The Puppet Shows of Moe Bowstern
A Brief History:
When I first met Icky A. and Dwayne Hedstrom in the early winter of 1997, both artists worked seasonally for the Portland Outdoor School program. Portland Outdoor School gives public school sixth graders a week of living in summer-camp-style. The children eat in a huge mess hall with sixth graders from other schools, have campfires and learn camp songs, but they also learn about their bioregion’s wildlife, geology, forests and water sources. Icky and Dwayne first developed the shadow puppet play ‘The Life Cycle of the Chinook Salmon’ as a teaching tool for Outdoor School.
Back in their city lives, Icky and Dwayne staged the puppet show with live music and performed it intermittently as desire and opportunity combined with sufficient impetus to stir their impulse. I saw one of these performances in 1997, and eventually not only helped stage the show but also played a little in the band.
In 1998, after playing violin accompaniment with other musicians for a wordless shadow play at a performance project of Icky’s called ‘The History Show,’ I got the puppet bug. Artist and musician Andy Neuberger and I collaborated on a script for a Winter Solstice Puppet Show; he staged the show, we both made puppets, I played in the loose collection of unrehearsed musicians. (We were all startled when, at the end of the play, Andy set fire to the villain.)
The Winter Solstice Puppet Show that Andy and I performed with a number of others in a living room in southeast Portland spawned a tradition that now attracts up to 300 people to two separate performances of four original 15-minute puppet shows performed every Winter Solstice with a live band. “Puppets” are intricate and beautiful shadow scenes, hilarious, raunchy sock puppet characters, handmade marionettes or even mundane objects granted the theatrical grace of personification. The show is always offered as a gift to the community, and is created by a group of friends who work on the show in varying degrees of dedication and madness, starting in early November. (I retired after our 2007 show.)
Years of work on the Winter Solstice Puppet Show encouraged me to blend my art with the commercial fishing that has always inspired me. With the help of Dwayne Hedstrom and others, I have performed at the Cordova Salmon Jam in Cordova, Alaska, at the Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria, Ore., with Portland’s Mudeye Puppet Company, at the Black Sheep Puppet Festival in Pittsburgh, Penna., in Seattle’s Town Hall and in several Oregon and Washington State Parks as well as many other motley venues.
All the puppet shows except The Little Red and Black Hen, which I conceived and created, and The Life Cycle of the Chinook Salmon, are collaborations made by the same loose group of artists who perform the annual Winter Solstice Puppet Shows. While I have been inspired by the breathtaking works of Chicago’s RedMoon Theater I have learned almost everything I know about puppets and staging story creations from working with these fine people 1998 through 2007.
AVAILABLE PUPPET SHOWS
The Life Cycle of the Chinook Salmon
Created for Portland Outdoor School, Dwayne Hedstrom and Alec Dunn
A triumphant, wordless presentation of one of Nature’s greatest stories. The adult salmon lays her eggs and dies. The tiny alevin emerges and eventually becomes an adult female Chinook salmon, frolicking in the open ocean. Each growth stage of the Chinook salmon is correctly represented, and each stage has a predator to evade—a seagull, a trout, a dam, a fishing boat. At 15 minutes, the shadowplay is suitable for every attention span. I bring a collapsible stage, the puppets and a violin and usually one puppeteer. I recruit one or two puppeteers and provide training during an hour and a half rehearsal.
I play an improvised musical soundtrack on the violin while audiences watch the unfolding of the story. At the end of the performance, audience members are invited behind the scenes to see the puppets.
To perform the puppet show, I require one electrical outlet, a willing puppeteer or three, a way to set up my stage so that no one can see behind the scenes, mats for the puppeteers and most importantly, darkness. I provide the stage, the music, the training, an overhead projector, some opening songs and discussion, puppets and the story.
I also offer a workshop in shadow puppet making with a brief history. Participants learn about shadow puppetry, make a puppet, put the puppet on a wire and manipulate the puppets. I provide the materials. Puppets can then be incorporated into the shadow play during the performance. Participants in the workshop must be capable of handling scissors. Participants may use provided X-Acto blades (or bring their own) if they sign a waiver.
Shadows Of The Past: The Story Of A Columbia River Gillnetter
An oral history of Fred Stager’s 10 years of commercial fishing for salmon on the Columbia River in the early ‘80s through the early ‘90s. Liam Delta of KBOO Community Radio reads the words of my former salmon skipper as he describes a life already fading from the docks in Astoria, Oregon. The shadowplay features a beautiful ‘slide show’ of historical photographs projected with obsolete technology, as well as the traditional and sometimes comical shadow puppets I made based on Fred’s story.
I created this show for a Folklife Arts and Trails program commemorating the 2005 bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and performed it with Dwayne Hedstrom at Beacon Rock and Cape Disappointment State Parks.
This puppet show requires a stage that I provide, two overhead projectors, mats for the puppeteers, one volunteer puppeteer, a power strip and a working cd player for the prerecorded original soundtrack. If the performance space is large, the sound system needs to project through the space.
The Little Red and Black Hen
By the Instant Puppet Collective, summer 2000
A wry take on the old fable. The little red and black hen lives in an anarchist collective house and has a dream of making her own tofu pups from scratch. But can she get her housemates to help her? Some say this play is cynical, but women who have lived in collective house situations for more than a year or two always laugh and laugh and laugh. This play features three vocal parts played by audience members selected when we introduce the play.
Best with three puppeteers and one musical instrument playing any familiar folk tune. Requires a stage that I provide, mats for kneeling on and a light source. Has been performed by flashlight.
The Fox Went Out On A Chilly Night
Created for a Winter Solstice Puppet Show
An updated version of the American folk song from the late 1700s. A fox ventures out to a farmer’s fowl pen, kills a duck and a goose and gets away despite the farmer and his dog sounding the alarm and giving chase. Each verse I sing of the song depicts a scene. On an alternate screen after each sung verse, two bicyclists ride out in the night and load up on discarded food at a local dumpster. They ride safely back to their house despite the alarm sounded by the worker at the grocery store and the cop car sent after them. Audience welcome to sing along.
This show is a real crowd pleaser, but it’s a monster to stage. Requires two overhead projectors, six puppeteers, one musician, one electrical outlet, a large scrim that I provide, and mats for the puppeteers to kneel on. The scrim needs to be rigged so it can hang flat.
Feel free to contact me to help me build it so I can do it on a smaller scale! Successfully performed at the Black Sheep Puppet Festival with seven volunteers!
IF YOU WANT TO HOST A PUPPET SHOW IN YOUR TOWN:
Please contact me! Depending on the distance, I may be able to bring puppeteers and projectors. I am very flexible and am open to performing by firelight or other wackiness. I guess this is sort of a bulky, analog Power Point Presentation, where a lot more can go wrong!
I should note that my volunteers have all really loved their experiences. It is a great opportunity for people who might want to perform but don’t feel comfortable being on stage. Remember, you are completely behind the scenes! You should feel comfortable working on your knees or in a crouch. You should be ok with having me boss you around in a humorous and affectionate manner. We usually only need one hour and ½ to two-hour rehearsal and we move quickly. You should be able to work in a small space with other people and share the stage well. If you need a solo performance, we can arrange that. You should be able to read scripts which will be posted backstage, or have the kind of mind that can take in details and hold them firmly. Puppeteers will be able to whisper to each other back stage. Total time commitment, including the night of the show, is about 4 hours.
My youngest musician was 9 years old; she provided sound effects for the Life Cycle of the Chinook Salmon. My youngest puppeteer was 13.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT SHADOW PUPPETS?
Shadow puppets are strangely magical. There is some sort of mystery that holds the audiences together—the puppeteers become the fish and the predators, the audience knows the ending and yet is pulled to the edge of its seat, the violin soars the storyline and the puppets and musicians follow each other to the ending. I’ve done these shows many times, and it always impresses me, how minds and hearts are captured by such simple technology.
The first time I performed the Life Cycle show in Cordova, Alaska, there happened to be a group of bird biologists in town from Humboldt State University, scientists who spent their lives studying life cycles, and they were stunned. They told me it was a perfect way to tell the great stories of Nature.
At the Black Sheep Puppet Festival in Pittsburgh we shared a stage with RedMoon Puppet Theater founder Blair Thomas, a hero of mine from my years as a Chicago starving artist. I was astounded when Blair heaped praise on me for our interpretation of The Fox Went Out On A Chilly Night. I mean, he’s the real thing! RedMoon is a big deal! And we were a bunch of volunteers waving file folders around on wires!
There is something about the interaction of black and white shapes in the dark that absorbs the attention of even very young children. When I invite people backstage, they are often stunned at the crude puppets made of file folders, tape and bent coat hangers. I laugh and agree. I don’t know either, what makes it so special, waving pieces of future recycling around behind a screen, but people love it.
Schedule a show and see for yourself!
I am open to creating new shows with groups as well. Get in touch so we can talk ideas and make some shadow magic.