Wednesday, October 12, 2016

6 Questions: Benjamin Stuber


Benjamin Stuber has created all the puppets for the world premier of Phantasmagoria; or, Let Us Seek Death! coming to The Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa on October 20 - November 6, 2016. Benjamin took time out from rehearsals to answer our 6 Questions.

1. How did you come to create puppets for Phantasmagoria; or, Let Us Seek Death!?
Randy Rand [director of Phantasmagoria] and I have worked together in several capacities over the years in developing new work; he even directed my one-man show. Back around 2012 he pitched me his vision of an authentic take on Frankenstein told from Mary Shelley's perspective, utilizing puppets to bring the Creature to life. I believe Randy saw puppets I had made for Chocolate Dances at St. Mark's, Kevin Kuhlke's production of The Trojan Women, and a gargantuan mashup of Prometheus Bound and Percy Shelley's Prometheus Unbound; he thought my artistry appropriate for this new project. I met the playwright, Chana [Porter], shortly after that, so the three of us have been kicking around ideas for several years before development began in earnest.

2. How does the content of the show influence the look or style of your puppets?
I'd like to think that both have informed one another. Chana began early drafts and scenes around the time I started sketching, and the script began to take shape around the time I started construction on the puppets in the early summer of 2015. So progress on the puppets and the script have mutually informed each other. Over that time I arrived at a few basic assumptions about the Creature. Firstly, like the most terrifying monsters in literature and film, it would be multiform - not adhering to one set shape or rigid definition (like Carpenter's The Thing or Grendal in Beowulf). Second, I wanted to utilize only materials that would have been available in 1816 (wood, metal, rope - no plastics, no 3d printing), so that my best attempts to make a perfect man come to life would be thwarted by my mistakes, my limited skills, and the unknown unknowns inherent in making art. I wanted to use materials I knew would be temperamental, time-consuming, and imperfect - knowing they'd fight back against me - much like Dr. Frankenstein's relationship to his creation. Lastly, I wanted to capture the admixture of beauty and horror evoked by Lynd Ward's famous illustrations of the Frankenstein story from 1934: a Creature part angel, part Devil, and somehow wholly human.

3. What was the the biggest challenge you faced in designing puppets for this show? 
I estimate I've clocked in about 1500 hours on constructing these puppets. Hand carving a comprehensive wood skeleton, managing the physics of moving a four foot long articulative finger, and burning out crosshatching with a heat knife is challenging enough - but the real difficulty in this project has been space. I'm unable to afford the exorbitant price of a decent workshop, so I've made all the puppets for Phantasmagoria in my basement. I've tried my best to be careful and compassionate about roommates' space, noise sensitivity, safety, and patience - but it's very hard to make large-scale art in such confines and not drive yourself (and those around you) bananas.

4. Who has inspired you?
I'm not really plugged into any puppetry communities, so sadly I don't have many direct puppetry inspirations: I'm more inspired by concepts, dreams and questions. Specifically, Lynd Ward's sumptuous illustrations have been a huge motivating force for this project. I've also followed my extensive training and experience in anatomy, kinesiology, and biomechanics in inform the look and structure of these puppets. I've taught movement and Pilates for many years, and so I have insight into how bodies move and how they break down. This may be a condemnation of both talents, but I think everything I know about puppets comes from Pilates, and everything I know about Pilates comes from puppets! Therefore I've tried to make most of these puppets from a sound physiological foundation, so although the Creature looks and moves in eerily human ways the fact that wood and rope stand in for bone and muscle makes it simultaneously quite alien. I've also become very enamored of the materials I'm using - pine, rope, steel, and translucent fabrics - and have let their physical possibilities influence the aesthetics of the puppets. 

5. What was the last good book you read?
Right now I'm halfway through Slavoj Žižek's Absolute Recoil, but before that I reread John Crowley's Lord Byron's Novel - a great imagining of how a lost Byron epic, preserved by his daughter Ada Lovelace (yes, that Ada Lovelace) would be literally deciphered and carried into the present day. It's a great read!

6. What does working at La MaMa mean to you?
Ever since college I dreamt of making art at LaMama - its reputation shone out a as a beacon of quality experimental theatre. In 2012 I costume designed and performed in a show at LaMama: Sheila Callaghan's Port Out, Starboard Home. We were shipping the set and half the actors in from the world premiere in San Francisco and about to begin rehearsals when superstorm Sandy hit and the entire East Village found itself dark and under water I was amazed by the skillful competence and grace under pressure the staff and leadership at LaMama showed during this unprecedented time, and they got our production up and running as if nothing inclement had ever happened. I'm hugely excited to work with LaMama again, this time in much better circumstances!

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La MaMa presents
Phantasmagoria; 
or, Let Us Seek Death!
Conceived and Directed By Randolph Curtis Rand
Written by Chana Porter
Puppetry by Benjamin Stuber
An Eric Borlaug Production

October 20 - November 06, 2016
Thursday to Saturday at 7PM; Sunday at 4PM

Tickets: $30 Adults; $25 Students/Seniors; ten tickets priced at $10 each are available for every performance as part of La MaMa 10@$10 ticketing initiative.

For Tickets and Info: CLICK HERE