Elizabeth Luce is a puppeteer, storyteller, writer. Her puppet performance “The Emperor and the Nightingale,” based on one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most beloved tales, will be performed at the Skirball’s second annual Family Puppet Festival on Sunday, April 7. I sat down with Elizabeth as she was preparing for the show to ask her about the magical world of puppetry.
How did you get started in puppetry?
I think puppetry and I were destined for each other, and would have come together no matter what, but my first important puppet experiences were because of my kindergarten art teacher, Mr. Blake. He would bring puppets out to talk to us. We were enthralled, sitting in a circle around his chair. There was a puppet show of his with puppets that lit up under black light, which made quite an impression on me. He also was responsible for guiding me to build my first real rod puppet (see below). Pretty funny puppet, right? That’s actually the “improved” version; a year later, I ripped off his hair and taped on smaller eyes.
Also, the local library—hurray for libraries!—had a half dozen books on puppets and puppetry in the adult section. I checked them all out multiple times as a child. In particular, I loved the look of the Czechoslovakian puppets, and that has been a visual influence that’s stayed with me always: clean simple lines with nice stylization.
Which puppet or puppeteer captured your imagination when you were younger?
I loved, loved, LOVED “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” and to this day I think they are special. The show played during the early days of television (1947–1957) and Burr Tillstrom, the puppeteer, would arrive at the TV studio with only a loose plan in his head for the show, but mostly he just improvised, even though the show was broadcast live! This would never happen nowadays, of course. There was a set of puppet characters and also Fran Allison, a warm and gracious lady who often stood out in front of the stage and talked with the puppets. Although Fran served as “straight man,” she was what made all the funny puppet characters and their special world work so well. Because she believed in them, we did too.
Watch a scene from “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie”—Fran, Madame Ooglepuss, and Buelah Witch rehearse a song from The Mikado:
Where do you get inspiration for your shows?
I input creative images and ideas into my brain all the time from the world around me. The world is full of amazing, creative, inspirational things: books, movies, pictures, museums, nature, colors, and more. So if you keep your mind open to these, as a way of life, then your mind is ready to go to work creatively whenever you need it.
How do you make your puppets?
My puppets start with a drawn design and then are usually made one of two ways:
There are puppets with heads and hands cast out of either neoprene or latex (depending on whether I need a firm or a flexible head). I sculpt the head, make a mold, cast the head, sand it, and paint it. Then I make the body and sew the costume.
The other type of puppets, usually the bigger monster ones, are made of a special sheet foam (Scott foam) that I cut and glue together to make the shape needed and then cover with fur.
Learn more about Elizabeth’s sculpting, molding, and casting process on her website: www.lucepuppetco.com.
What is special about the show you are presenting at the Skirball’s Puppet Festival?
“The Emperor and the Nightingale” is a wonderfully clever tale. There’s more than one message in it; it isn’t simplistic. The culture it is based on is ancient and rich, and Hans Christian Andersen has brilliantly touched on that. He was a complex man and it brings a uniqueness and depth to his stories. He wrote a large number of stories, but I think this is one of his best.