Ane Sawyer-Aitch at work
By Saymoukda Vongsay
AAP staff wrier
I met Anne not too long ago during a rehearsal for the play, Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman (written/directed/produced by May Lee-Yang), of which we are currently involved with – Anne as the puppeteer-at-large and me as a live-dubb performer (the play will be performed completely in the Hmong language).
Anne delivered a package of puppets, paper thin and delicate, they popped with color and came alive as they were projected onto the wall, giant, they loomed over the actors rehearsing upstage. Scenes from various Hmong fairy and morality tales, menacing stepmothers, Hmong princes, and heroines with a mean streak – Anne crafted each one meticulously by hand.
Anne Sawyer-Aitch studied Commedia Dell’Arte (Italian for “comedy of the craft of improvisation”) and improvisational theater at Oberlin College, has a B.A. in Latin American Studies and Creative Writing, and studied at the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, and has traveled and studied in Spain, Mexico, and Brazil.
She has built four full-length color shadow shows under the Magic Lantern Puppet Theatre, is a member of the Twin Cities Puppeteers Guild, and Chicks on Sticks, an all women collective of stilt-walking artists. She’s worked with In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, Barebones Productions, Three Legged Race, Steppingstone Theatre, Galumph Interactive Theatre, and Open Eye Figure Theatre, to name a few.
Her work has been supported by grants from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, the Puppeteers of America Endowment Grant, the Center for Arts Criticism grant, and the Jerome Foundation Travel/Study Award. She’s amazingly talented and very sweet. Let’s get to know her.
Vongsay: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced within your discipline?
Sawyer-Aitch: A lot of Americans think that puppets are just for children. They hear “puppetry” and assume it means sock puppets or Pinocchio. There are many beautiful and deep traditions of puppetry for adult themed shows that deal with religion, history, and morality in places like Indonesia, China, Turkey, Europe. That attitude is changing as we see puppets like the War Horse in the TED talks, and shows by local theaters like Heart of the Beast and Open Eye Figure Theatre.
Vongsay: Be innovative or stay classic?
Sawyer-Aitch: I’d say there is room for both. I like to borrow the look of traditional color shadow puppets and black silhouettes, but often combine it with things like LCD projection and stop motion animation. Why not? It’s all good.
Vongsay: What else do you wield with your hands other than a pen?
Sawyer-Aitch: An exacto knife, papier mache paste, needle and thread, stilt ties, P-35 stapler, cardboard.
Vongsay: Where is your happy place?
Sawyer-Aitch: Listening to audio books and working alone in my studio, or directing a group of actors and seeing them discover things they didn’t know they had in them.
Vongsay: In the spirit of ‘wait 20 minutes before swimming,’ what should a writer NOT do before their pen hits the paper?
Sawyer-Aitch: Try not to think: “This has to be good, this has to be perfect.” When I’m working on a puppet, or a story, or anything, I scribble on little pieces of scrap paper and tell myself it doesn’t count, it’s just a first stab. Sometime I’m happy with it, sometimes I’m not, but it’s a good way to ease into the process.
Vongsay: Besides other writers, what influences your work?
Sawyer-Aitch: Children’s picture books, comics, and graphic novels. I read them, collect them, study the pictures and the narrative.
Vongsay: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
Sawyer-Aitch: My first children’s picture book, titled “Nalah and the Pink Tiger” is being published in March 2012. I will be performing the accompanying puppet show of the same title at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater on March 17th as part of their Saturday Matinee series. I’ll be doing the “Nalah and the Pink Tiger” show at other places too in the months of April, May, and June: the Hennepin County Libraries, Ramsey county public schools, and at the Edina Art Fair. My website will soon have the book up for sale.
Vongsay: What would the title of your autobiography be?
Sawyer-Aitch: “Shadows, Stilts and Silly String”.
Vongsay: Any last words?
Sawyer-Aitch: It was such a joy to make the puppets for May Lee-Yang’s show “Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman: The Remix.” She trusts the people she works with and has a strong vision for her art.
To learn more about Anne’s creative work, visit http://annesawyerpuppets.com.
Anne’s puppets will be highlighted in “Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman: The Hmong Remix,” February 3rd – 12th at Neighborhood House, 179 Robie St. St. Paul, MN. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.lazyhmongwoman.com under “Upcoming Events” or www.brownpapertickets.com/event/219114.
Vongsay is a recipient of the Alfred C. Carey Prize in Spoken Word Poetry from NY and a Jerome/Mu Performing Art’s New Eyes Theater Fellow. She lives and writes in St. Paul. www.refugenius.com