Wednesday 15 November 2023

An Interview with Monica Leo

November’s featured reader for the Final Thursday Reading Series is Monica Leo, author of Hand, Shadow, Rod: The Story of Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre (Ice Cube Press). She is the founder of Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre, which is based in West Liberty, Iowa and whose members have performed throughout the country and globe. Next year marks fifty years of Eulenspiegel, which was founded in 1974. Hand, Shadow, Rod chronicles Leo’s journey from a young girl born to first-generation German immigrants, to a woman finding herself in the world of art and self-expression, to a seasoned performer and the head puppeteer of a well-established puppet troupe. 

The Final Thursdays Reading Series takes place on November 30 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. There will be an open mic at 7:00 p.m. (bring your best five minutes of original creative writing). Monica Leo will begin her reading at 7:30. The featured reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a link. 

Interview by Bennett Birkner. 

Bennett Birkner: What inspired you to write Hand, Shadow, Rod?
Monica Leo: Two things came together, and that’s that the pandemic came along, and so we all had a little more time on our hands, and Mary Swander decided to teach a Zoom class on writing a memoir and she’s one of my oldest friends and I thought, “sure, I’ll take that class, why not?” I had a lot of fun writing it but I had never thought of publishing particularly until I got to the point where Mary said “I think you’re ready to submit this for publication!” I probably wouldn’t have done it without the pandemic, honestly. A lot of good things came out of it, a lot of interesting things. 

BB: What made you decide to arrange your book in a non-linear way?
ML: I never made that conscious decision, it just kind of happened that way, because I would start writing about something and that would make me think of something else or something else that might have happened later or earlier. So, I ended up being organized more by subject matter than by a linear approach. But it wasn’t something that I started out with the intention of doing; it just happened. 

BB: Beyond giving you your first set of Kasperle hand puppets, how did your parents support and inspire you as you began making puppets of your own?
ML: My mother was a freelance artist and my grandmother on my father’s side was an artist; there have been artists in every generation of my family, so it was natural for them to support whatever I wanted to do artistically. And, you know, the puppets were something I enjoyed playing with, I had a lot of fun with them. I needed another character, so I decided to just make it. 

BB: Did you start doing that (puppets) as a kid or was that more in adulthood?
ML: I was probably about 11 or 12 when I made my first puppet. I was a girl scout all through high school and our girl scout troop decided to cater birthday parties to make some money, and the birthday party I was involved in was the one with a puppet show so I did the puppet show, of course. I knew I wanted to study art and that I wanted to do some kind of art, but I didn’t really focus in on puppets until, you know, it really came down to it and I thought, “what am I actually going to do to support myself?” My mother, who was a freelance metal sculptor said, “if you are going to be a freelance artist, you have to find something that you enjoy doing that other people enjoy paying money for.” I’d always played with dolls and puppets a lot, so I started making puppets and dolls and selling them. And gradually, you know, started performing with them. The puppet theater turns 50 next year! 

BB: What is the oldest puppet you have? Do you have any puppets from way back?
ML: Well, you know, most of the ones I made when I started out I sold. I do have one, come to think of it. When my mother died, we were cleaning out her house and I took it with me, and it was actually a self-portrait that I made of myself making a puppet, painting a puppet head. And that predates the puppet troupe, I made that before we were ever performing with them; I’m not exactly sure how old it is but it’s over fifty years old now! Of the performing puppets, Schulz is the oldest one of the performing puppets 

BB: How did you develop the personality of Schulz?
ML: I didn’t, he did. And that happens with puppets, that really happens with puppets. You make a puppet, sometimes you have a completely different intention for it than it ends up being, but you make the puppet and you put it on and start playing with it, and it just kinda develops its own personality. I’m not the only one that will tell you that. I mean, puppeteers often have that experience. It has something to do with you because you’re the one that’s manipulating it, but it goes way beyond that; it’s not that simple. The definition of a puppet is any inanimate object that’s brought to life by a manipulator. And really it covers dolls, obviously, if you work them that way, if that’s how you play with them, but it can also cover a kitchen whisk if you use it as a character. 

BB: What puppet are you most proud of creating and why?
ML: What I’d like to say instead is what are the shows I’m most proud of. The first one is one that I actually have had for quite awhile that I made in the early 2000s; it’s called Finding Home, and it’s a trilogy about my parents’ immigration experience. So it’s a memoir, a puppet show memoir. And the reason that I’m proud of that is that I ended up really developing techniques that I had never worked with before and that I’d never really thought of working with before; it broke new ground for me. So that’s one of them, and the other one I’m really proud of is the drive-in show that we developed during the pandemic, it’s called Shenanigans: Animals In Charge. And we knew, you know we were really tired of not being able to perform live, we’d done some live outdoor shows, but everything else had been canceled, everything we had scheduled to do was canceled. And so, some puppeteer friends in Arizona were doing some drive-in shows, and I thought we could do that. Then the next day, Stephanie, my co-puppeteer, thought it was a great idea too. She said “what’s our subject?” and the next day I was listening to public radio, and they were talking about an alligator that was cruising around a deserted shopping mall in Myrtle Beach! And I thought oh that has puppet show written all over it. So Stephanie and I started checking the internet and researching as many things as we could find about what animals were up to during the pandemic. There were some amazing stories, you know, like penguins roaming the art museum, and city monkeys and temple monkeys that both left the places that they usually were and traveled to the other place because they thought they might find more tourists there and the tourists always fed them, and they got into a brawl on the street over a yogurt cup, you know, and goats all over the place that were stampeding city streets; there were so many stories of different things animals were doing that they were doing specifically because there weren’t any humans out and about. 

I feel really happy about the way we developed the story around that and the way it kept us going during the pandemic. It’s actually kind of a history show, in a way; there’s obviously a whole lot of fantasy wrapped in, for instance the penguins in our story ride a bus. And the goat and the monkeys, the temple monkey and the city monkey, have a bake-off in Las Vegas. And those things of course are all just fantasy, but everything in it is based on something that really happened during the pandemic. And then we went around, we performed that in 15 different locations in Iowa during the fall of 2020, and we would have done more except it got too cold. We got a transmitter so that people could listen to it over their car radios. People loved it, they were so excited about having live theater to attend, and so I feel pretty proud of that, too, not only of how we developed the story but also how we adapted to the pandemic.

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