My church celebrates its birthday on June 19th. Every year we have a huge community picnic and a pageant depicting some of the vibrant stories from the book of Revelation in the Bible. This year, the pageant was particularly exciting because it featured a brand new great red dragon. The mammoth puppet was built by members of the community, with the guidance and creative expertise of Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles from “Processional Arts Workshop,” based in New York. In a nutshell, here is what these two exemplary teaching artists do:
PAW creates community-based site-specific pageants and processions, that involve residents at every stage of the creative process. We work within existing events and festivals, as well as initiating new pageant events in response to local culture, physical environment, oral history, and current sociopolitical concerns. We build processional artworks from scratch… Afterwards we leave these elements in the communities where they were conceived, laying the roots for an annual procession to grow and evolve.
Wow. What a tremendous gift to have these artists impart their knowledge and skills to a group of average folks who knew nothing about puppet-making. People of all ages worked together in the local theatre’s scene shop, painting scales, cutting PVC pipe, gluing, and piecing together a truly magnificent and formidable looking 30-foot long dragon. Having the opportunity to be a part of the creative design and building process was gift enough, but this community will have this incredible creature for years and years to come. This is what true teaching artists do; they share their artistic skill set with others in a way that empowers people who may or may not identify as artists to create art on their own. Teaching artists are about cultivating art and not just performing it or showing it off. The couple that worked with us so clearly had that goal in mind. Every person who assisted in building the dragon felt that their personal stamp was on the puppet. Every scale, horn, eye, and tooth was unique, because many hands worked together to fashion them. This workshop was about so much more than building a puppet. It was about celebrating community through art-making and establishing an artistic centerpiece for continued community development in the future.
I was fortunate enough to help with the beginning stages of building the dragon, but I also had the distinct honor and pleasure to be one of ten puppeteers to operate the dragon in its debut pageant performance. It took one team of people to build the puppet and it took a new kind of team to bring it to life. With only a few hours of rehearsal, ten people had to work as a single unit, coordinating the movement of this seven-headed beast. It’s amazing how complicated a simple directive like, “move forward,” can be, especially when it’s ten people trying to achieve the movement and they’re all holding onto bamboo poles attached to a giant monster. Oh yeah, and we were wearing black veils attached to baseball caps to keep the attention on the puppet and not the sweating puppeteers teetering beneath it, which was great, but sure made it harder to see. It was a puzzle–attaching the heads to the necks, figuring out when to keep the pole in the pouch around our waists and when to take it out, when and how to most effectively open the mouths, moving forward without putting too much strain on the dragon necks or our backs, lunging at the angels that battle the dragon, moving backward without tripping, and all the while keeping the whole dragon active so that it never stopped looking alive.
But we did it. The seven puppeteers each operating a dragon head, bonded with their part of the beast and learned how to communicate with their serpentine neighbors. The brave folks bearing the weight of the huge body, figured out how to distribute the load and how to move as if they weren’t carrying a massive creature on skinny sticks. The tail puppeteer added to the hulking majesty by sweeping the tail as if it could indeed strike down a third of the stars. We were a small community of ten novice puppeteers and we acted together as a single, ominous creature. Judging by the unprecedented round of applause at the end of the pageant, I’d say that we, along with the rest of the cast, accomplished something remarkable.
Most dragons scare people to scattering. This one brought us together.