by Kylie Madry
The quarantine hasn’t stopped professional puppeteer Sarah Nolen (B.A. cinema-television and specialized studies in arts ’09), who found unexpected new ways to share her artistry.
Nolen lives outside Boston in an old textile factory, where her floor has been converted into a work-live space. Half puppet workshop and half apartment, the space has made working at home a breeze.
Before the pandemic hit, Nolen mainly performed in person: touring across the New England area, going to festivals, and offering improv classes at the Puppet Showplace Theater in Brookline, Mass., where she’s the resident artist. But one day in early March, Nolen says, “All the work just went ‘poof!’”
She’s always been interested in children’s entertainment, thanks to her parents being a graphic designer and a special education teacher. And she knows this time has been especially challenging for kids.
That’s why she partnered with Learning Seeds, a Boston company fostering young children’s social skills, to create a video explaining – through puppets, of course – why the playgrounds are closed and why social distancing is important. The video took 10 days in April to write, perform and edit. Nolen’s boyfriend and fellow puppeteer John Cody, who is quarantined with her, handled the role of the basketball.
Nolen has been busy with numerous other projects while staying inside, releasing a TV pilot online; shooting an eight-episode web series called Cozy Corner, created by master puppeteer Faye Dupras; planning more children’s media resources; and performing live shows online through the Puppet Showplace Theater.
Even before entering SMU, Nolen made puppet films. “Honestly, it’s because I was too afraid to perform live,” she admits with a laugh. And in her first years of her undergraduate degree, her “puppets were so bad,” she says.
At SMU, though, she was able to make the most of the resources available to her – taking all the production classes she could in the film department, designing a second major in specialized studies related to children’s educational media, and hanging out in the Meadows Theatre prop shop, where she fell in love with the “textural world.”
“All those folks felt like home for me,” she says.
After SMU, Nolen earned an M.F.A. in puppet arts from the University of Connecticut – one of the few such programs in the country. Her thesis project was a TV pilot called Treeples, for which she enlisted the help of some SMU friends.
Sarah Wilkinson (B.M. French horn ’08) helped create the music, while Letty Gallegos (B.A. cinema-television ’05) led cinematography and Andrew Conway (B.A. cinema-television ’05, B.S. management science ’04) produced.
Nolen received a national Mister Rogers Memorial Scholarship in 2015 to support the project. Completed in 2016, Treeples was selected for showing at film festivals around the country, including the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah, the Atlanta Film Festival, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Puppet Shorts Block.
She decided to post the film online in early April. “I wanted to help families somehow,” she says. “I thought one thing I could do for kids was to make it available. The film festival screenings had been mainly for adult audiences. I thought, if Treeples is for kids, I should make it easy for them to see it!”
The move to working online has been a relatively easy adjustment for Nolen, who notes that “as an artist, you have to be flexible.”
And, with a film degree under her belt, she already knows what to do. “Puppetry really lends itself to being filmed,” Nolen says. The puppet booth, she says, is “literally a frame.”
Nolen recently set up a makeshift “streaming studio” at the Puppet Showplace Theater, so local and touring puppeteers can safely come to the theater and perform on a streaming platform like Zoom or YouTube. “We’ve basically turned our live theater into a children’s media station,” she says.
She performed her first show in the new streaming studio in late May, and more than 75 households tuned in. “The theater has seats for 95, so we were excited to have basically a full house for an online performance!” she says. The theater has launched a new virtual performance series on Sunday afternoons, called “Puppet Show and Tell,” combining live puppet shows with behind-the-scenes demos and an interactive audience Q&A.
In both film and puppetry, suspension of disbelief is key to getting the audience absorbed in the story, which Nolen takes into account in all of her projects.
At the end of the day, “puppetry is an antidote to realism,” Nolen says.
And considering the circumstances, couldn’t we do with a little bit more of that right now?
To support her work, Puppet Showplace Theater has compiled a list of ways patrons can take action.