Today you can check out Monica Leo’s Top Five. And remember to check back on Monday for a whole new series of Top Fives!
Today’s TOP FIVE is all about puppets! Monica Leo, founder of Eulenspiegel Puppets has been creating shows since the 1970s. If you’ve never been to the Owl Glass Puppetry Center in West Liberty, you need to do so. And in case you think puppets are just for kids, let me assure you that there are shows aimed at us older folks, too. For instance, you could check out their annual Puppets and Pastries: Dessert Theatre for Adults. But for now, read Monica Leo’s TOP FIVE!
1) Freedom Star: Gertie’s Journey on the Underground Railroad. Eulenspiegel Puppets, 2004.
Teri Jean, my late longtime puppet partner, and I developed this show with musician Ron Hillis in 2004. It was a first in many ways: our first script not based on an existing folktale, our first foray into historical fiction, and the first time one of our shows drew tears as well as laughter. We loved performing that show: combining rod puppets, shadow puppets, near lifesize puppets, and with the most beautiful evocative music composed and played by Ron, it was a visual and aural treat. We abandoned the show in 2006 when Teri Jean decided to go back to school, but we talked about bringing it back when her studies were over. Then she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and in 2012, six months before her death, she talked me into reworking the show so Ron and I could do it without her. She directed and proclaimed the result to be even tighter and better than the original. Ron and I tour Freedom Star frequently, and every time I perform it, I feel as if I’m channeling Teri Jean!
2) Finding Home. Eulenspiegel Puppets, 2009
Only my second solo show, Finding Home was my first show for adults and my first attempt at memoir. Using my dad’s journals and my own memory, I crafted three short pieces and wove them into a single show. Each segment used a different style of puppetry. In the first piece, I used candlelight and shadows to interpret my dad’s writings about his time in a concentration camp and his escape to the U.S. In the second piece, I used my mother’s illustrations to create puppets and scenery and tell droll stories of language and cultural mix-ups and misunderstandings during our years in rural Texas. My third piece used dolls and other objects to follow my mother’s rebirth as a metal sculptor and political activist in the United States after my father’s death. It was an extremely challenging and rewarding project that taught me so much about writing. The show has since toured both Germany and the US to excellent reviews.
3) Stories and Cuentos. Eulenspiegel Puppets, 2007.
In 2007, I contacted my puppeteer friend, Eli Portugal, in Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico and asked her to collaborate with me on a bilingual (Spanish/English) puppet show. We each picked a Mexican folktale, wrote a script, and figured out how the story could be staged. In late July Eli came to Iowa and we spent the month of August weaving our stories and ideas together, building puppets and scenery, and rehearsing our show. Late that August we premiered the show at a festival in southwest Kansas. Now Eli comes to Iowa every year and she and I tour the show for a month or more. It was a fascinating process: before Skype, we did all of our prep work using a scanner and email. I really discovered how much our cultural heritage is part of us: the story I am lead artist on, though it’s a Mexican tale, has distinctly Euro-American overtones while hers in 100% Mexican! People seem to notice and like this merging of our cultures. This addresses my favorite part of collaboration: you end up with a result that neither one of you would have arrived at alone.
4) Portraits of the Prairie. Eulenspiegel Puppets, 2004.
I wanted to include one of our so-called community shows, shows we build and perform with members of our West Liberty community. This has been an annual event since 2001, when we decided, along with a local Lutheran pastor, that a creative, positive community activity would be a good response to the events of 9/11. Some years have been fabulous, some so-so, but all fun. I picked Portraits of the Prairie because it included so many people and because it was the first one we ever built to tour and teach to other communities. We wanted to show a light-hearted history of the prairie, from the Ice Age to native prairie through Native American inhabitants, early European settlers, the dustbowl, modern factory farms, and back to reconstructed prairie. We created a three-tier set that resembles a Grant Wood painting (designed and painted by Peggy Fitzgerald), put puppeteers behind each tier, and had the prairie change scene by scene with the puppets, with silks draped over the panels or moving in between (ice, fire, dust), with flowers or corn or grasses growing over the panels and swaying in the breeze with the assistance of their puppeteers, with animals, people, and structures typical of each era. Ron Hillis composed music that he and Guy Drollinger played. Mary Swander collaborated in the writing of the script. Our puppeteer pal Bob Aiken from Colorado helped conceive the show and directed it, and over 30 community members helped build and perform. It was the first time we had a mayor in our show; since then we’ve had another mayor, a police chief, a city manager, and a superintendent of schools. And most importantly, lots of regular folks.
5) Eulenspiegel’s Circus. Eulenspiegel Puppets, 2991.
My fifth pick, Eulenspiegel’s Circus, was just plain fun! Teri Jean and I created it, originally with the help of our intern, Macy Matarrazzo. We knew something was wrong with it, but we weren’t sure what, so we put it away. A few years later the Hoover Library called to see if we had a circus show. We got it back out and discovered that the problem-wonder of wonders!-was in the writing. We’d gained enough skills in the meantime that we knew how to fix it and did. We had so much fun with that show: tabletop puppets, rod puppets, kazoo band, silliness, and all. It moved to the basement when Teri Jean went back to school, but much to my delight, it re-emerged in 2013. It seemed like a show I could teach to Justin and Angela, my young (at that time intern) puppeteers. I directed them in it and learned to let go. It became clear that it would be a slightly different show marked by their talents and strong points rather than T.J’s and mine. They did a brilliant job and took the show all over Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri the summer of 2013 and the following fall and spring. It was a treat to see how it could be the same and yet be different.
Check back soon for another TOP FIVE. And check out the previous TOP FIVES here:
Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers
Jeffrey Allen Mead
Braden JP Rood
Cherryl Moon Thomason
Monica Leo is a first generation American, born to German refugees in the waning days of World War Two. After the war, her parents ordered a set of Kasperle hand puppets from a German craftswoman, and Monica was hooked. A graduate of the University of Iowa, Monica studied for two years at the State Art Academy in Düsseldorf, Germany with Josef Beuys. Since 1975, she has been creating and performing as founder and lead puppeteer of Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre, based at Owl Glass Puppetry Center in West Liberty, Iowa. Monica also makes dolls, creates block prints, and writes about the art of puppetry and about touring in the rural Midwest. She lives in a log cabin in the woods with her carpenter husband, John Jenks.