Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Spica Wobbe: Artist, Educator, International Imaginator

I first met Spica Wobbe, a New York-based puppetry artist and educator, while observing a workshop hosted by The New Victory Theater at an arts education conference in 2004. I was amazed at her creativity and enthusiasm for working with young people. I was very fortunate to work with and learn from Spica throughout my time in New York. I hope her ideas about puppetry and art are as inspiring to you as they are to me!

When did you first work with puppets and how did you start working as a puppeteer?
My first job as a puppeteer was when I worked with a children's theater in Taiwan called “Shiny Shoes Children’s Theater”. My job was supposed to be the producer of their children TV show. However, since it's a small company, everyone had kind of doing everything. Therefore‚ I got the chance to become a puppeteer, and this is how it started….
My first show was "Karius und Batus". I learned the how from a German puppeteer Peter Stelly when he was invited to Taiwan by Shiny Shoes and we had a tour together in 1991. He did the whole show all by himself and I had the privilege to watch him at the back of the puppet stage for every show. I also got the chance to participate his workshop about “Hohnsteiner Puppetry”, which is a special technique of hand puppets.
Shiny Shoes acquired the copyright of the show and kept performing it in Taiwan with their own puppeteers, and I was one of them.

There are so many different styles of puppetry. What is your favorite?
I have worked with many types of puppets but at this point in my puppeteer life‚ I focus on shadow puppetry.
I didn’t start doing the shadow theater until I moved to New York and had the chance to work with “Chinese Theater Works” ( in 2003. The more I play with the shadow theater the more I love it. It always makes people want to see more‚ think more and do more…like a mystery.

Tell us a little bit about your favorite puppetry experience.
The best part of being a performer is to be able to travel. I love puppet festivals. They bring people together. It is also very empowering if you are able to make your audience enjoy your show even they speak different languages and come from different culture backgrounds.
Last year (2010), my partner Margot and I performed at the International Puppet festival in Dordrecht, Holland. We were part of their special program---the Living Room Tour. Since Dordrecht is the oldest city in Holland, it has many beautiful old houses along the canals. With one ticket, the audience was able to visit three chosen living rooms that have special features. We were in an amazing old living room that looks almost like a museum. We performed for a group of twenty five people at a time. They literally sat right in front of me. The show went very well and we got tremendous response. Next morning while I was wondering around the cobblestone streets of Dordrecht, a women on a bicycle with her two children stopped in front of me and asked, “You are the performer of the show in the living room, the show about the Chinese poet, right?” I answered yes. Then she went, “Oh, what a beautiful show, I want to let you know that I will remember that show for the rest of my life.” I thanked her and I said to myself on the way back, “I will remember what you just said to me for the rest of my life too.”
When the audiences are able to understand and appreciate your work, it means you can communicate your ideas though the language you create in the show, in this case, the language of shadow, light and music. That was really awesome!!!

How is international puppetry different compared to puppetry in the US? Do you feel that your work changes depending on where in the world you're doing it?
Puppetry is no different from other performing arts. Every region has its own unique signature. However, puppetry around the world has the same fundamental element which is “imagination”. The performers use their imagination to manipulate the lifeless objects and bring them to life. The audiences invest their imagination and make themselves believe that the objects are living creatures.
However, in terms of the creating environment, I will say there is no place like U.S., especially New York City. The American audience’s open-mindedness provides artists a lot of freedom to explore different subjects and the art form. That is why you see so many puppet slam events or cabarets everywhere. You will see something sweet and silly, but you will also see something that is queer and quirky. The supportive environment encourages everyone to join the puppetry circle. It doesn’t matter if you are a photographer, a painter, or even a biologist. You can be a student, an unemployed clown, or a stay home mom. Everyone is welcomed as long you like to “play” with objects.
On the other hand, I think because of the different cultures, the Asian and European audiences can understand and appreciate something that is more abstract which happens to be a very important element of my work. Also, I think most of Europeans consider puppetry as an art more then an entertainment. Therefore, there are more professional puppeteers then amateurs. It means that they have higher standard for their puppetry work.
A good show should be appreciated universally and that is my primary goal of my work. Therefore, for me, it’s very important that I know what I want to say to my audience and be able to translate my ideas into the show with a language that everyone can understand. That’s why most of my shows are non-verbal. The audiences have to come up with the story themselves in their heads when they watch the show. In this case, I really don’t have to change the show just because the different location or the different audience.

You're also a teaching artist. Why did you decide to become a teaching artist in addition to being a puppeteer?
The first time I visited NY in 1997, thanks to Arts Connection’s arrangement, I had the chance to observe some teaching artists’ workshops in schools. It was an eye-opening experience. At that time, Taiwan didn’t have this kind of art education residency program. I witnessed how children can learn the curriculum though art. That totally inspired me. I guess the seed was planted at that time.

Does your teaching artist work impact your puppetry at all?
In a way, I think. When I make my lesson plan, I always have to think it over and over again and try to experience the lesson myself form the student’s point of view. Will the activities excite, challenge, inspire or support their mind and body? The thinking process and the communication with the students in the class some how provide a good ingredient for my work, an ingredient of creating a common language with them.

Tell us about what you're working on now!
I just established a new company with my partner Margot Fitzsimmons, called “Double Image Theater Lab”. I am so glad that Margot and I share the same vision and enjoy the collaboration together. We are creating 2 shows for the Voice 4 Vision Festival in NYC at the end of this year. We are going to perform in a puppet festival in Jerusalem in August… extremely exciting. We hope there are more adventures to come.
To know more of our work, please visit our Facebook.

What steps should someone take if they want to be a puppeteer?
For your mind: To be playful, to be adventurous, embrace challenges,
to be inventive (always try something new or do things otherwise).
For your body: Practice, practice, practice and do it in stead of just thinking or talking about it.
For your ideas: Look at the mirror to know yourself better and look around and learn from others.

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