vince Anthony, pre-Center for Puppetry Arts, about her needs for something spectacular, and what they came up with was spectacular indeed. Soon enough there was a huge Jack-in-the-Box puppet that filled the space perfectly, with an eight-foot-tall box and a head that reached the mezzanine, towering over the festival crowds. Never had Judy been more excited than when Vince asked her to be a part of the performance.
Soon enough there was a huge Jack-in-the-Box puppet that filled the space perfectly, with an eight-foot-tall box and a head that reached the mezzanine, towering over the festival crowds. Never had Judy been more excited than when Vince asked her to be a part of the performance. She had loved Kukla, Fran, and Ollie as a kid. There was something so beautiful and intimate about the relationship between the puppet and the puppeteer.
It was child-like, playing into her a kid’s sense of wonderments as well as their ability to transcend reality. To her, the puppet and the puppeteer were both real, tangible personalities with thoughts and feelings and dreams. It all had so much life. And now, because of Vince and his magnificent Jack-in-the-Box, she got to be a part of that life too. “I got to be the Fran in “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie.”
From an audience perspective, she merely turned a crank and recited a few lines. But to Judy, all dressed up in her harlequin-esque outfit, bright orange and green with yellow ruffles all over, this was an unforgettable experience. How many people can say that they got to be a temporary member of the Vagabond Marionettes? Because Judy Garland will never forget.
The sheer memory of it still puts a smile on her face forty-five years later. Puppets have been an influence in her life from early on. Even before “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” her grandparents would perform pre-dinner puppet shows with a little monkey hand puppet. Puppets hold such an incredible and special power to ease the tensions of life, and especially the tensions of growing up. Today, Judy gets to experience this power in one place: the Center for Puppetry Arts. She was there for its opening and has watched it go on a decades-long journey.
Now, she has a favorite spot at the Center: downstairs theatre. She describes it as an intimate space, allowing her to talk to audience members next to her and experience this beautiful art form up close. Something about it is so warm and inviting, and even though she adores that theatre, she is proudest of the current permanent collection. Seeing it grow over the years into the spectacle that it is today is one of the great joys of her life. She has been there since the beginning, actually before the beginning, cheering us on the whole way.