In India to connect with schools with his signature work, The Perfect Symbol of Love – an interactive fable on the selfesteem issue for youngsters, puppeteer Gary Jones speaks to Sapna Sarfare about his journey and more
Puppetry as a medium has changed over the years and many professionals have made a mark in this field. One such name is American Gary Jones, who with his company, The Blackstreet USA Puppet theatre that presents ‘Gary Jones and the YUPPETS’ (Young Urban Professional Puppets).
Starting his career as a professional puppet artist in 1967, he has been associated with the renowned Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera and has worked on projects like, The King and I, Porgy and Bess, Gypsy, My Fair Lady, Oliver, and Bizet’s Carmen. Since 1967, it has been a journey of original and diverse repertoire for adults and youngsters with focus on dance. His collection of awards includes ‘The Crystal Castle’ from the Walt Disney Corporation for his work with children. He was also profiled by People magazine in 1998 for his work integrating art and the educational experience. He is in India till March 2018 to connect with schools all over the country and spread a good message.
Gary calls his entry into puppetry as an unplanned incident. “At 16, a neighbour, Mrs. Dorothy Morphis showed me the theatre programme from her recent outing to Chicago’s Kungshom Miniature Grand Opera. Its attraction was the presentation of grand opera, in the original language, with 12 inch tall puppets. It was here, on an easter sunday, that I saw my first seriously professional performance with puppets and heard my first opera, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. I returned to witness the magic many a times over for the next eight years and finally lobbied for a job there. I was hired as an apprentice puppet artist and assistant scenic designer. For the next three years, I absorbed everything I could before striking out on my own,” says Gary.
He describes himself as a gifted dancer who somehow strayed into puppetry. “This is the heart of my performance and for me, the most enjoyable. When my group performed at the prestigious Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., the reviewer described us as more like a dance company than puppeteers. There is a constant movement, swirling, stepping, hesitation, and release on my stage. Alongside the puppet I am always in full view and often, I’m told, disappearing in full view alongside the puppet in my hand. As one’s eye switches back and forth between these three, the result is hypnotic and surprising for the person who attended with the expectation of seeing a traditional puppet show,” he further adds.
While still at The Kungsholm Opera, he was still not thinking about forming his company or the Yuppets. “By the time that venerable institution closed, I was just beginning to uncover the depths of my creative abilities. One might say I was obsessed. When the time to form a troupe arrived, the 25 or so people that eventually became a part of my company magically appeared without any formal or informal call. All of them willingly opened to my rigorous training and grew with the company. Because I believe that artists should be paid and knowing the uphill battle of securing cultural funding in the USA, I disbanded my company when I moved to Los Angeles,” he says.
Gary has come to India on the invitation of two of India’s spectacular artists. “Vasu Primlani, the comedian, actor, activist, somatic therapist, and award winning environmentalist whose work I came to know during her years in the USA. Vasu immediately became a friend and a window into how one person can effect societal change in areas wilfully ignored in most cities. The second is Ramaa Bharadvaj, the divine Bharatnatyam dancer, teacher and choreographer of the Angahara Dance Ensemble of Orange County, California. For seven years, she invited me and The Blackstreet USA Puppet Theatre to share her stage. On first meeting me, she intuited the fertile challenge of collaboration between her vitally historic art and my unorthodox approach. The projects that I expect to discover and perform while in India will appear as I continue to brainstorm with them. I will, however, bring one signature work. Entitled ‘The Perfect Symbol of Love’, it is a student interactive fable that focuses on the issue of self esteem for young people. After years of performing it, I find this piece still resonating on a personal level,” expresses Gary.
Gary is what you call a puppet and doll artist. But he begs to differ. “I simply go my own way. Comments over the years encourage me to adhere to my path even as it unexpectedly veers in challenging directions. The most endangering temptation is, of course, financial. Commercial enterprise has sometimes lured me into deep artistic and legal swamp territory. My guardian angel has always intervened,” says Gary.
For Gary, India is an inspiration ‘impossible to fathom, assimilate, or describe’. “How does such a diverse nation produce a Gandhi, the Tata dynasty, and the modern IT revolution while harbouring its mass of Dalits and OBCs? From where does a country birth such erotic art while at once maintaining many conservative ethics holdover from the colonial era? This is the small list of what instigates my wild enthusiasm towards India. I will leave my heart here and return to California as a changed artist. Of course as an African American, I am inescapably influenced by the continued oppression and violence that the USA continues to inflict daily on its black citizens. With alarm, these racist policies are increasing under the President, Trump. With my art I strive to reverse this trend in any way possible,” states Gary.
Gary loves it when his puppets are called his professional colleagues. “Their presence and the mere fact that their numbers continue to increase as new ‘people’ emerge from my workbench confirm that the creative spirit is inexhaustible while I yet breathe. I do not believe that an artist eventually reaches the end of their creative output. In a way this is sorrowful, because it portends that I will leave unfinished work when I exit this plane. I intend to keep working until…,” he adds.
Gary has seen changes in the puppet world since 1967. The biggest change, according to him, reflects of the changes in other arenas. “Human hands no longer play such an important role. Most of the puppets one sees in high budget cinema and television are actually little robots with no connection with the soul and sensitivity of a puppet artist. “I miss the human touch. Most audiences detect no difference. And yes, it is tough to continue on the rough road of clouds in which my art exists when the public is clamouring and paying $$$ in high tech entertainment palaces to see what’s new. And yet, artist did not stop painting when the camera was invented,” says Gary.
Gary refuses to identify himself as a puppeteer. “I am a sculptor, a costume designer, a writer, a dancer, a scenic artist, carpenter, engineer and closet poet. A fool in thrall to the invisible yet damn sure I can trap it long enough to shock an observer and myself. The activities that culminate in what I present to an audience exceed any one description,” he explains.
While advising others, he says, “I would ask that person about how to engage in any artistic endeavour and not to label their activity. And even if they find that the public describes them as ‘a puppeteer’ they do all that is possible to subvert that description. They will then be free to venture into territories heretofore unexplored, where no rules apply, and failure is unknown. As the currently leading emerging nation, jam packed with human capital and bursting with the energy of the youngest demographic on the planet; India presents an unsurpassable opportunity for artists of all kinds. India has the potential to transform its past glories and defeats into even greater victories. I smile just thinking about it. Believe me; I have witnessed it time and time again,” he adds.