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New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York's theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we're passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.

This blog was contributed by New Vic Teaching Artist WT McRae. 

 

WT and a student!
WT teaching one of his Family Acro classes!
Preparing for the upcoming Family Acro Family Workshop, designed around Mother Africa: My Home, I flashback to the last time I taught a similar class at the New Vic. My students and I are seated in a circle in one of the beautiful New 42nd Street Studios overlooking the hustle and bustle of Times Square. I've just finished teaching the workshop, which includes some juggling, clowning and partner acrobatics, and the room is full of smiles. I pose the question: "Did you learn anything new about yourself or someone with you during today's workshop?"

"I had no idea my dad could be so fun!" says a young girl with braids in her hair. "We've never seen our son work so hard or achieve so much," agrees a pair of parents grinning and nodding as they hold the shoulder of their rambunctious eight-year-old. "When we started, I thought I couldn't juggle, but now I'm really good!" says a young man. We close the workshop with a balancing exercise to thank each other for our work.

In my years teaching circus, I have seen students gain work ethic and self esteem while becoming caring, committed community members who help each other learn. I love teaching circus for many reasons, but there are three that stand out. First, there is very little illusion in circus skills. Balancing on one foot and spinning rings on the other, while juggling fire is exactly what it looks like. Watching people do incredible things makes us feel connected to our sense of possibility and human achievement. Learning to do those things can build a great deal of self esteem and self worth. 

Second, circus skills are difficult and leveled. There is a basic concept to every skill, but if you can achieve that, you can make it more challenging. If you can learn to juggle three balls, you can teach yourself to juggle five and eventually you can even light them on fire. If you can learn to stand on one foot, you can do it on a tight wire; if you can learn to stand on one foot on a tight wire, you can learn to spin a ring on the other foot. There is no end to the possibility of advancement. The reality is that the circus teaches us much more than just a skill itself. Learning circus skills helps us develop our appreciation of practice and our ability to break a complex skill into pieces until we have mastered the whole. That ability can take people far in life whether they pursue circus or any other profession!

WT with a student!Third, the circus is a collaborative art form that makes space for people of all shapes, sizes and talents. In fact, it thrives on diversity. In many areas of our life, being tiny and light, big and sturdy, silly and irreverent, or even meticulous and mathematical can create feelings of being left out. In the circus, we need tiny, light people to fly at the top of acrobatic wonders as much as we need big sturdy people to hold up the team as bases. The silly folks make great clowns and the meticulous are perfect for rigging or juggling. It's fun to offer students an artform that asks them what they CAN do, while also requiring a diverse set of skilled specialists. 

In our education programs, we teach a range of artistic workshops related to the shows that come across the stages here. I am lucky to be a part of the Teaching Artist ensemble, and have the joy of facilitating circus workshops in the studios, as well as in many of our partner schools throughout New York City. The TA Ensemble offers kids and families an opportunity to try their hand at circus skills including clowning, juggling, partner acrobatics and tumbling.

Circus education is alive and thriving in the United States. The American Youth Circus Organization estimates between 8,000 to 10,000 youth circuses are practicing in the U.S. alone. These programs represent everything from introductory experiences like those we provide at the New Victory to full scale touring shows with teen performers. But these programs are not just here in the U.S. This season's first circus, Mother Africa: My Home is performed by Circus Der Sinne, a company comprised entirely of graduates of the Hakuna Matata School of Acrobatics, a training program in Tanzania. Set in South Africa, this show will take the stage with an exciting blend of circus feats and South African culture. 

Seeing Mother Africa this week—and being enthralled by their work—brings me to my favorite reason to be involved with circus. It connects me to a global community with one thing in common: the desire to do something incredible.
 
WT McRae WT McRae has lived in NYC since 2001 creating theatrical and visual works, and contributing to the field of arts education. He is an actor, clown, dancer, director, designer, writer, and devised theater collaborator. Working with fellow clown Christina Gelsone he spent 5 years running Fool's Academy and touring shows in schools that teach curriculum using slapstick and circus. As an educator, he works with The New Victory Theater, where he has taught, built curriculum and conducted research. WT is the director of theater for Alaska Arts Southeast, and the Head of the Movement Department for PPAS. Additionally, he is a guest lecturer for NYU, LIU Post, and Circle in The Square Theater School. His research has been presented at The National Guild for Community Arts Education Conference,  the NY Arts in Education Roundtable. Watch for the off broadway premiere of his show Babel this winter at the 14th Street Y.
 

 
New Victory Thumb Experience the excitement of Mother Africa: My Home and see this circus spectacular for yourself.  Get your tickets here!

 
Posted by Beth Henderson

Often we have artists return to the New Vic again and again. Sometimes they're actors, sometimes they're entire companies, but this time we have a puppeteer returning! Shawn Kettner's work was last seen in Comet in Moominland during our 2007-08 season. This year, she and the cast of the visually stunning Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea will be kicking off our season. 

We caught up with Shawn to hear how she first became interested in puppets, where the soul of the puppet lives and what exactly is the greatest part of creating puppets for the theater!

 

1. What does puppetry convey that live actors can't?

Puppetry frees the performer from the physical constraints of the human shape. A puppet can be anything; it can vary in texture, be any size or shape and is only limited by your imagination.

2. When did you start working with puppets and why?

At the age of 15, as an extension to my studies of kids' theater, I enrolled in a puppet making class at Manitoba Theatre Workshop. At 16, I became a teaching assistant and by 18 I was teaching five classes per week. Turns out I loved to teach! At 20, I decided to actually try putting together a show so I established a professional puppet company that toured in Canada.

3. What is your favorite part of making puppets? Do you have a favorite style of puppetry?

I love watching the puppets come to life in the workshop, and then placing them in the hands of professional puppeteers and watching their personalities emerge.

I prefer the style of hand puppetry; the soul of the puppet is the hand of the puppeteer.

 

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea opens our 2016-17 season! Photo: Claus Anderson
4. What or who inspires your work?

My first inspiration came from my teachers and mentors, Christopher Hurley, Artistic Director of the Manitoba Puppet Theatre, and Deborah Baer Moses, a director/educator from Philadelphia and my kid's theater teacher. More recently I have been inspired by the work of The Handspring Puppet Company, the puppet designers and builders of Warhorse.
 
5. Can you tell us about the creative process of making a puppet?


Puppets are tools to tell a story. The process starts with the story or the play. The first question that needs to be looked at is, "What does the puppet need to do?" Then we can start thinking about how it should be constructed and how the puppet should look. It is important to start with the skeleton; the bones or mechanics of the puppet. The skinning or covering of the puppet is what the audience sees and is often designed in collaboration with directors and other designers.

It is a magical process to take simple materials and watch them come alive. The best part is adding the eyes and having the puppet look back at you and say, "Hi!" 

 

Comet in Moominland
Comet in Moominland from the Manitoba Theater for Young People during our 2007-08 Season. 
6. What was your favorite puppet to design?

That is a very hard question. I have made thousands of puppets over more than 40 years. The puppets from Comet in Moominland are very dear to me, but I also have a soft spot for George and Martha, two large hippo puppets I built for Carousel Players of St. Catherines, ON. 
 
7. The last show you were here for was Comet in Moominland. Tell us about that experience and what it's like to return to the New Vic!


What fun to get off the subway at Times Square and look up and see a poster with my Moomin puppet just down the street! It was a wonderful rush. I'm looking forward to returning to the New Vic, this time with my daughter Samantha and husband Peter who worked with me on the puppets for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Besides a theaterical puppet designer, Shawn Kettner is also the designer and owner of Patient Puppets Inc., a company that builds anatomically correct puppets that demonstrate medical conditions to kids in hospitals and clinics around the world, www.patientpuppets.mb.ca.
 
 
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea Want to see Shawn's work in action? Join us for Twenty Thousand Leauges Under the Sea for the inventive retelling of Jules Verne's classic novel!
 
Posted by Beth Henderson
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