Rachel Gates became spellbound by puppets at an early age, and while many children share her fascination, for Gates, it didn’t end in childhood. After 30 years as a puppeteer, Gates is still creating puppets, working on shows and teaching the art of puppetry.
On June 1, she will be leading a Puppet Lab at Rhizome DC, a nonprofit community arts space located at 6950 Maple St NW, in DC’s Takoma Park neighborhood. The lab will run from 10 a.m. to noon and is intended for those 16 and over who wish to learn more about puppetry.
This is the second Puppet Lab; it meets on the first Saturday of every month. All levels of experience are welcome; $5-$10 donation is encouraged for the use of the space.
To RSVP for the lab visit RhizomeDC.
“Every lab, we’ll do some improv and warmups; basically theater exercises but with puppets,” Gates says. “All animators at some point need to act things out for themselves to figure out the movement that they’re going to have their figure doing, whether it’s two-dimensional, cartoons, CGI or a physical puppet.”
She will bring in large puppet figures and will have other puppets available, but says people should bring their own, if they have them.
“It’s a lot of fun regardless of one’s level of expertise,” Gates says. “At the last one, one person had a puppetry background and one had a theater background but was very interested in puppets, and one art teacher just wanted to learn more about it.”
She notes her workshop can be utilized by people from all art forms. It’s notable how many shows in our area use puppets to tell their stories. Expect puppets to always pop up with local companies doing adult plays such as Pointless Theatre and Alex & Olmsted (winners of a Jim Henson Foundation grant). And, of course, The Puppet Co is often the first introduction young children get to puppets.
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The Road to Puppetry
Growing up in Bucks County, Pa., Gates was encouraged by her parents—George R. Anthonisen, a noted sculptor whose work is in the Capitol Building and her mom, a dancer and theater actor who took her daughter to see Marcel Marceau, her first live theater performance, in the third grade.
“I was not very happy in elementary school,” Gates says. “Girl Scouts didn’t really work out and I was not getting along with my peers. There was a woman who was teaching puppetry. It felt so natural and I really took to it.”
“Some of it is kind of magical,” she says. “I think introducing theater by way of puppets is good because it’s like an opera where all the arts are combined, but a lot of times, one person is doing it all–the script, building characters and props and putting it all together. I’ve always loved dreams and metaphors and puppets work really well with that.”
Gates attended Evergreen State College and studied to be a teacher, finding work in the theater department. It was there that she discovered a group of people who shared her interest in the arts and she continued working on puppetry, eventually landing an internship at the Tears of Joy Theatre in Portland, Oregon.
It was there she met noted puppeteer Bob Hartman, who offered Gates an apprenticeship. While working for him, she vastly improved her puppeteering skills while assisting him with such tasks as running sound and constructing sets for his puppet shows.
Living in Portland at the turn of the 21st century, Gates worked on several performances at Tears of Joy, helping design Japanese bunraku style puppets and shadow puppets.
In 2004, it was time for her own puppet show. She wrote and co-produced The Wild Child, which told the story of Victor, a “wild” boy who was raised by animals and civilized by humans. It would go on to win two of Portland’s Drammy Awards.
Two years later, living in Silver Spring, Md., Gates wrote the one-woman puppet show, The Secret Life of Rodents, which, inspired by the folk tale Stone Soup, tells the story of a mouse who teaches a squirrel how to give.
The Puppet Lab is an idea that came out of her time in Portland.
“When I lived there, there was a comedy club that was not for performing, but for helping people to learn to be funny,” she says. “You could work through a system of various techniques and eventually do a performance. A lot of writers would meet with peers, and when I first envisioned this lab, I thought of it like a writing group where some of the people were new and some were very experienced, but they all wanted to explore it further.”
She also knew some friends who started their own puppet lab in Portland, and while it was slow at first, it eventually grew as more college students and active older people were looking for something new to try.
“I was jealous because these people that I loved performing with were doing stuff and I wasn’t well connected with professional puppeteers in the area,” Gates says. “Because I’m a mother now, my puppetry basically has been on the building side of things.”
Gates spent the past five years as an art teacher at the Huckleberry Fine Art Gallery in Rockville, Md., but that closed recently and she needed to find a new way to be creative in the community. She’s done that through teaching at elementary schools and running workshops.
“Puppetry goes way back to the age of shamans but on the other hand, it reaches into the future with robotics,” she says. “It’s something that I think can empower someone as an actor or dancer, and give people their own ideas for their own place artistically. When they have a mask or a puppet, it can open them up so it’s not really them in front of people and there’s this funny magic to it all.”