Puppetry and Pepperoni

Throughout the past year, people have been telling me I ought to talk to Mark Blashford. As a graduate student of the University of Connecticut’s Puppet Arts Graduate Program, I keep seeing his name on things around the studios where I work. He is a well-loved alumni of the program, and the echoes of his work still inhabit the halls here. When we finally did talk, we had so much to talk about, we had to schedule another phone call. I hope you’ll understand that I can only show you the dearest, most exciting parts of this interview.

Marc: You’re still in puppet school!
F: Exactly! I’m really glad to be able to talk to you today. Everyone from puppet school says hello.

M: Oh great! Oh I miss grad school. I miss the students. But everything keeps moving. It’s really exciting.

F: What years did you attend UCONN?

M: Let’s see...it’s would have been Fall 2014-Spring 2017

F: Where had you moved from?

M: Oh I moved from Chicago. I had graduated from Penn State with a degree in theater, but also studied a lot of education. When I went to school, I wanted to become the next Mister Rogers, which, who knows, maybe that could still happen. With that in mind, I studied elementary ed and broadcasting for television, which sort of morphed into theater. Long story short, I did Teach for America in Chicago, because I was still figuring out what direction I wanted to go in. And I thought, oh, I’ll do Teach for America, and try out education. And Chicago was a wonderful place to try out all of the theater and education, all the places where they meet. After a year, I was teaching ninth grade special education, with a focus on math, Algebra I, on grade level stuff. And I was using a little bit of puppetry in my courses, and that’s where the action was happening for me! That’s where I was reminded of this passion, while trying to teach algebra. Maybe because that was the direction I felt I was supposed to take, or my parents through I should take, the logical path. So I taught for a year and then decided I really wanted to study puppetry. That’s when I auditioned and went to UCONN.

F: That must have not been an easy decision to pursue that on a professional level.

M: Well, I’m sure you can relate! You decided to drop everything and move from Pittsburgh to Storrs CT! You’re in your first year?

F: I am.

M: Terrific! How is it?

F: I feel incredibly lucky. Incredibly. I get to work with puppets every single day. And all the resources I could ask for are at my fingertips. It’s the best. But I do miss Pittsburgh and the people I love, and there’s this pressure, I’m sure you feel this too- after growing up in such a small town that’s kind of industry based, there’s pressure to work in a job that helps my community in a more concrete way.

M: Hmm. That’s a societal pressure. It seems there’s a straighter, clearer line between your work and community impact when you’ve got boots on the ground. Like a teacher, or a social worker, or a nurse, it feels more concrete. I definitely feel that. My sister is a nurse. I used to work as a delivery boy in a butcher shop, and then for a cleaning company. All these hands on things where you can really see the impact of your work, and then going into the arts, you’ve got to feel a little strange. A bit of that imposter syndrome, you question whether or not it’s worthwhile. The impact, I guess, is more on people's minds and hearts and their actions. You might not see the fruit of that right away.

F: That’s a good way of putting it! Where did you grow up?

M: I grew up in Carlyle, PA

F: What was that like?

M: Oh, I love smalltown PA! I think I draw on a lot of that. bring that sensibility to Chicago. I tend to connect with midwesterners over rural approaches. Things like choosing function over form, sensibility as fashion, just the way I tend to approach problems. It’s funny, you don’t realize how much your culture influences you until you’re pulled out of it. I’ll find myself saying things to groups of people...and then this Pennsylvania sensibility comes through, and when now when I notice it, I latch onto it because it makes me special. I appreciate it now.

F: That’s beautiful.

M: I loved living in Connecticut because I had no idea how rural it is. All that coastal stuff is happening, but if you go a little bit east, the Connecticut highlands, that’s my jam! Rolling hills and beautiful forests, and such a connection to history!

F: I gotta say, sometimes I struggle with living here because I grew accustomed to living in a city. Going back to that rural sensibility was a little tricky for me, but I think I’m getting the hang of it now. Once I was able to spend more time hiking and birdwatching, I started to get a better sense of the space.

M: There are those green tunnels in Connecticut. Where you’re driving, and you’re really not sure where you are because the trees just meet in the sky. You have to enjoy being able to get lost. I wish I could be able to talk to you in person so I could see your facial expressions. I loved being in grad school and being kind of stuck in Connecticut. The only thing to do is to go to the lab and really focus.

F: It’s true! There’s a sense of focus and permission to focus that you might not get if other things were going on.

M: It’s almost monastic, the dedication to your art form.

F: And I think there’s a dedication to your community, too. Much like in a small town, you know that these people are going to be around and dedicating their time to the same things. It’s not a demand, but your commitment to loving these people and caring about these people must be immediate.

M: Yeah! It’s an intentional community.

F: So, I know this is kind of the classic question, but how did you get into puppetry? What was that trajectory like?

M: I think mine is a pretty classic 1990s puppet kid story. My earliest memories of puppets have to do with Sesame St, Lambchop, Barney...and most intensely, Mister Rogers. I think that always kind of stuck with me. I was that kid who really believed in the Neighborhood of Make Believe. So, I had a deep connection to Mister Rogers and his neighborhood. And when I went to college, I thought this! This is the work I want to do, this is the world I want to live in. That’s where I wanted to go. What happened next…? But I thought, I don’t know how to get from A to B. I never really said “I want to be a puppeteer!” , I thought “I want to tell stories with objects and I want to play! I want my work speak to children.” So, I did an internship at Wolftrap Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia, and I met a puppeteer there. The show they did was lovely. It had really beautiful rod puppets, and just a ton of different styles. Some of them were huge, and I thought oh! This! This is what I want to do. And I realized that, well, this is what this can look like. It doesn’t have to look like Jim Henson’s puppets. I didn’t know anything about Peter Schumann yet- anyway, I went on tour with this puppeteer for a few weeks, and I thought- okay, yes, I want to be a puppeteer. I want to do this, but in my own way. So, I knew I had to find my way into that, so I found my way to UCONN. That was kind of a weird version of my story.

F: Well, no! This reiterates this idea of people as the guiding points. And especially in an art form that is so often passed from hand to hand, the people need to be your guides.

M: Yes, and even when there are more formal opportunities for puppetry training, like apprenticeships, it still is an ancient art form, and its tradition must continue in all the old ways. UCONN has some of puppetry’s huge pillars. Bart Roccoberton, John Bell, they pass it on, and it’s still a hand to hand education. It just has to be. I think that’s what hooked me. I was searching for my community, something that spoke to my sensibilities, my aesthetic. Once I saw how puppets could tell stories, I knew that’s what I had to do. I think that’s everyone’s story. Mine happened to be in Virginia, watching someone tell fairy tales. And that hooked me, with some German heritage coming out to play, in a wooded open air theater. And I didn’t know this at the time, but all those German fairy tales have so much in common with Jack Tales and some Scotch-Irish fairy tales that get told in Appalachia. That’s the kind of parallel I’m interested in.

F: Can you tell me a little more about those parallels?

M: Oh sure! Gosh, I should pull up some of the reading I was doing. It’s interesting, the Grimm Brothers kind of inherited these stories from all over Germany. They would hear them from grandmothers, sage women, and kind of steal them. THey went all over meeting with storytellers, hearing all these very common stories that were being told all over Europe, and they formally collected them, but the same stories came over with everyone that immigrated to the Appalachian region. All these Scottish, Irish families that ended up working in coal mines in Appalachia, updated the stories in their own way in their new world, with local sensibilities. THey introduce Jack, a sort of trickster, with qualities similar to their own. I’m trying to think, there’s this one story...oh! Jack and the Robbers! That’s essentially the same story as The Musicians of Brehmen, and there’s another one...um. It’s the same story, a couple of people who build a band together with farm animals. They have similar outcomes, though they are different stories in different collections and anthologies. It’s fascinating to me. I can’t talk about it with any authority, but it’s so fascinating.

F: You did a Jack Tales show, right?

M: Yes!
F: I’ve done some shadow puppet Jack Tales, but you did a whole show about them, right?

M: Yes, my MFA project was Jack and Jill, taking some of those storyline. I thinK Jack is a pretty universal character who can borrow other storylines. That’s the beauty of Jack. My Jack and Jill show was my own version of Jack Tales. I completely changed it and turned it into a coal mining story. I did another story, Jack in the Box, that was just a collection of Jack Tales. I’ve been pretty liberal with my interpretations, but that’s the joy of Jack. I’m just pulling up some pictures to remind myself of the stories I’ve told.

F: I was fascinated that a lot of your designs seem to be inspired by 19th century wooden toys. What informed that decision? The pieces are very pleasing to look at, even though I haven’t seen the show.

M: Thank you. I wanted to be as authentic as possible. It came out of my own personal philosophy about puppet shows...I want to be working with things I want to play with. The kind of curiosity  that happens with kids playing with toys when I’m onstage. I always want kids to come play with me afterwards, to get a closer look. Puppeteers are very generous with their time and their puppets with that curiosity. I always want the kids to want to touch the puppets!

F: I think that’s a testament to a sensitivity of puppeteers to children’s curiosity and to their generosity. That’s not just me saying that all puppeteers are great, but it is kind of marvelous how prevalent that tradition is. Puppeteers are incredibly generous with their time and resources and energy.

M: I think we’re naturally young at heart, so there is empathy there for people just beginning. Young in spirit, too, maybe. But I love going to see the folk art section of any museum, um, and I love looking at found object toys and puppets that get created. Especially early pioneer toys. In Connecticut, I would go to Stourbridge Village, I think I went to the Christmas festival. I think I spent 45 minutes just looking at the toy section. And looking for an American puppet tradition that was endemic to the region. We’ve inherited so many forms. We have an American version of Punch And Judy, we have travelling marionette troupes like the Aranda family, a lot of influences from all over. It’s hard to find the indigenous traditions, like Hopi tribes. We just don’t have a lot of our own object history. That’s another conversation, maybe, but some of these early pioneer and early settlers were created at least puppet-adjacent objects. Like limberjacks, which are kind of English tradition, but we’ve always kind of taken them and made them our own. So I wanted to do that, and I still consider them performing objects that are still traditional to our culture. It’s a hard thing to do, to try and create your own cultural heritage in this art form.

F: Wow! I think that’s a noble undertaking, to carve out your own voice. There are so many different forms of puppetry, and to be able to honor that history while searching for your own in a noble balance to try to achieve. I don’t know, the history is so rich and so beautiful that it’s hard to ignore. And as much as we can lean on and look at that history, the better off we’re going to be in creating our own work.

M: I agree. It’s grounded in something authentic to your community. I think it can only support whatever story you’re trying to tell and enrich it. If people notice it, they might not be able to say exactly why it spoke to them, but they sort of trust your sensibilities. But if it's grounded in a rich tradition, and in your authentic voice, then people...they believe it. Whatever story you’re trying to tell, whatever journey you’re trying to take them on. They’re here for it.

F: Have you ever performed a puppet show in Carlisle, PA?

M: THat’s a timely question! I never have, but I am going to! In two weeks.

F: Wow!

M: I’m taking Jack and Jill, and I’m going to do it for the first time. For high school friends still in town, and teachers. I’ll do it at the little theater downtown.

F: How do you feel about that? That’s a pretty big homecoming, no?

M: Yeah! I think there’s a part of me that always wanted this show, my first show postgrad, with all my newfound skills and such, to be kind of, almost an event. Well, I wanted it to be for a reason. And it is! I’m doing it as part of a lecture series for part of the Clark Forum on Contemporary Issues at Dickinson College. So I’m bringing this show as an example of using the arts to talk about issues of conservation and water rights. I’m hoping we can bring that to the table after the show.

F: So, in your version of Jack and Jill,  is the water of a modern era, which is poisoned and not such a simple resource to access?

M: Well, their water has been taken. Their right to water has been taken away and their water has been monetized. I started thinking about this after learning about Poland Springs and the Nestle company going into Maine and buying up water sources from these local areas. So for these local people, their water supply is cut off and now owned by a multinational conglomeration, which is now bottling and profiting off their spring water. They sell it back to the people it belongs to, and to all people. I think we all will eventually have trouble accessing the water we need. So,  in my story, a giant comes to town and takes all the water and hoards it for himself. Jack and Jill come by, just trying to get a drink, and they can’t, so they go up the hill to confront the giant. And then...well, you’ll just have to watch and see what happens! They do find a way to get their water back.

F: I love that, because it sounds like Jack and Jill’s decision to confront the giant helps to tell the kids watching that it can be their prerogative as well. Like, this can be your confrontation, this can be your decision to inquire into what’s happening. I think that’s an important thing to make sure kids see.

M: Jack has a little theme song, and it goes “Go Jack Go!” and the important goes “So Be It! Til You Change It!” and I think that things are going to be the way they are until you get the courage to stand up and change that,  which Jack does.

F: That’s a powerful message.

M: I hope so. Jack stands up to this outsider with such aplomb! He stands up to the selfish giants.

F: Since you’re going back to Carlisle, how have you seen it change?

M: Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It’s always changing. I think it’s becoming more of an artistic community. The industry that used to exist when I was growing up just isn’t there anymore. But the institutions, like Dickinson College, are stepping in, and there’s some really wonderful entrepreneurial people who have moved into to create more opportunities. Restaurants, Boutiques...everything I come back there’s something new. Carlisle...It’s a really creative place. They’ve managed to maintain a vibrant community in many forms. I think it’s reinventing itself, and that’s a good thing. I’m thinking of Pittsburgh, which has done something similar, inviting in tech and new industry.

F: Yes! I think on the other side of the state, there’s two towns right next to each other, where one has embraced this boutique, new things, artistic homes, and one hasn’t, and the distinction is clear. The decision of a group of people to take the risk to embrace that is to embrace the natural beauty of the places where we live, but it’s not an easy commitment to make. The community would probably want to support something artistic, but that’s a lot of trust.

M: It’s interesting now just from my perspective of starting a  new business and finding your place in the economy of things. I’m noticing now more than ever how people do that. It takes a leap of faith to put yourself out there and provide this artistic service, and it takes a tremendous generosity of your community to support the arts It’s an important continuing conversation to have with people both in and out of the arts. In our changing economy, that change is constant, for sure.

F: So, I’ve got to get going to class in just a minute here. We can continue this conversation another time, but I want to ask our traditional last question here.

M: This has been lovely, let’s certainly keep talking. I think this conversation can continue. THat’d be great.

F: Yeah! So our last question is “What is Appalachia?” It’s a big one, so if you need to wait, that’s okay!
M: Wow- I feel like I’ll only be able to give a narrow view.

F: You can sleep on it if you like.

M: Um...don’t sleep on Appalachia! It’s so multidimensional. It depends what part you’re talking about. The community that really resonates with me is the northern section. Pittsburgh, the steel and coal, that’s a part of the country that I just love. You know, I can give you my own Appalachia, but I’ve got to write it down. Is that okay?
F: Sure! I’ll talk to you soon!

The next time Mark and I talked, he answered, but also we covered topics like the garden he planted behind the Puppet Arts Complex where I currently work. Just a week ago I harvested garlic scapes from that very garden to use in a big dinner for the other puppeteers working a late evening in the studio.

“Appalachia - the region - is where some of America's deepest roots have grown and where my roots have grown as well. I've heard Appalachia described as "homeplace and kinfolk". This is what it is to me. This explains why I always go back to the Appalachian Mountains and its people for inspiration and wisdom. It is from where I draw my grit, my loyalty to people, and my love of the natural world. “

Mark’s effects on his communities are as palpable as that hearty garlic he planted so long ago. He is currently introducing a new puppet company, including his brother, that aims to adapt and change to his work as it suits his new ventures and audiences.  It is called Rootstock Puppet Co., and their wonderful mission is

“To craft and perform puppet theatre rooted in stories that promote mutual kindness and ecological awareness for the good of people and their environment”

A rootstock is the source of other plants to be grafted onto. It is sturdy and strong, but adapts to new needs. May we all be like rootstocks.

Mark Blashford carves a puppet at the University of Connecticut

Mark Blashford carves a puppet at the University of Connecticut

The brand new logo for Rootstock Puppet Co!

The brand new logo for Rootstock Puppet Co!