A 19th Century Russian fable by Ivan Krylov called “The Inquisitive Man” is credited as being the origin of the phrase, “the elephant in the room.” In the story, a visitor to a museum recounts to his friend all the tiny wonders he saw there — dragonflies, beetles, and gnats — without noticing the elephant.
In a small Detroit bungalow on Carpenter Street there is an elephant in the room. Two elephants, to be precise. Fully grown, but not fully formed, life-size paper-mache reproductions of Asian elephants who will soon have the ability to walk, sway, and swing their trunks around.
The artists and performers at Carrie Morris Arts Production, or CMAP, are creating these behemoths from scratch, using wood and paper, old nylons and glue. These life-size puppets will be walking on stage for four performances at the New Center Park amphitheater July 27 to 29.
Since 2012, Carrie Morris, director and founder of CMAP, has brought her vision and passion for theatre and puppetry to the Detroit/Hamtramck neighborhood known as Bangaltown, where the CMAP house on Carpenter exists as a venue, studio, park, and community space.
Performing a local story a few miles from the main studio and venue is intrinsic to the mission and history of CMAP. Deeply rooted in its neighborhood, the theatre continues to tackle local stories and visions, whether it’s dramatizing interviews from Detroit firefighters using an ancient Japanese puppetry style called Bunraku or collaborating live with neighbors the Bangla School of Music for a performance that took place in the window of their venue.
Morris, who has a lengthy history in puppetry and theater, describes CMAP as a “super local” troupe and venue that uses international puppet traditions.
After studying theater in both undergraduate and graduate school, she studied puppetry in Indonesia as a Fulbright grantee for a year, becoming immersed in the cultural significance and rich history of the art form of shadow puppetry known as Wayang. Morris borrows inspiration from many different puppet traditions, and utilizing forms from Japan, Indonesia, and the West for past shows.
The connecting thread is the telling of a story. “I really liked the idea of telling stories. And as audience members we put our emotions on these inanimate objects … and believe that they live and have feelings,” Morris says.
In traditional theater, a script is created or studied, actors may wear costumes or makeup or inhabit a stage with props and backgrounds. In puppetry, a whole different set of logistics are demanded. The puppeteers have to inhabit the puppets as well as use voice, narration, and the stage itself.
But it’s also a huge engineering challenge, one that’s magnified when working with life-sized elephants, the largest scale puppets CMAP has created. The performance, an all ages show sponsored by the Kresge Foundation and Midtown Detroit, is titled “Wanda and Winky Go To California.” It’s adapted from a children’s book by Michigan author Linda McLean and based on the true story of the last two elephants of the Detroit Zoo.
Puppeteer, musician, and performer Lindsay McCaw is patiently forming the elephant’s head, stuffing nylons into the creature’s nascent skull.
Elephant puppets made by Lindsay McCaw
“Because we don’t have a huge budget, we do a lot of scavenging for materials,” says McCaw, who’s been involved with puppetry since 2000. Before coming to Detroit, she performed with puppet theaters in Minnesota and Vermont.
CMAP taps into the the well of talent in Detroit to bring the puppets to life. Many performers, such as McCaw and performer and contributor Torri Lynn Ashford, have extensive experience performing with puppets in the area. And given the show she’s creating, that talent is needed.
“The scale of the Wanda and Winky show is bigger than anything that we’ve done before,” says Morris. “We’re very lucky that there are a fair number of people in the area that have been available for us to work with.”
CMAP is also very committed to place. In 2015, it collaborated with Hamtramck neighbors the Bangla School of Music for their Outdoor Summer Series to create shadow puppet shows in the window of their venue on Carpenter, using music composed and performed by the Bangla School of Music and their director and founder Akram Hossain.
Children play with shadow puppets before a CMAP performance
Another local and long-term project CMAP has been working on is called The Firefighter Project, based on many interviews Morris and others have conducted with Detroit firefighters. Using the Japanese form of Bunraku puppetry, where several puppeteers hold a larger puppet using sticks, they recreated the stories and thoughts of firefighters set to audio of the interviews. Relationships she forged over the years have been ongoing — some current veterans were new to the force when she first interviewed them, and some have passed on.
Morris was inspired by the dedication of the firefighters and the difficulties they face.
“Traditionally they haven’t had a forum to tell their stories,” she says. “And I don’t know if it’s my place to tell their stories, but we’ve been really lucky that people have been willing to participate. That’s very rewarding. And we hope that something as small as puppets can be a vehicle for inciting change. It’s a small thing, but a big idea.”
CMAP would like to provide even more outlets for local artists and grow as a community space. This summer, they’re hosting Collaborative Design Workshops to get feedback from neighbors concerning the upcoming project to use their outdoor space as a park and playspace. The plans include building an amphitheater for performances in the large lot they own adjacent to their venue house.
Pedestrian Permeable Architecture, a fluid blue sculpture that runs next to the sidewalk, was designed by Aaron Jones and Wesley Taylor as a commission from CMAP. They plan on extending a similar sculpture along the back end of their lots on McPherson street to help stabilize the space as a park and multi-use area without cutting it off from the neighborhood. They also use the outdoor space to host their yearly Detroit Fringe Festival for musicians, performers, artists, and actors working outside what can be considered more conventional expressions.
Morris has a lot of interests and is using CMAP as a platform for many of them. Creating a space for puppets and theatre, telling local stories using methods and inspiration from around the world. During CMAP’s active first five years, many goals have miraculously come to life. Perhaps that’s tied to the magic of puppetry.
This article is part of “Detroit Innovation,” a series highlighting community-led projects that are improving the vitality of neighborhoods in Detroit, while recognizing the potential of residents to work with partners to solve the most pressing challenges facing their communities.
The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that’s working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.
Photos by Anthony Lanzilote.