From Howdy Doody to Kermit the Frog, puppets in the U.S. have long been juvenilized, their aim to entertain and educate children.
For Alex Vernon and Sarah Olmsted Thomas, there’s nothing juvenile about puppetry. With their creative out-of-the-box approach, the founders and sole members of the eponymous Alex & Olmsted puppet theater company use puppets as a vehicle for telling all-ages stories on both stage and screen. They define the essence of puppetry simply as “storytelling using objects,” and their works deal with human frailties, relationships, quests, the stuff of life — both tragic and comic.
Alex and Olmsted see puppetry as an art form that reflects back on the most primal mode of human communication, particularly when the storytelling is wordless as it often is in Alex and Olmsted’s works.
The pair describe themselves as “makers of original puppet works, films, physical theater, and mechanical wonder.” They approach puppetry as explorers, discovering ancient practices, which imbue objects with human and other qualities as a way to communicate and tell stories.
The infantilization of puppetry has primarily been a U.S. phenomenon, said Alex. “Most other countries think of puppetry as an all-ages art form,” he says, adding that beyond the U.S., a great deal of puppetry is created specifically for adults. “You can find so many more adult puppet shows exploring mature themes and complex relationships as dramatic as any play — it just happens to be told with objects.”
For the past decade, the duo has collaborated on a range of original imaginative stories for stage and film told through puppetry. And while Alex takes the lead on building a variety of puppets, Olmsted contributes her keen eye to movement, storytelling, and ever-advancing fabrication skills.
One of the pair’s favorite early creations, Milo the Magnificent, is a near-human-sized aspiring magician, who hearkens back to early 20th-century vaudeville. Round-headed Milo is beloved for his oft-misbegotten magic that goes awry, to the delight of audiences young and old. His 2D face recalls the “Flat Stanley” book character and, according to Olmsted was influenced by Mummenschanz, the Swiss mask theater troupe popular in the 1970s and ’80s. Through a flip-book-like design, young Milo’s facial expressions, drawn with a Sharpie, shift seamlessly, while his nimble fingers are those of the puppeteers.
Milo made his first stage foray about a dozen years ago at the now-defunct DC Clown Cabaret. Alex described the open mic night as “this great excuse for us to build something new on a deadline … we created this little seven-minute piece called ‘Milo the Magnificent’ …. And we had a lot of fun.” It was a hit, so Alex and Olmsted created more for Milo, developing it into a full show. To date, the would-be puppet magician has taken the duo to New York, Seattle, Atlanta, Canada, Germany, Denmark, and South Korea.
Puppets from Prehistory
Alex, a Tennessee native who discovered the stage in middle and high school, considers human communication from prehistory: “I think about how, at the end of the day, [early humans] are sitting around the fire, maybe in a cave, trying to communicate what happened that day, whether on the hunt or seeing something dangerous. It’s a fairly easy leap if I’m trying to communicate with you, and either we don’t speak the same language or we don’t have language yet, to pick up a rock and a stick. Now I can tell a story visually, and then, one more beautiful leap is we’re sitting around this fire in the cave, and we notice a shadow cast on the wall by the fire. Now it’s even more removed … with these moving silhouettes.”
“It’s an intrinsic connection to language,” Olmsted added. “That’s why puppetry, when successful, feels so personal. It’s this primal conduit for communication … and the object — just a stone, or wood, or some glue and paper with a couple of rods — becomes imbued by the audience to such a degree that it becomes the lost child, or the romantic lover, or the mastodon. The audience paints with their own imagination this very rich, emotional tale.” Olmsted grew up in an artistically inclined family — her father, a writer, and her mother, a ballerina, and one-time student at the famed School of American Ballet, who founded her own ballet school in Charlottesville, where the family lived.
Alex and Olmsted met when both were cast in a Bulgarian found-object puppet theater production at the Kennedy Center. “It involved a lot of object puppetry,” Olmsted said. “So rather than making a specific puppet to represent a character, we used found objects. In this case, there were some gourds, wooden spoons, and scarves that transformed into a character.”
That sparked this very pivotal direction artistically for Olmsted and Alex. “The director, Lilia Slavova, reflected during one of the rehearsals that she could envision us making our own puppet show and taking it to festivals around the world,” Olmsted recalled. Soon Alex and Olmsted performed together again, with DC-based Happenstance Theater, and they began experimenting with puppetry, becoming first artistic partners and, now married, life partners.
The couple lives and breathes the creative process at their Takoma Park, Maryland, home where a corner of their bedroom houses a computer workstation, green screen, ring light, and suitcase-sized mini theater where they create videos using all manner of hand-made puppetry. This little space was very busy during the peak of the pandemic, when live performances shuttered worldwide.
Tools of the Trade
The pair crafts their puppets in a free-standing, unheated garage behind the house. Alex designed the fully equipped workshop as efficiently as possible, with a roll-away table, a double-sided tabletop holding a chop saw and belt sander, fold-away workspaces, and carefully arranged hand tools to carve, cut, and shape intricate designs using wood, wire, urethane, and other materials.
They display deep interest in the art of puppetry across a wide array of cultures. “It comes from the boundless curiosity we have about the art form,” Olmsted said. “First and foremost, we love telling stories and writing stories and figuring out what kind of puppetry can suit the narrative or direction that we’re most curious about.”
“Secondly, it’s about how broad the medium is,” she continued, “from found-object to Indonesian-inspired shadow puppetry to marionettes and hand-carved objects and hand puppets. There are so many different kinds of puppets that we have been exposed to at festivals” and through personal research and workshops with other puppeteers.
And, along with that exposure, experimentation is ever-present in their work: “We only have two people and they’re both on stage,” Alex says. “If we want to create a certain effect, how can we solve that in a creative way?”
Olmsted elaborated, “We really home in on that not being a limitation so much as a parameter. It ends up serving us because it means that with all of the ideas and directions we could go, there are only so many we can realistically manifest, because there are only two of us — only four hands.”
Birth of a New Work
When beginning a new piece, story almost always comes first. “Then we figure out what style of puppetry and design will support that story,” Alex says, adding, “One of my favorite things to do is go into the workshop and experiment with materials or movement.” Invariably, one of those experiments will inspire a character or a storyline. Another place where the creative juices flow is at antique store visits. “I’ll see an object, and not even necessarily a character, but an object can spark an entire story.” And while Alex and Olmsted often script their storylines, that process isn’t necessarily the first step. “It’s a constant back and forth,” he adds. “We’re constantly adapting the show to the objects and vice versa.”
At press time the duo was in the early stages of a new work, tentatively titled Hubba Hubba, which Alex describes as “a new sort of physical comedy and puppetry show all about romantic love.” Though scheduled to premiere in March in Baltimore, it’s still too soon to tell, Olmsted said, what genre of puppetry they’ll feature, let alone any information about character or plot. “We get enmeshed in the process of world-building,” she says. The duo recently completed Adrift, a devised theatrical piece they worked on with Happenstance, featuring their puppets and live performers along with a bit of magic and mime imbued by moments of hilarity and profundity.
“With Happenstance [Theater],” Olmsted said, “because we are five people instead of two, we can do things theatrically that we can’t do with just the two of us. It’s definitely an exciting theatrical playground for us.”
While Alex brings his vast expertise and knowledge of engineering, design, and building, Olmsted has become more adept and comfortable fabricating puppets over the years. And she brings her dance and choreographic background to the collaboration. “I think in terms of dance so I look at the process in choreographic pods — what the different movements of a bigger piece might look like,” she explained, and how they come together. “I see the whole as this big symphony where different movements happen throughout.”
As artistic and life partners, the couple, who have been married for about 6½ years, relish their tightly linked lifestyle. “When you do this kind of work,” Alex said, “it’s so all-consuming of time and energy that if only one of us was doing this, we’d never see each other.”
Olmsted called their creative collaboration one of their love languages. “Making theater is how we express our hearts’ feelings,” she said. “Engaging in the creative process together feels very natural, but it’s also very stimulating and exciting. Even problems we encounter in the creative process or difficult moments … there’s a thrill to working through those and coming out on the other side. We connect on a level that’s very satisfying.”
For more on Alex & Olmsted, visit alexandolmsted.com/.
To meet Milo the Magnificent, visit alexandolmsted.com/milo-the-magnificent.html.
Alex & Olmsted’s work is supported by the Jim Henson Foundation and the Heather Hanson Handmade Puppet Dreams, as well as an avid group of supporters on Patreon, among other donors.
About the Wendi Winters Memorial Series: DC Theater Arts has partnered with the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation to honor the life and work of Wendi Winters, the DC Theater Arts writer who died in the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 28, 2018. To honor Wendi’s legacy, the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation has funded the Wendi Winters Memorial Series, monthly articles to be produced by DC Theater Arts to bring attention to theater companies and theater practitioners in our region who engage in exemplary work that makes our community a better place. The centerpiece of these articles is a series we are calling “The Companies We Keep,” articles offering an in-depth look at one local theater company each month. In these times of division and conflict, DC Theater Arts chooses to celebrate those who do good.
For more information on DC Theater Arts’ Wendi Winters Memorial Series, check out this article graciously published by our friends at District Fray Magazine.