Podcast: Bringing people together, one puppet at a time

After seeing Handspring Puppet Company — the creators of the puppets in Broadway’s Tony Award-winning War Horse — at UC Berkeley in 2015, Glynn Bartlett knew he wanted to work with them. So he packed his bags and traveled to South Africa, where he built puppets for an annual parade and play performed on the Day of Reconciliation. Bartlett, a scenic artist for the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, says the experience reminded him of just how powerful puppets can be in bringing people together.

Read the transcript.

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Glynn Bartlett, a scenic artist for the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, with two of his marionettes, Fifi the poodle and Muti, the African butterfly fairy.

Glynn Bartlett, a scenic artist for the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, with two of his marionettes, Fifi the poodle and Muti, an ancient butterfly faerie. (UC Berkeley photo by Tonya Becerra)

Following is a written version of the podcast episode:

Carving a giant tortoise head, Glynn Bartlett is in his element. It’s 2015 and he’s in South Africa, volunteering for Handspring Puppet Company.

He first saw the company — known for their puppets in Broadway’s Tony Award-winning War Horse — perform at UC Berkeley through Cal Performances earlier that year and knew right away that he wanted to work with them.

“Handspring tends to do puppetry that requires two to three puppeteers to manipulate a puppet,” says Bartlett. “You have to become one organism to bring this one puppet to life.”

So, he packed his bags and traveled to Barrydale, a small village in Western Cape Province, where Handspring was building puppets for the village’s annual puppet parade and play.

It’s an event that happens every year on December 16 — the Day of Reconciliation, a public holiday that began in 1994 after the end of apartheid to foster reconciliation and national unity.

Although Barrydale is small, it remains divided — with whites living on one side of a big hill and non-whites on the other. To help bring both sides together, the Handspring Trust for Puppetry Arts partnered with a youth organization, Net Vir Pret, which means “just for fun” in Afrikaans. And together, in 2009, they began putting on the Day of Reconciliation’s parade and play.

Actors holding a tortoise head in a play, made out of polystyrene foam and covered in paper maché.

Bartlett carved the tortoise head, made out of polystyrene foam and covered in paper maché, for the Day of Reconciliation parade and performance. (Photo still from video by Fade2Black)

“There’s just something really magical about puppets that bring people together,” says Bartlett in a documentary about the event. “It just transcends all of those things that get in our way as human beings. And it just gives us a whole other way to relate to one another in a way that’s very true and real.”

As a scenic artist for the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies at UC Berkeley, Bartlett teaches students how to paint the sets for their productions.

But in his spare time, he builds puppets.

“Could you describe your puppets over here?” I ask.

“So I have three marionettes that are hanging before us,” explains Bartlett. “The one in the center is actually, he’s a butterfly faerie. I actually created him to take with me to South Africa. He’s been more places as a puppet than a lot of people have been. He’s pretty well-traveled.”

a marionette named Muti

Bartlett created marionette Muti, who is from an ancient tribe of butterfly faeries, for his 2015 trip to South Africa. “Muti” is a term for traditional medicine in South Africa. (Photo courtesy of Glynn Bartlett)

Bartlett started making puppets in college and he estimates that he’s built at least 100 puppets so far. He’s a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteers Guild and of Puppeteers of America.

He says decades of being in the puppet community have shown him the deep desire to connect with people that a lot puppeteers share.

“I think part of it is because so many puppeteers do shows that are oriented towards children and so many puppeteers kind of get into puppetry because they want to change the energy of the world,” he says. “They want to educate or build community or they just want to plain entertain and make people happy.”

But, he says, a puppeteer also needs to have a thick skin and know that puppets aren’t for everyone.

You have to be kind of okay about being considered a freak because a lot of people think puppeteers are weird — that puppets are weird,” says Bartlett. “And then there are other people who just think they’re magical.”

Although there isn’t a formal puppeteering class at Berkeley, Glynn finds ways to work in puppets when he can.

purple marionette named purple pete

Bartlett took his latest creation, Purple Pete, to the O’Neill Puppetry Conference in June. (Photo courtesy of Glynn Bartlett)

Last year, he held a one-day theater puppet-making workshop for students in theater, dance and performance studies. And he was an adviser for students who built puppets for the department’s production of The Dream of Kitamura, by professor and leading playwright Philip Kan Gotanda.

When he retires, however, Glynn’s plan is to have a second career in puppetry.

“One of the great things about puppetry is it’s not necessarily an age-oriented career,” he says. “I mean, there are a lot of puppeteers who puppeteer well into their 80s or 90s. In fact, there’s a woman who is part of the Puppeteers of America who is 103 years old and she still performs at the festivals.”

He’s been writing a version of Jack and the Beanstalk — a sort of American tale. He wants to take his shows on the road and tour, bringing people together to learn and have a good time.

You can learn more about Bartlett’s work on his blog: https://glynntree.tumblr.com/.

For more information about the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, visit their website: http://tdps.berkeley.edu/.