Volume 75, Number 30 | December 14 - 20, 2005

Beyond Kermie: Puppeteer brings the craft into the 21st century

By Rachel Fershleiser

Ingrid Hoefer

Emily DeCola and one of her prized puppets, DeVora.

“The Revenger’s Tragedy,” a Jacobean satire of questionable authorship, is currently enjoying a passionate, ambitious, and thoroughly gruesome production at The Culture Project on Bleecker Street. The play probes hypocrisy and deceit in corrupt Venetian society, and opens with a tableau of shadowy robed figures whose heads are concealed on both sides by masks. Carefully conceived and exquisitely detailed, each mask is a work of art created by Emily DeCola, a downtown mask and puppet designer.

“I’ve always been that kid who was making stuff,” DeCola says. “When I was six it was sculptures out of bubble gum and toilet paper rolls. In high school it was costume design. Once I made thirty-seven pairs of chaps out of felt for a cowboy hip-hop dance.”

DeCola attended McGill University in Montreal where she double majored in Theatre Studies and Anthropology. In fact, it was through anthropology, not theatre, that she became captivated by the possibilities of masks and puppetry as a form of expression.

“I was researching ritual objects in world cultures, and I became fascinated by the “Moment of Belief” — the instant when an everyday object becomes something more,” she explains. “I fell in love with the idea that someone can watch something inanimate and know it’s inanimate, but when it moves or talks, agree to believe in it.”

DeCola’s anthropology professor helped her procure a grant that allowed her to write and design a show inspired by her undergraduate research, which toured in the U.S., Canada, and eventually even Australia. She then returned to her native New York City and earned her first paid job designing masks and puppets for a well-received production of “Pericles” directed by Jesse Berger, with whom she worked again on “The Revenger’s Tragedy.”

The main challenge facing puppet builders in Manhattan differs little from the one afflicting all New Yorkers: space. As DeCola got more work it became impossible to continue without a studio.

“I was wandering the streets with twelve colors of fake fur and my homemade wood putty,” she jokes. Fortunately, Chashama, a non-profit dedicated to helping artists, found her a succession of workable — if sometimes unconventional — spaces. One such studio was located in the basement of a Times Square Peep-o-rama. Another was under a Tribeca dance club. “I was wiling to co-exist with the roaches and rats — it is New York — but when I was dive-bombed by six gigantic bats, it was time to move on.”

DeCola’s current studio is located in a former industrial kitchen in the Cornelia Connelly Center on East 4th Street. The building is home to a girls’ school, a theatre, a closed-down bowling alley, and, until recently, the Lower East Side Girls’ Club cookie baking operation.

“When the cookie-bakers moved, we came right in,” she says. “And I gotta tell you, a commercial kitchen is the best puppet studio ever. We have windows, we have ventilation, we even have running water — although they did take the kitchen sink.”

DeCola studies with 84-year-old German puppet master Albrecht Roser to keep the old craftsmanship of puppeteering alive, and directs her own interdisciplinary Octopus Ensemble to advance the form in the twenty-first century. With the recent puppet resurgence in American culture, from “Avenue Q” to “Team America: World Police” to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, DeCola has every reason to believe her passion will continue to grow and flourish.

“What can I say?” she giggles. “Suddenly, puppets are hip.”

The Revenger’s Tragedy runs through December 18th at The Culture Project at 45 Bleecker Street and is considering an extension. Visit www.theatermania.com or call 212.352.3101 for tickets.

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