Puppetry Journal - Winter 2010 Volume 62, No. 2
Complimentary Online Article
"It gets better," is an on-line effort launched September 2010, to tell vulnerable teens at risk of bullying and suicide, that life gets better and that they are not alone. Many well-known citizens, including President Obama, have offered their voices to this growing effort. There are now thousands of video clips on Youtube from around the world offering an astonishing range of messages that are inspiring, strong and tender.
Growing up isn't easy. The lives of children, teenagers and young adults who are perceived as different can be lonely, harsh, even brutal. Gay teens are especially at risk. Gay and lesbian youth are sometimes taunted â€“even tortured for simply being themselves. They can't picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults.
This article celebrates the accomplishments of a few of the many gay puppeteers from the past and present. Our message for any teens, gay or straight, who want to pursue puppetry (or theatre, or ballet, or any interest outside the mainstream) and feel they are alone and unsupported: It gets better. There are puppeteers and artists in the world
just like you, who have enjoyed a life full of joy, and love and productive creativity. There are straight, gay, bisexual and non-sexual puppeteers who want to encourage you. You have a family or community of puppeteers who will welcome you and understand you even if your parents, or community do not. A growing number of openly gay puppeteers, working for adult audiences, have created amazing works of theatre with gay content. Other puppeteers are openly gay with their friends and co-workers but prefer not to publicly discuss their personal lives. There are many good reasons to choose "not to tell." The theatre community has a deeply established tradition to respect the privacy of artists who do not wish to discuss their sexuality. We know of at least 100 gay or lesbian puppeteers from age 18 to 88 who are currently involved in some aspect of puppet theatre. Some are in committed relationships, a few are married in states where gay marriage is legal, and some are parents. There are far too many to profile in one article. The puppeteers selected are known for their humanity and their passionate and often witty contributions to the art form. They are successful and many started puppeteering as teenagers. The youngest puppeteer profiled is John Tartaglia, and the oldest was born in 1901!
In 1996 18-year-old John Tartaglia became the youngest staff member of Sesame Street. In 2004 he received a Tony Award nomination for best leading actor in the musical Avenue Q. John played the roles of "Princeton" and "Rod" a closeted gay character.The Broadway hit includes the song, "If You Were Gay." John helped to raise tens of thousands of dollars for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Recently John was the creator, producer and star in the TV show Johnny and the Sprites, on the Disney Channel. His newest show Imaginocean is currently playing Off-Broadway at New World Stages. In 2010 John participated in several benefits and fund-raiser for the Trevor Project and "It Gets Better." John lives with his boyfriend of seven years.
At the age of 12 Ronnie Burkett already knew that he wanted to be a puppeteer.
I was told I was a fag before I even knew what that was about…people were hostile. Puppetry helped because I really knew I was getting out.
And he did. As a 16-year-old boy from rural Canada, Ronnie attended a puppet festival in Michigan.
In 1998 his play Tinka's New Dress dazzled NY audiences and critics who found his virtuoso creation to be deeply moving. His productions, which continue to explore profound issues and emotions, have received numerous accolades including the Chalmers Canadian Play Award, an Off Broadway Obie Award, and 4 Citations of Excellence in the Art of Puppetry. His most recent work Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy, is about a gay puppeteer. The play has been touring internationally for 2 years. Ronnie is openly gay and lives with his partner.
In the early 1980s Basil Twist, a teen-age boy who loved puppets, abandoned puppetry. He said, "It wasn't cool, it seemed childish and slightly sissy, so I was a closeted puppeteer." It got better. In college Basil returned to puppetry, His innovative Symphonie Fantastique, 1999, received rave reviews and an extended run in NY. Basil Twist was awarded 5 Citations of Excellence in puppetry. Paula Vogel, a Pulitzer Prize winning lesbian
playwright, was inspired by Basil's work, and she created a play Long Christmas Ride Home, that blended live actors and puppets. Drag performer Joey Arias and Basil
collaborated on a show Arias with a Twist. Basil Twist's puppetry for the musical, The Addams Family received a Drama Desk Award. The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway is Basil's most recent project. Basil is the proud founder of a program that commissions and presents new works of puppet theatre. PHILLIP HUBERPhillip Huber is best known for his puppetry work in the film Being John Malkovitch.
I was very small for my age, quiet and shy. I tried to keep a low profile in high school but none-the-less I became a target for bullies who would push me against the lockers, knock books out of my hands, and call me "queer" or "faggot." My sanctuary was the art and drama department where I found support and inspiration. I was asked to perform a short piece from my marionette variety show for a school assembly. Instead of the derision that I expected, there was quiet admiration. A gym teacher, who seemed to take sadistic delight at my being pummeling during PE, offered an unforgettable compliment, "You're pretty good. You should be on TV."
Phillip has performed in theatres and cabarets in Hollywood, New York, Chicago, Paris and Monaco. He travels around the world performing on cruise ships. He has received numerous awards. Phillip Huber is an inspirational teacher who shares his skill with eager students at O'Neill Theatre Center, colleges and puppet festivals.
Paul Zaloom is best known as the star and mad-scientist host, of Beakman's World, 1992-1996. At the age of 19, while at college, Paul joined the Bread and Puppet Theatre and for many years he served as ringmaster for their annual puppet circus. He created the first of 12 solo shows in 1979. Paul's observations on urban life, the environment, politics and international turmoil are presented at break-neck speed using found objects (Paul would call them junk) and puppets. Velvetville included "Punch & Jimmy" perhaps the first gay rights version of the classic Punch and Judy show and The Mother of Us All, his Karagoz show, is probably the first gay version in the middle eastern shadow tradition. In 2007 Paul Zaloom and Lynn Jeffries of Cornerstone Theater worked in partnership with the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center to create and perform an original comedy with GLBT youth and seniors. Paul is openly gay and made a hilarious comedy sketch about his attempt to join the Marines.
Openly gay playwright and author Moises Kaufman recently directed a puppet opera version of Puss in Boots. In 2000 Mr. Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project created The Laramie Project, a play that was a powerful and moving response to the 1998 murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard. Kaufman earned a Tony Award nomination for directing I am My Own Wife, a play about a German transvestite who survived the Nazis and the Communists. Puss in Boots, his first effort at children's theatre, is reviewed in the Puppetry Journal Fall 2010.
FEDERICO GARCIA LORCA
Federico Garcia Lorca 1898-1936 is one of Spain's most loved poets and playwrights.
In 1923 he wrote The Puppet Play of Don Cristobal. He visited the United States in 1930 and wrote "Ode to Walt Whitman," clearly a love poem from one gay poet to another. In 1936 Spanish fascists murdered Lorca. In 2007 a gay puppeteer in Minneapolis, Bart Buch, turned Lorca's "Ode to Walt Whitman," into a work of theatre, where Whitman and Lorca communicate on a social networking site.
Lorca was taken from us at a young age. Brilliant, and hilarious puppeteers Wayland Flowers, Charles Ludlam, and Richard Hunt were also taken from us too early.
WAYLAND FLOWERS, CHARLES LUDLAM, RICHARD HUNT
Madam, the bawdy, sassy, diva created by Wayland Flowers, had her own syndicated TV show. At clubs in Las Vegas, their act used lots of words not permitted on television. Madam's TV appearances helped to kick down the boundaries of television humor.
In the 1970s and 80s Charles Ludlam's outrageous and brilliant plays made him a much loved legend in the New York theatre scene. His Theatre of the Ridiculous typically included Charles in drag. As a boy, puppets inspired Charles and he went on to win an Obie Award for Professor Bedlam's Punch and Judy Show.
Richard Hunt was a much loved and extremely gifted "muppeteer." He began working for the Muppets right after high school. His astonishing gallery of characters on Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock included Forgetful Jones, Placido Flamingo, Scooter, Beaker, Janice, Statler, and Junior Gorg. Richard started doing puppet shows in middle school. He didn't tell his mom about how he was teased and harassed as a 14-year-old boy with a paper route. Richard had a large and generous spirit. In Puppetry Journal Todd Stockman wrote,
He was a remarkably gifted performer whose high energy level permeated through each of his characters, both on and off camera. He was famous for cutting up on the set with a puppet in hand, entertaining a young visitor to the set of Sesame Street set, and energetically and hysterically leading the Muppet workshops responsible for training countless puppeteers.
In 1936 a gifted and sensitive 18-year-old boy from Chicago attended the very first American puppet festival in Detroit. At the festival he found a group of artists who were enthusiastically supportive of each others work. Burr Tillstrom became a major television star loved and respected for the warmth and wit of his work. He never married. The playful tenderness, and loving care of Kukla and Ollie and all the "kuklapolitans," perfectly expressed what was most important to Burr. There was no hint of public gossip about his private life. In the early 1950s coming out would have ruined any career. Burr owned a summer home in Saugatuck on Lake Michigan. The Saugatuck Historical Society describes the village as "one of the Midwest's oldest and most popular gay/lesbian destinations." After Burr passed away in 1985 the town honored him with an exhibit and commemorative statue.
Theatre legend, Stephen Sondheim is not a puppeteer, but as a young man he wrote a song for the television puppets Kukla, and Ollie, the creations of Burr Tillstrom. Puppets were in Sondheim productions of Pacific Overtures, Into the Woods, Side by Side by Sondheim (with Burr Tillstrom) and The Frogs. Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story. The creative team for West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Stephen Sondheim, were bisexual or gay. In the 1960s the three men were fond of attending a 22-seat puppet theatre on Central Park West. The puppeteers for the Little Players were Bill Murdock and Frank Peschka who were widely assumed to be a gay couple.
It really does get better. Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones met in college and have been a couple for 39 years. They formed Hand Spring Puppet Company in South Africa in 1981.
They are highly honored international theatre artists. In 2007 they worked with the National Theatre of Great Britain to create magnificent puppets for the play War Horse that became an award winning smash hit in London. On April 14, 2011 War Horse will open at Lincoln Center in New York. After South Africa legalized gay marriage, Adrian and Basil were married in 2007.
FORMAN BROWN, THE YALE PUPPETEERS
Over 90 years ago, in 1919 Forman Brown, a talented, gay 18-year-old college student, started his creative life by doing puppet shows. He worked with his gay cousin, Harry Burnett. Forman and Harry attended Yale Drama School. 1927 at Yale, Forman Brown met the love of his life, Richard "Roddy" Brandon. They were together for 57 years. The three men, Forman, Harry, and Roddy formed the Yale Puppeteers. For all their long lives they shared a career, an artistic partnership, and a home. The Yale Puppeteers entertained Greta Garbo and Albert Einstein at their theatre in Los Angeles.
In 1933 Forman Brown wrote and published a novel, Better Angel, using the name Richard Meeker as the author. It became a classic in gay literature because it is the first novel to show the gay experience in a healthy light. In 1987 the novel was obscure but not forgotten. After an unsuccessful search for Richard Meeker, the novel was re-published. Forman Brown tells the story:
"Imagine a very old gentleman (87) entering a very modern bookshop and somewhat hesitantly asking the proprietor if by any chance he has a copy of a novel called Better Angel by one Richard Meeker. The proprietor replies 'Yes, indeed. It's quite popular. I think you'll like it. It's a well written book.' 'I'm sure I shall,' said the old gentleman. 'You see, I wrote it.' And that is why Forman Brown is writing the epilogue for the new edition of the book."
Every puppeteer is part of a minority group- there are not very many of us. We tend to value each other as individuals and artists without giving much thought to who might or might not be gay or straight. Find us at a local puppet theatre or puppet guild. Find us at a puppet festival, or on the internet. It gets better when you discover a community that values your creativity and passion for the arts.
Thank you to the many puppeteers who shared thoughts about early drafts of this article. There is much more to this topic. Please contact me if you would like to speak out.
It gets better.
Steve Abrams is associate editor of Puppetry Journal and a past president of Puppeteers of America. In middle school he was bullied and beat up. It got better. In high school he began earning income doing puppet shows. Steve lives with his partner of 36 years.
Online Video Supplement
Members of the Broadway and NY Theatre Community share their stories
Broadway sings for the Trevor Project
More from Broadway, the Cast of "Chicago"
President Obama's message on bullying
Joe Burns, Fort Worth City Councilman, on the suicides of several young people.