Michael Leach is the chief puppeteer of the Puppetworks in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Below is an example of the work that he and the troupe do.
Puppets are obviously not as expressive as human actors. And they can’t do the things that animated characters can do. So what do they do best in terms of offering unique creative possibilities? Nothing. That’s why I tell people who come to shoot a commercial with us that they should just do CGI. It’s easier. That’s the crabby answer. The better answer is that they engage us on a deeper level because people know they’re inanimate. They’re doing things that people who are alive wouldn’t do. In a way, it’s like an actor playing to the fourth wall. Puppets do that. The secret is already out when you go to a puppet show. It’s called a show. Right away we’re saying, “It’s not real. These things are not alive.” There’s not the belief that’s hard to get away from in live theater where you sort of always imagine that what you’re seeing is real. We pretend all along. Because of that, puppets affect the imagination in a unique way. You can almost think of puppets as a toy for the audience.
How did you get involved in puppetry? I was an industrial color matcher. I’d started as a lowly pot washer. I was a real go-getter. And what happens is that go-getters eventually get a twitch in their eye and pain in their chest and say that no amount of money is going to be worth the amount of work they’re putting in. I had no life. It was all work. Then I saw in ad in the Village Voice saying that Macy’s needed people to help out with their Santaland holiday display. So some friends and I thought we’d apply and all go be elves for a month. It turned out that I was the only one who went through with the joke. My job there was helping to run the puppet theater. One day like Pinocchio I snuck backstage and saw the puppets. I asked if I could try it out. I picked up a marionette and worked it like I’d been working it forever. That was 20 years ago.
As a puppeteer do you feel like you’re primarily upholding a particular artistic tradition or do you feel more like you’re forging a new one? Oh, there’s nothing new under the sun. If I had to pick one of those two options I’d say I was upholding tradition. You can always do something different, though. The first caveman who waved a stick and grunted and pretended that the stick was something else — there was your first puppet. Man’s ultimate creative aim was to fashion something that was going to be alive. There are so many possibilities for how you can do that. And the way things are going only serves to make our theater more unique. The more CGI the better. We do traditional marionette shows. That’s our niche. Being in a niche is what keeps us alive.
Do puppets have a life of their own? I’ve got to be careful about answering that question. You can get into puppet bullcrap. People accept it if you say that a certain guitar has an attitude. Say that about a puppet and people think you’re a crazy. You can also get into that artist crap where puppeteers — it’s usually ones who are new — say they can feel the puppet’s energy coursing out of their fingertips and controlling itself and all that junk. Puppets have attitudes and characteristics the same way that a car does. There are things that certain puppets want to do and things they don’t want to do. They’re tools. A great puppeteer, Paddy Blackwood, said that you find out what the puppet wants to do and what you want to do and then you find a compromise and have a show. I think that sounds about right.
What was the last creative thing that you did? I made myself an egg cream, which is the highest art there is. In the puppet field, I’m one of the best. I’ve done 800 shows over 20 years. But a good egg cream? That’s the hand of god.