Meet the new generation of puppeteers performing around Los Angeles


Jesse Kingsley was in full geek-out mode.

Despite being a puppet builder and enthusiast for more than two decades, he had never peered inside the head of a Chinese lion costume — those vibrant, furry two-person get-ups that are used to celebrate Lunar New Year, weddings and store openings — until this moment.

Now, on this sunny Sunday morning in mid-March in Vista Hermosa park, he was exclaiming over the mechanisms that allow the larger-than-life bamboo puppet to blink its eyes, open and close its mouth and twitch its ears.

“Oh, my God. This is amazing,” he cried as Alexis Wong, the puppet’s owner, smiled at his excitement. “No glue. See how it’s all tied together with strings?”

“Can I try it?” he asked. “Can I put it on?”

A very elaborate Chinese lion puppet.

Christen Tai and Alexis Wong, wearing Fu Huo the puppet, take part in the L.A. Guild of Puppetry’s monthly meet-up.

Wong, a recent UCLA grad who keeps a second lion costume in her car because she’s “that obsessed,” was happy to oblige. Kingsley put on the head, flicked the ears and began prancing around the park’s picnic tables.

His test-drive was one of many joyful discoveries at Puppets, Donuts and Coffee, a monthly meetup of the L.A. Puppetry Guild that has recently become a go-to gathering for a growing community of young puppeteers.

“Look at him,” Wong said as Kingsley galloped around the park. “He’s loving it.”

A few tables away, Alexandra Derderian, a video editor wearing the same rainbow tassel earrings as her plush giraffe puppet, was chatting with Michael Esparza and his bright orange Muppet-like counterpart, Melvin. Nearby, magician Lincoln Kamm was showing a 3-D printed prototype of a mechanical puppet he was working on to Emiliano Rios, a prop maker in a purple blazer who was there as a “puppet ally.”

For nearly 70 years, the L.A. Puppetry Guild has been creating space for professionals and fans to network, talk shop and generally revel in the art of bringing inanimate objects to life. It costs just $30 to join and there are no membership requirements. Some guild members have never operated a puppet, others are SAG-AFTRA-represented professionals who’ve worked on such films as “Alien: Resurrection” and “Five Nights at Freddy’s.”

Over the last year, membership has ballooned to 200, making it the largest puppet guild in America, according to data collected by the national organization Puppeteers of America. (By comparison, the National Capital Puppetry Guild in Washington, D.C., has about 150 members, and the Puppetry Guild of Greater New York has about 120.)

A vintage Pinocchio puppet.

A vintage Pinocchio puppet.

A giraffe puppet.

Alexandra Derderian’s giraffe puppet. (Stella Kalinina / For The Times)

Much of that increase has been driven by folks in their 20s and 30s who are either new to Los Angeles, new to puppetry or both. The result is a burgeoning generation of younger artists who are instilling new life into the guild’s mission to “share, promote and advance the art of puppetry in the Greater Los Angeles area.”

“Historically, the guild has been mostly made up of older members, but now there is this resurgence,” said Taylor Bibat, a puppet specialist and one of the group’s co-presidents. “There’s a lot of fire and excitement behind it.”

Some members say the renewed interest in puppetry began during pandemic-related closures, when artists and performers were forced to experiment with small-scale formats like miniatures and shadow puppetry.

Others say the rise of computer-generated imagery has led to a new appreciation of tactile experiences like crafting a puppet or watching a live puppet show where you can “feel the tension in the strings.” Others say the growth of the guild is yet another example of young people seeking to form in-person communities with like-minded folks.

A woman and a man display a puppet.

Taylor Bibat and Kelsey Kato of the L.A. Guild of Puppetry display Kato’s puppet, Frida.

Interest in the guild began to spike among younger artists in 2022, when pandemic restrictions eased, leaders said. In the past, the guild had put on workshops and shows that anyone could attend. But as guild membership grew, leaders wanted to help members build connections with one another. Puppets, Donuts and Coffee was born from those discussions and launched in 2023.

“Having a reliable place and time where people know they would be able to be in community has really helped members have something regular to look forward to,” Bibat said.

Last year, the Puppets, Donuts and Coffee meetups were held each month at the Magic Castle, but they quickly began reaching their 40-person capacity and selling out. That inspired guild leaders to start alternating the location between the Magic Castle and parks around the city where there are no attendance limits.

“This is a way we can have our fancy fun in the castle and also provide a casual, very organic gathering,” said Co-President Perry Daniel, who teaches puppetry at UCLA. “They are special in different ways.”

At their most recent park gathering, Bibat and Daniel brought three boxes of Colorado Donuts and two cartons of Starbucks coffee to the park along with name tags, markers and a sign-in book. There were also a dozen books on puppetry that they splayed out on a picnic table, including “Puppetry 101,” “Women and Puppetry” and “Out of the Shadows: The Henson Festivals and Their Impact on Contemporary Puppet Theater.”

A person displays a vintage Pinocchio puppet.

Perry Daniel, co-president of the L.A. Guild of Puppetry, with a vintage Pinocchio puppet.

Near the doughnuts, Kelsey Kato, guild secretary and one of two overall-clad puppeteers at the gathering, was demonstrating a puppet named Frida that he‘d created at a National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. Its felt head is in the shape of an anatomical heart, with arms and a body made of vein-like blue and red parachute cord. It was inspired in part by “The Two Fridas,” a 1939 Frida Kahlo painting featuring human hearts.

Kato’s interest in performance arts led him toward puppetry. His first experience with the medium was in college at UCLA when he worked as puppet captain for a production of “The Long Christmas Ride Home,” a play by Paula Vogel for actors and puppets.

“I’m an actor, singer and dancer, and puppetry is a repository for a lot of that,” he said.

After graduating in 2019 with a degree in musical theater, he was cast as a puppeteer for the man-eating plant Audrey II in a production of “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Pasadena Playhouse.

“Puppetry was where I got work,” he said. “I just followed the thread.” He currently works as a puppeteer and storyteller at the Noah’s Ark exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

He joined the guild in 2021 after volunteering to help out at a paper-bag puppet-making pop-up that the group held at a Culver City mall. It was the middle of the pandemic, he was living with his parents in Orange County, and he thought the guild might help him make new friends. He immediately connected with its high-energy former president, puppet builder Rachel Burson, and kept looking for other opportunities to volunteer. He joined the board in 2023.

A mockup for a puppet sits on a person's shoulders.

Kelsey Kato displays an unnamed mockup for a puppet.

“Puppet people are very friendly, caring people,” Kato said. “They are so open to sharing knowledge about how they build and how they perform. It’s like, ‘This is how I create and express myself, and I’m sharing this with you.’”

David Gordezky, another young member of the board who chairs the events committee, also recognizes the puppetry community’s unique generosity.

“After any puppet show, the puppeteers in the audience immediately get up out of their seats and storm the stage,” he said. “And unlike magicians, puppeteers are very open. They’re like, ‘Come take a look. Try it for yourself.’”

Gordezky said he thinks the recent growth in the guild’s young membership is part of a trend in his generation of seeking out and experimenting with traditional art forms.

“In a digital age where we’re all so skeptical of the authenticity of things — even lifestyle bloggers are in a full face of makeup — people are searching for more analog, authentic mediums,” he said.

When he began working as a puppeteer, he found it daunting to try to give life to a lifeless object in a way that felt convincing, but over the years he’s discovered that audiences want to believe in the distinct magic of puppetry. “It’s not just you reaching out to them,” he said. “It’s them reaching out to you.”

A woman works on her puppet.

Moira McDonald works on her puppet Svetlana. The two will perform in a play this fall.

Troupes and shows galore

As the guild is expanding, L.A.’s modern puppet scene is experiencing its own renaissance. Freak Nature Puppets, a collective of self-taught puppeteers that create wild, oversize puppets is currently doing a six-month residency at the Elysian Theater. The Rogue Artists Ensemble will be sharing its work-in-progress on a new show about a closeted, queer stuntman that features life-size puppets at the Skirball on April 12. (A full show is coming later this year.) And in Burbank, a group of kids ages 9 to 14 known as the Zuppeteers is putting on marionette shows with “no entrance fee and no outside stressors,” according to its Instagram page. (Spring dates should be announced soon).

Fans can also attend the 10th Bob Baker Day at the Los Angeles State Historic Park on April 21, the Skirball’s annual Puppet Festival on April 28 and “Puppet Up: Uncensored” — unscripted, raunchy comedy shows performed by Jim Henson Company puppeteers April 26-28. The guild’s most recent newsletter highlights local shows with puppets, including the opera “Book of Mountains and Seas,” which will be performed April 10-14 at the BroadStage in Santa Monica, and “Song of the North,” which will be at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse from April 5-7.

On March 30, the guild will sponsor the first of its three yearly Puppetzilla Puppet Slams at the Mayflower Club in North Hollywood; there, puppet artists will present new work to an 18-and-over crowd. Each act is required to be less than five minutes or “too short to suck,” as organizer and longtime SAG-AFTRA puppeteer Christine Papalexis put it. The April fools-themed event is part of a network of puppet slams across the country with financial support from Jim Henson’s youngest daughter, Heather Henson.

“Anything can be a puppet, and it’s always amazing to see what everyone comes up with,” Papalexis told the assembled crowd on Sunday.

A shadow puppet is manipulated, with its shadow in the background.

Jesse Kingsley shows off his shadow puppet.

A historic puppet town

L.A. has long been home to a vibrant puppetry scene. In the first half of the 20th century, puppet shows at downtown’s Olvera Street Theatre and West Hollywood’s Turnabout Theater regularly sold out. The Bob Baker Marionette Theater, which still regularly fills theater seats, opened near downtown L.A. in 1963. Theme-park goers can interact with a digital puppet of Crush from “Finding Nemo” at Disneyland and with puppet dinosaurs at Universal Studios.

L.A. has also offered puppeteers and puppet builders a wide range of opportunities working in film and television, including claymation, stop motion animation and good old-fashioned hand puppetry. “The Adventures of Gumby” which premiered in 1957, was created by Art Clokey, an artist in Glendora. The Jim Henson Company Studios are at La Brea Avenue and Sunset Boulevard. Senior members of the L.A. Puppetry Guild have worked on “The X Files,” “Dude, Where’s My Car?” “Saturday Night Live” and “Robot Chicken.”

“In Los Angeles, in particular, you have all these different kinds of mediums orbiting the idea of bringing objects to life,” said Eli Presser, a puppeteer and vice president of the guild. “You have all these different people who access puppetry from different angles and have not always known one another.”

A smiling child with a Chinese lion puppet.

A child reacts to Alexis Wong and Christen Ta’s Fu Huo Chinese Lion at the L.A. Guild of Puppetry’s monthly meet-up.

Imagining a ‘puppet palace’

For much of the L.A. guild’s nearly 60-year existence, the organization has served as a social club for working puppeteers. But its leaders say the group’s mission is evolving. Currently, they are working on making the guild a nonprofit organization, which would allow it to apply for grants and accept donations.

“It would give us a lot more flexibility to support other people if we have money coming in that we can put back into the community,” Bibat said.

Guild leaders dream of a day when the group might have its own building, a “puppet palace” where it could host classes, support new and experienced artists and bring in traveling acts. Presser wants the guild to expand into labor advocacy and use puppetry as a tool for inclusion — like working with neurodivergent artists. And while the guild is primarily an adult space, it would like to offer more opportunities for kids to get involved.

In the meantime, the guild will continue to hold space for puppet fanatics to come together and nerd out.

Kingsley, the puppet builder who pranced in the lion costume at the guild’s most recent meetup, has been a member since he arrived in L.A. in 2001, but he said lately it feels like it’s reached a new level.

“I’m meeting all these people that are like, ‘I feel like this control rod could get longer,” he said. “I love it.”

Events

Upcoming L.A. puppet events

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