You are probably unaware that they lurk among us. Obsessed with animating the inanimate, consumed by an odd if ancient form of theatrics, happy to hide behind characters classic and contemporary, they wend their way from stage to stage, venue to venue, party to party, with duffle bags and rolling suitcases in tow.
They are an unusual troupe of artists who embrace the creative impulse and manufacture themselves the instruments of their profession. They are alternately witty, foolish, topical, ghoulish, funny, sad and wise.
Welcome to the Charleston Guild of Gentlemen Puppeteers, which is in fact non-specific to gender.
One of them specializes in marionettes (Will Schutze); another in shadow puppets (Geoffrey Cormier). Some mostly operate hand puppets (Dave English, Kris Manning, Sophie Serg). They are all students of the craft, well-versed in various puppet traditions, from the ancient forms practiced in Asia and India to the commedia dell’arte of Italy and the Punch and Judy shows of England to recent manifestations of the art form, such as the Muppets.
Members of the guild are part of a global subculture of determined artists who are convinced that what they do is as important as Shakespeare or grand opera or the morality plays of the Middle Ages. They are not wrong: Shakespeare employed puppets, operas sometimes are performed with puppet casts and marionettes got their start in the church.
For too many people, puppetry conjures only Sesame Street, Kris Manning said. It’s considered silly, childish, unimportant. But puppetry historically is neither childish nor unimportant. It’s a vital way to convey the human condition in all its complexity.
“We are trying to elevate the form of puppetry,” Manning said. “Puppetry is going through a renaissance right now.”
Manning’s puppet activities are, technically, extracurricular. She spends the bulk of her time running Black Tie Music Academy, which has six locations throughout the metropolitan area. She’s also starting a related enterprise, the Charleston Youth Artist Guild, which will hold classes for kids and organize art shows.
She stations herself mostly at the Daniel Island location where she’s got a creature shop. It’s a perfectly normal thing for her to spend a few hours constructing a floppy dragon or sea creature.
“It’s like an orphanage for feral cats,” she said.
Currently, she’s building a 9-foot dinosaur. Why not?
English once ran a business called the Schmutz Company, and he was active in Pittsburgh working for the arts council there. He’s the “writer” in the group, and the one especially motivated to herd the cats. Maybe he will get the guild registered officially with the Puppeteers of America. That’ll give the guild a certain respectability for certain.
English points out the special convenience of puppets, through which one can say and do what otherwise might be considered taboo, or at least risky. Think of Arlecchino, the mischievous trickster-critic who could get away with anything, even while insulting his master. The tongue is liberated when the mask is donned. Or consider the ventriloquist’s dummy who dares to say what his human manipulator would never dare utter.
Puppets care little for social norms, English said. “You can make statements about society. … You can get away with a lot more.”
Out of the shadows
The consolidation of disparate puppeteers into a proper, if informal, guild was the result of a confluence of chance occurrences. The first, arguably, was an encounter in 2009 between Cormier and Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.
Cormier did a shadow puppet show at the Halsey, set to Indonesian gamelan music written by the New Music Collective for the occasion. It was a hit. Cormier, well-versed in the puppet arts of Southeast Asia, told Sloan about the great shadow puppeteer Jumaadi. Sloan soon set the wheels in motion to make Jumaadi the 2014 international artist-in-residence, and he sent Cormier to Indonesia to seal the deal.
The second bit of happenstance that brought the puppeteers together was Schutze’s arrival about four years ago in Charleston. He came from Dallas where he was a regular at the Texas State Fair.
“I used to see Will performing downtown in the evenings,” Sloan recalled. “We’d walk toward Marion Square and he’d be there standing on the corner where Walgreen’s is today.”
Schutze was a street busker, his instrument a little marionette called Mr. Bonetangles.
“I thought it was totally charming,” Sloan said. So the Halsey director hired Schutze to perform a few times.
“What attracts me about him is it goes so far beyond novelty. It’s so thought-out to the tertiary layer. He presents this puppet and when he performs, he shows the struggle of Mr. Bonetangles to get on stage. It broke my heart. Yeah, he has problems just like the rest of us. The pathos and the precision are the two things that really strike me about his work. It’s not just a perfunctory thing.”
The third odd coincidence that led to the formation of the guild was the materialization of Dave English, who came to Charleston from Pittsburgh a little more than a year ago. English, who has a background in arts administration and a proclivity for dark humor (he grew up in a funeral home), soon took the lead in putting things together.
Soon, the motley group of marginalized artists was attracting a few others, like Manning and Serg. It’s hard to resist puppets if you are a certain kind of person.
On the radio
Little by little, the puppet masters abandon their margins for a quick immersion in the mainstream. Schutze was the opening act at the Halsey’s Groundhog Day concert a couple years ago. A few from the troupe will perform again on Nov. 11 at Moondance, the Halsey’s 12th annual membership celebration.
Come to think of it, the Halsey perhaps is the common denominator here. And it’s not exactly “mainstream.”
Neither is OHM Radio, on whose low-power airwaves broadcasts the Charleston Guild of Gentleman Puppeteers. OHM is a scrappy low-budget local station willing to try a lot of new things, from innovative music programming to niche talk shows.
Well, it doesn’t get more nichy than this: The Charleston Ghoul Show. Visualize it: Mr. Bonetangles is positioned opposite a flesh-and-blood guest. The hour-long interview revolves around a particular topic such as Islamophobia or climate change or the minimum wage or the election. The enterprise is informed by the storied tradition of schlock jocks and campy horror shows.
Guests so far have included Sloan, Elise Hussey of Charleston Regional Alliance for the Arts, Vikki Matsis of OHM Radio and Dimitri Cherny, who’s running for Congress against Mark Sanford. The next broadcast is Nov. 14.
The interviews are filmed and videos are posted online for those who prefer not to rely solely on their visual imagination. And there’s talk about doing something along these lines on stage at some point; maybe a puppet version of Prairie Home Companion?
The puppeteers crashed a Poetry Night at East Bay Meeting House over the summer. (The puppets read the poems.) They got together with some hobo clowns for an impromptu performance on the East Side last month. And they hope to collaborate with Wholly City Hearse Club (did you know that existed?) at some point soon.
So, OK, the Charleston Guild of Gentleman Puppeteers is not mainstream. Not by a long shot. Thank goodness.
Contact Adam Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 843-937-5902.