I knew Edgar was special from the first moment I saw him at a party. The flair with which he met people and set them at ease, the masterful way he ordered drinks from the bar, the sexy way he shared a cookie with me. Knowledgeable about everything from baking to bottom-shelf whiskey, Edgar even managed to be charming as he evaded my question about the missing fingers on his right hand. He was a little shorter than the men I’m usually attracted to, and a fair bit greener-skinned, but I suppose that’s what I get for flirting with puppets. Especially puppets connected at the business end to vivacious Berkeley artist, performer, and teacher Gitty Duncan.
A week later, as I ate pancakes made under Edgar’s careful supervision, Duncan and her companion, Brian, discussed the best way to emulsify three gallons of vinaigrette for a small potluck music festival they planned to attend with the musicians of Berkeley’s Rosin Coven. Duncan, a New York transplant, is Rosin Coven’s resident photographer and saleswoman, who also designs puppets, costumes, masks, and hats for the band’s performances. When she’s not doing that, she’s teaching K-5 art classes at Hillcrest Elementary. As Puppets and Pie, she performs her own stories and, with professional storyteller Mary Ellen Hill, runs after-school programs and summer camps for kids in puppetmaking and performance from the studio in her West Berkeley home.
It’s clearly the home of creative people. Above the Pewabic pottery-tiled fireplace, thirty-some puppets rest with their rods stuck into bottles. There are various animals, pinched-faced detectives, a Japanese lady in full white makeup, and angels and devils in different sizes and colors. Duncan works in Celluclay, a premixed papier-mâché product that gives the finished faces a slightly rough, organic texture. The puppets wear sumptuous clothes, replete with cravats, sequins, brocade, and fake fur. Their faces are expressive — as she notes, since their mouths don’t move, they need to have expressions built in. She designs them so that “you pick up a puppet and you know what to do with it.” Likewise their hands, permanently formed into shapes chosen to indicate their basic nature — clenched, splayed, conciliatory. The floor lamp next to the sofa sports two tiny cardigans hanging from equally tiny handmade wire clothes hangers. In the next room, stacks of large plastic boxes contain bits of colorful fabric, and atop a low bookshelf, a basket holds a jumble of small heads, hands, and stray body parts. These are the parts that don’t yet have a character to represent; Duncan will sometimes make a batch of heads and hands without knowing yet to whom they will belong. As we talk, a bright teal feather floats across the floor past a spiky blue and white hat, easily three feet high — a papier-mâché water vortex created for last year’s Burning Man.
Duncan has taken an unusual path for a puppeteer. Freely admitting that as a child she was too shy to consider going onstage, she later trained in the solitary work of the studio artist, studying ceramic sculpture and glassblowing at Rhode Island School of Design and getting her MFA at UC Davis. In 1994, she was studying art education at Pratt when she decided to make an angel for her Christmas tree. “The angel turned out to be a puppet,” she says, one that bore a strong resemblance to a friend. From then on, she was making puppets — puppets that go to weddings and parties and interact with guests, puppets that march in the How Berkeley Can You Be? parade, puppets that join the band onstage.
Duncan recalls her first outing with Rosin Coven in the spring of ’99 with some embarrassment. She’d done a show at a birthday party for the Coven’s singer and guitarist, Carrie Davis. Davis and husband Justin Katz, the band’s contrabass player, were impressed enough to suggest that she do a show between their sets at SF’s Cafe du Nord. It was, to hear Duncan tell it, a nightmare from the first: Separated from her puppets by a thick curtain, she couldn’t hear or see what was going on, and could barely make herself heard. “A friend who had come to the show,” she ruefully recalls, “came up afterwards and said, ‘Well, that was rather amateurish. ‘”
After this rocky start, Duncan praises Davis and Katz as being “incredibly generous and inviting,” which translated to her getting more chances to appear with Rosin Coven, and steadily improving as a performer. In 2001, Duncan scored a triumph with her work on Dream of the Scarab, Rosin Coven’s “beetle bagatelle” at Venue 9. She shows me the set of Federico Fedora’s Flying Flea Circus, a clever contraption with almost-invisible wires and other effects that simulate fleas crossing a tightrope, being shot from a cannon, and falling into a minuscule vat of water. She and Edgar are integral members of the group — Edgar, as unofficial goodwill ambassador, even has a bio on Rosin Coven’s Web site.
Duncan’s sets are almost entirely constructed of cardboard salvaged from a local appliance store. One of her innovations has been taking her puppets off the tabletop-bound stage and letting them move forward and back through space, often around simple prosceniums set on black metal stands. Stacked in her ceramic studio are the black-and-white scenery that went with the Goreyesque obelisk sprouting in the backyard, a scale reproduction of Alameda’s Eagles Hall that Duncan wore to a Halloween party and used as the set for a puppet play between two musicians, and the beautiful houses of the heroes of her latest show, The Birds and the Beets.
Duncan started writing The Birds and the Beets two years ago. She began with a list of “absurd puppet names” — Pinky Trifecta, Wootton Bassett, Myrna Ratchett — and an idea for a story. Then she sculpted the heads and hands, which sat for a couple of years. “And they sat and they sat and they sat,” admits the puppeteer, who was more accustomed to adapting stories from other sources than writing her own. A looming PuppetLove Festival deadline and the help of friends gave her the push she needed to write a script about a gentleman beet farmer and his love affair with an exotic bird breeder. Duncan tapped Dan Cantrell of Peoples Bizarre for Balkan folk-flavored music, and a cast of four other puppeteers and five actors to provide the voices for the show. It went so well that she decided to remount the show last month at Oakland’s Black Box. “I was hoping we would get at least forty people for the early show and forty people for the late show, and we ended up getting twice as many,” she says.
Through Puppets and Pie, Duncan also runs summer camps for small groups of youngsters. She loves doing puppet work with students. “It’s the best thing to do with kids,” she says. “They’re building, writing, painting, and working together.” Her process is pretty intense, teaching kids all aspects of puppet performance, from generating characters and plots to painting backdrops. The older kids write down their stories, while the younger ones dictate to Duncan and her teaching partner, storyteller Mary Ellen Hill. “The parents are excited because it gets their kids into reading,” she says, and recounts the complicated and totally kid-generated story of Baum’s TV, about a dog who tries to steal a television so he can watch cooking shows.
Duncan has the easy confidence of an artist with an endless flow of interesting projects to tackle. For her next puppet project, she envisions a film noir piece, complete with black and white sets. She’s also interested in the challenge of more fully integrating actors into the work. She’d like to work on set and costume design for theater productions that use human actors. The Black Box has expressed interest in more shows, and she’s talking to other puppeteers about pulling together a collective. As a sculptor-turned-puppeteer, Duncan has had to adjust her style a little, although she appreciates the company: “Being a studio artist is a solitary way of working, and I’ve had to trust and learn to let go of so much of it.” Another unexpected side effect has been that she is making a name for herself. Used to New York, she always expected that she’d have to claw her way to the top of the gallery scene, and didn’t care for the idea. “I just want to experiment and make stuff. My house is full of cardboard and tape.” Here, strangers approach her on the street, recognizing her as often as the flirtatious Edgar; here, she can spin her cardboard and tape and green-skinned puppets into magic.