the magical world of lisa sturz
by kerry lee daniel
happens in these mountains. I witnessed it myself, became a part of
it that day fingers of fog stroked treetops while the sun peeked through
branches wet with dew.
I turned the corner onto a gravel road, I squinted my eyes and there
it wasa shimmering mirage. A gingerbread farm house and rust colored
barn tucked into a little corner of the valley. I opened my car door,
planted my feet in the soft earth and heard womens voices singing.
I shuffled quietly through the weeds, careful not to waken the chickens
napping with kittens. Up the stairs to the loft of the barn-turned-studio.
Into the web of the puppetwoman.
Sturz is the puppetwoman. At 17, while taking a college theater course,
she was invited to the home of Rufus Rose, creator of the famous marionette
home was truly magical, says Lisa, her eyes misting with memories.
That night, in that enchanted space, she discovered her muse. Puppetry
would become her lifes work.
was attracted by the tremendous range of artistry the craft requires.
I enjoy all of itcreating, designing, building, acting, directing.
And I love choreography and dance. As a puppetmaster, you get to do
a small contingency from the Asheville womens choral group, Womansong,
would get to do it all too. We answered Lisas call that morning
to help assemble the puppets for Yemaya, our musical performance in
the upcoming Southeast Regional Puppetry Festival. Yemaya is a legend
out of the religion of the Yoruba people of West Africa, who live in
Nigeria and Benin. She is the great mother goddess of Santeria, mother
of many Orishas (deities), the maternal force of life and creation whose
home is the ocean.
gathered at Lisas that morning to build puppets and sing. Lisa
had organized things in advance of our arrival. I was on the gluing
team, making foam headpieces for seven puppetwomen. Other teams traced,
cut, sewed and assembled. I remember thinking it was probably a lot
like the long ago days when women gathered for quilting bees, a time
of weaving together threads of creativity and camaraderie. There we
were, our little village of Womansong women, making puppets and music
together. A day that initially sounded to me like a lot of work turned
out to be thoroughly enchanting.
history of puppetry is steeped in legend and folklore. The earliest
puppets were tribal ritual masks or jointed skulls used in sacred ceremonies.
The masks evolved into doll-like, jointed figures that moved. Native
Americans used puppets in their corn festivals and ceremonial dances.
And Egyptians fashioned puppets from terra cotta. Puppet theater is
also referenced in the writings of philosophers Plato and Aristotle.
Todays puppetry is more sophisticated, both in theme and design.
Because it is so lyrical and metaphoric, puppetry is often used to tell
stories, convey emotions, act out themes on the human condition, and
to dialogue. It is a powerful means of personal expression. In Lisas
words, Puppetry is to theatre what poetry is to literature.
This may explain the universal appeal of puppetry.
route to Asheville was as mystical as the Yellow Brick Road. During
her 25-year career she has worked with Jim Henson Productions, Walt
Disney Imagineering, Lucasfilm, PBS, Ice Capades and puppeteer director
Julie Taymor of Disneys Lion King. She also served for 3 years
on the board of the Puppeteers of America where she was responsible
for overseeing festivals and conferences.
all the years and across all the miles, the work she is most proud of
is the dragon she staged in collaboration with designer John Conklin
for the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Richard Wagners The
Ring of the Nibelung. The New York Times Opera Review reported that
Sturzs representation of the giant FAFNER as dragon satisfies
even the wildest expectations... The 20-foot giant reptilian skeleton
required 16 black-clad acrobats to manipulate its vertebrae and massive
fanged jaw. Lisa says, Conductor Zubin Mehta was leading his rehearsal
and all the bigwigs were there to see the dragon in action. Zubin had
seen bits and pieces of my work, but not the whole thing. He sent his
assistant to the conductors podium and came back to the production
table where I was standing. He jumped up and down with delight and told
me, Thats the best dragon Ive ever seen! It
was an unforgettable moment.
addition to Rufus Rose, Lisa credits Bruce Schwartz with being one of
her greatest influences. Hes so inventive, she says.
He created wonderful puppet vignettes, sculpted delicate characters,
even composed his own music. During one project, he was obsessed with
achieving a certain sound so he built his own piano. He was a genius.
much of her early career Sturz lived in southern California where work
was plentiful. But when she and husband, François Mantavit, started
a family, they knew they wanted their children, daughter Manon (13)
and son Theo (8), to grow up in a more natural environment than Hollywood
could offer. During many conversations with friend and fellow puppeteer
Hobey Ford (from Weaverville), Lisa came to believe the mountains of
Western North Carolina might be the perfect place to raise her family.
So she and François packed up their kids and their dreams and
isnt always easy, Lisa says. But Im glad we
made the move. Its a great place to raise a family. I love living
here, but I have to be out of town a lot with my work.
Work is sometimes difficult to come by in Asheville, so Lisa has had
to diversify. I love building and creating things, she says.
Anytime someone needs something like that I can do it.
As Red Herring Puppets, she performs original puppet productions, teaches
puppetry in schools, builds specialty props for commercials and theater
sets, and designs and sews character costumes. If you can imagine it,
she can do it. If you cant imagine it, she can probably still
do it. Lisas ingenuity can breathe life into the smallest spark
of an idea.
François, also an artist, built a bakery in the lower level of
their studio. There he creates delicious old-world French bread from
a secret family recipe. He enjoys being able to do something he loves
and still be at home with his children. And the Fairview community they
call home is becoming a carb friendly haven as residents
fall in love with his bread creations.
and Theo are part of the family act, too. Both are active in local theater.
And Lisa credits her children with providing some of the creative genius
behind her puppet wizardry.
is incredible with voices. She can sing, she can act, and shes
voiced several of my characters. I love working with Theo, too. Hes
full of ideas and is very intuitive.
days life is full and rich for Lisa Sturz. Recently she was commissioned
by the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to build four 20-foot sea creatures
for the opening of its Wild Reef Exhibit. We needed something
lightweight, wind resistant, and fast! Over the weekend I swatched some
fabrics and started playing... with anything I could get my hands on...
and there it was - bubble wrap... lightweight, pliable, inexpensive,
easily available. I loved the way it looked under the iridescent textured
organza I purchased for the outside. You could see through it and experience
the bubbles that held the poetry of the ocean.
23, 2004, Beauty and the Beast premieres at the Flat Rock Playhouse
in Flat Rock, NC. Lisa collaborated with Flat Rocks costume department
to create the lightweight whimsical elements for the production, such
as the teapot, the armoire and the clock. All are stunning achievements
and guaranteed to delight the audience.
Lisa is also the festival director for Puppets on the Ridge, the Southeast
Regional Puppetry Festival coming to downtown Asheville July 28-August
1, 2004. In addition to the professional conference, the festival includes
numerous public performances for adult and family audiences.
Sturz makes a living making a difference, working in these beautiful
mountains. I asked her how she came up with the name for her company,
Red Herring Puppets. She recalled years ago when she was switched out
of a PhD program because the decision-makers felt she was too creative.
They didnt know what to do with her and called her a red herring.
Lisa smiles and her warm brown eyes turn mischievous, Sometimes
the person who wanders off the main path never catches the rabbit, but
think of all the wonderful things they discover along the way.
is a writer, a member of Ashevilles Womansong, and will soon be
a fledgling puppeteer. Maybe that will help make up for the fact she
could never be a Mousketeer. She lives in a tree house apartment with
her three darling boy cats, Barney, Ben and Dennis, who are studying
ways to make puppets out of hairballs.
The Three Muses; [Painted neoprene cast with foam and fabric body. Approx.
was created in 1986 through the UCLA theatre department with a cast
of 60 puppets, 17 puppeteers, and a five piece orchestra. It is the
story of Psyche (soul), a young girl who grows through many struggles
to find wholeness. It comes from a time in ancient Greece when the cultural
emphasis was moving towards humanism. Psyche is the first mortal to
see a God face to face and survive. She marries EROS, the God of love
and gives birth to JOY.