The Jewish holiday of Sukkot begins this evening. Lasting seven days, Sukkot commemorates the fall harvest and the desert sojourn of the Israelites following their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Like many Jewish holidays, it also connects Jews to the cycles of nature. During Sukkot, Jews traditionally spend time enjoying meals with friends and family in temporary shelters called sukkot (sing. sukkah), the Hebrew word for “tabernacle” or “covering.” The sukkah is built of natural materials such as bamboo, wood, and tree branches. Its temporary, fragile nature reminds us that the bounty of summer is behind us and that the autumn season will soon bring the shedding of leaves and the dying of greenery. As summer turns to fall in Southern California, we can also take this opportunity to focus on what it means to live in a drought-stricken area—hoping that nature will bring much-needed rains to us soon. Sukkot is a time to acknowledge climate change—be it the annual cycle or the pressing issues facing the world’s population today. Continue reading
Up in the gallery just a moment ago I overheard a teacher instructing his group of first graders: “Remember to use your ‘library voices’ in the museum.” I smiled and thought, “Good luck with that,” and then took a moment to reflect on how much has changed for museums in the last decade or so and how much my own approach has changed when it comes to developing exhibitions for the public—the whole public, kids and all.
Museums used to be sanctuaries of art and artifact where you would expect typical visitor behavior to include thoughtful reflection and quiet awe. Here the height of the art from the floor and the level of scholarship exhibited in the text might both be well above the heads of most children. The, shall we say, exuberance of children used to be wholly inconsistent with the notion of providing profound encounters with art, not to mention the “do not touch” policy necessary in most art installations. Increasingly, though, museums are adapting to the needs of children and the special ways they learn and view the world, and they are offering kids opportunities to experience art, history, and culture in ways that are meaningful to them. As it happens, I work for such an institution.
In my role as a curator, I still adhere to the notion that quiet contemplation is a form of “visitor engagement,” but as a mom, I am grateful for museums that not only tolerate my toddler Liam’s high energy and propensity for distraction, but actually respect his ability to perceive, appreciate, and learn from art. It is a challenge to develop content for a target audience who may be just starting to develop their language skills, who will last maybe thirty minutes in a gallery, and who might very well have other media competing for their attention while they’re in the museum space. These are challenges that I faced most recently while organizing the Skirball’s presentation of The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats. For this project, I found inspiration in my three-year-old mini-muse, Liam, and in the beautiful art and stories featured in the exhibition itself.
Children live in a highly visual world. Liam’s eyes perceive so much more than mine do—he can easily point to the tiniest speck of an airplane in the sky long before I am remotely aware of its existence. Continue reading
As a child in school, I loved field trips. Is there a child who doesn’t? The chance to escape the confines of the classroom and meet the wide and wondrous world was always a thrill. In the State of Israel, where I grew up, field trips were unforgettable adventures. Not only were we exploring a glorious landscape, we were seeing the sites of history inscribed there. One of my favorite sites was the famous Roman amphitheater in Caesarea. It was built two thousand years ago, and it is miraculously well-preserved. I was so impressed by its design: grand and spacious yet circular and intimate, and not a bad seat in the house. Music, dance, and drama performances are held there to this day. You sit not only side by side but face to face. Even better, everyone in the audience can see each other.
The amphitheater is both a cultural space and a communal space. That is the ideal that inspires us at the Skirball—to be a place where both culture and community are celebrated.
As the school year comes to a close Continue reading
This past Sunday was my first time attending the Skirball’s annual Puppet Festival, and as soon as I reached the parking lot, it was obvious that everyone in attendance was filled with excitement and anticipation. Moms, dads, friends, and relatives were actively engaged in conversation while their children—many dressed in colorful costumes—were skipping with joy at the thought of seeing the myriad of puppets. Throughout the day, I observed many memorable moments; fortunately, talented photographer Peter Turman was there to capture some of them with his camera. The Puppet Festival was a full day of celebrating families, friends, and puppets! Click through the slideshow below to catch a glimpse of the day as seen through my favorite ten of Peter’s photographs.
All photos by Peter Turman
The third annual Puppet Festival is this Sunday, April 13. From hand to shadow, marionette to pageant-size, all your favorites will be there! The Skirball is especially happy to welcome back puppeteer, storyteller, and puppet maker René Zendejas. René returns to wow families with a special animal puppet revue and performance, showcasing some of his best handmade animal puppets. I sat down with René as he was preparing for his appearance to ask him about his long career in the world of puppetry.
How did you get started in puppetry?
I started when I was in junior high school. My mother took me to see as many puppet shows as possible that were playing in L.A.
Which puppeteer captured your imagination when you were young?
I had already started in show business when I was five years old, so this wasn’t something totally new for me. One of the puppeteering teams that caught my eye was Walton and O’Rourke—the most fantastic puppeteers that I have ever seen. From then on, I was smitten. They’re long gone by now. They had the most beautiful marionettes and their manipulation was unsurpassable—except by me, of course.
How do you make your puppets?
First, the clay is sculpted using water-based or grease clay. Second, a plaster mold is made of the clay sculpture. Then you pour your final material into the mold, either plastic or latex. Then comes the finishing of the figure by sanding. Lastly, you animate it—if there is to be any animation in the eyes and the mouth—and paint it. Meanwhile, the body must be constructed and costumed. Continue reading
Seeing a child arrive at the Skirball for his or her first rock concert is a perk of my job; knowing they’re getting that jittery feeling you get when you’re about to be in the presence of those voices you’ve spent hours with, at home or in the car, memorizing every word and drumbeat.
In my experience, the people in these amazing bands are always just as excited as the kids to rock out together in person. In just a few weeks, our special Winter Family Concerts bring two creative, kid-friendly acts to the Skirball: two-time Parent’s Choice Award winner Jambo on Saturday, December 28, and 2013 Grammy nominee for Best Children’s Album The Pop Ups on Sunday, December 29. I thought it would be interesting to find out more about these groups as they prepare for their upcoming performances, and they were kind enough to oblige.
The mission of musical group Jambo has always been to get people of all ages up and dancing. For years, husband-and-wife team Steve Pierson and Melinda Leigh have been using their imaginative performance style to transport audiences through the roots of American music. They’ve made several appearances at the Skirball’s Family Amphitheater Performances series, and they’ve always been a big hit. I spoke with Steve Pierson about Jambo’s beginnings and what inspires him to keep performing.
How did you get started in performance?
I always played music and performed as a kid. I studied piano when I was young, but when my older brother taught me some chords on the guitar, I never looked back. I started out playing acoustic guitar in coffee houses and small venues; playing James Taylor, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers, as well as my original songs. I was always heavily into blues music and played in a few different local blues bands till I put together my own band, Steve Pierson & Blues Head, and started touring around the country playing large blues festivals and small roadhouse bars.
What is one memorable moment from your performing career that stands out?
There have been a few shows that have really stuck with me over my career as a performer, but as it relates to Jambo, one of my first shows was very memorable. I wrote these songs for my own daughter and had no intention of performing them outside of our own home. We played a show at a local elementary school and the experience blew me away. The kids had such unbridled enthusiasm for the music and everyone was having so much fun. The kids were so loud that we couldn’t hear ourselves on stage! I had a blast and it clicked for me that I could play the music I love for these families and it didn’t have to be “dumbed down.” It became my mission to present young kids with really great musical experiences.
What music inspires you?
Dan Zanes was the first person I heard playing “real” music for kids, and I also really loved the Jack Johnson Curious George record. These were songs for kids that adults really liked listening to as well, and that’s what I wanted to make. After that, my music borrows from my musical heroes: The Band, The Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder, anything Stax or Muscle Shoals, and of course the blues greats including, but not limited to, the three Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddie), Taj Mahal, Albert Collins … the list goes on.
How did you come up with your group’s name?
I was trying to come up with something that would sound fun, groovy, and inviting. “Jambo” is a combination of “jam,” as in a jam session or party, and “gumbo,” a delicious Louisiana dish that is a combination of rich flavors and ingredients. I felt like the name was kind of like a “roots music stew” where I could stir in influences from Chicago, New Orleans, Texas, and the Mississippi Delta. Of course, Jambo also means “hello” in Swahili, which I love because it is so welcoming and evocative of the cultural diversity that I try to bring to the music.
What influence has your family had on your art?
My family has been a huge influence on my art. I never would have written these songs for children if it hadn’t been for the inspiration my own daughter brings me. I have always tried to write from her perspective and about things that she likes or issues she has struggled with. I wanted these songs to be helpful to her as she is growing up, and it has been a blessing to be able to pass that along to all the kids and families that hear my music. It’s been so great to be able to share this project and perform with my wife as well, making it a true family affair! It’s our mission now to bring “real roots music” to kids and do a little part to fill the void left by diminished school budgets and dwindling music programs.
The Pop Ups are not your typical children’s band. The duo’s incorporation of puppets, props, and colorful sets into their show has garnered praise from the Wall Street Journal and a Grammy nomination for Best Children’s Album. We’re excited for The Pop Ups to bring their high energy and wildly inventive tunes to the Skirball. I spoke with Jason Rabinowitz and Jacob Stein about their influences and what we should expect from their upcoming performance.
How did you get started in performance?
We both started very young. Jacob’s father had a kids band called Dino Rock, Continue reading
The mission of music group Rhythm Child has always been to get people of all ages up and moving. For the past six years Rhythm Child founder, Norm Jones, has been inspiring young drummers and their families to get up and move as part of the Skirball’s Family Amphitheater Performances series. If you’ve been to any of the group’s last six performances, you know that once Jones passes out his instruments and lays down a beat, the Amphitheater comes thumping to life! I’ve always loved the energy and enthusiasm of Rhythm Child, so I thought it would be interesting to find out more about this fun and feisty musical collective as they plan for their Amphitheater performance on July 21st.
How did you get started in performance?
I grew up being inspired by the performance of others (my brother’s band, choirs in church, supper club shows that my mom took me to). I watched how these singers moved the audience with style, humor, and emotion. For years I practiced at the mirror in my basement before I ever took the stage and performed for people.
What part of performing for live audiences do you enjoy the most?
I love the immediate feedback that you get from a live audience. There is an exchange of energy that is unquestionable. There is a feeling of being out there on the edge without much of a safety net and usually the audience is open and willing to go for the ride. What I hope for is that everyone walks away feeling connected and inspired.
What is the most memorable moment from your career?
I must say that performing at the White House was pretty cool. I got to have my family with me on stage for one of the greatest days of my career.
What music or artist inspires you? Continue reading
If you have not met the new mountain gorilla family on Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, I highly recommend a visit! Welcoming these new members of the Noah’s Ark family has been very exciting for all of us at the Skirball. We have had many questions from staff and visitors about the gorillas and how they fit into the harmony we have established on the Ark. So, I thought it would be nice to check-in with my old friend Jennifer Chatfield. We consulted with Jennifer, former gorilla keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo for over twenty-five years and, in my opinion, the undisputed queen of gorillas, during the design process for the gorillas. Now, as the family settles in, I thought it was time to call her up again to see if she would share more of her in-depth knowledge of these wonderful creatures.
What have you learned from the gorillas you worked with?
I’ve learned a lot from gorillas! First, I think that when working with any animal you must be quiet inside. Leave the stress of your commute, an argument with a co-worker, and all your other issues at the door. The gorillas have taught me to be more aware and to pay close attention to body language. Since their vocalizations are limited, they communicate with their actions. This has made me more aware of their desires and moods, and has made me a better reader of people, too.
What is something about gorillas that most people don’t know?
A lot of them are very ticklish and will laugh or giggle when you tickle their belly.
People often think of gorillas in a negative way because of films like King Kong. What would you like to change in people’s minds about gorillas?
In spite of their size and some impressive teeth, gorillas are very gentle. They tend to shy away from confrontation rather than fight. Even silverback gorillas (the lead male in a family group)—who get into territorial disputes—fight in a ritualistic manner and there usually aren’t too many serious injuries. Part of the beauty of being a gorilla is that if you stand up, charge, and beat your chest, it scares most interlopers off.
In what ways do gorilla families behave like human families?
While the makeup of a gorilla family is different than a usual human family—with one silverback, several females, and their offspring—there are strong bonds in the group. The silverbacks play a role in child-rearing, often playing gently with infants barely the size of the palm of their hand. Continue reading
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?
The suite of exhibitions and programs we’re currently presenting at the Skirball under the thematic umbrella Democracy Matters has gotten me thinking about the way I learned some of the fundamentals of American history and government as a kid in the 1970s.
Growing up in San Diego, I was light years away from Washington D.C. and all those historic sites of colonial wars and document signings—and from the key museums and libraries that house the most noteworthy foundational documents. Instead I learned the basics of American history primarily from a series of short animated music videos that aired as interstitial programs on ABC: Schoolhouse Rock (which turns forty today according to the Washington Post and NPR)!
Come now, all you forty-somethings out there. Didn’t many of you, too, learn the Preamble to the Constitution from a Schoolhouse Rock film with an unbelievably catchy tune sung by Lynn Ahrens… Continue reading