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Theatre Professor Incorporates Puppetry into Stage Productions


Elizabeth Margid relies on puppets to offer a theatricality that can not be achieved by human actors.
Photo by Ken Levinson

Elizabeth Margid did not set out to teach college students about theater directing. But shortly after completing her master of fine arts degree at Yale, she directed a couple of shows at Fordham and, as an adjunct, taught a course or two.

“I fell in love with the place,” said Margid, assistant professor, head of theatre directing and chair of the Department of Theatre and Visual Arts at the Lincoln Center campus. “I didn’t go into theatre directing assuming I would teach; it just found me.”

That doesn’t mean that Margid’s audience is limited to students. In fact, she has never stopped directing or producing plays and musicals since she earned her degree from Yale. In addition, Margid has served as a dramaturge, which means she was a consultant to a theatre company and its writers.

“I was working with writers—in a sense almost like an editor—on their new work or work they were adapting,” Margid said.

Last summer, however, she moved to the other side of the table and authored a musical adaptation of the Ray Bradbury’s 1950s science fiction novel The Martian Chronicles for Fordham’s new Alumni Theatre Group. The musical, which hit the stage in August, featured various puppets—from 12-foot rod puppets to small marionettes.

The Martian Chronicles is a project that I’ve had in mind for a while and decided to try my hand at actually adapting myself,” Margid said. “It was also a piece, I thought, that really lent itself to puppetry because it’s about the clash of two different civilizations—Martian and Earthling.

The Martian Chronicles is a collection of short stories that chronicles humankind’s colonization of Mars.

“It’s about two very different cultures encountering each other for the first time. Using both puppets and human actors to tell this story gave me a way to embody the theme of “otherness.”

In Margid’s adaptation, the alien changed in each scene depending on the point of view from which the story was being told.

“And that character was embodied by a puppet, which is something that the audience would respond to as an ‘other’ or alien,” Margid said.

Margid wrote a draft of her adaptation on a faculty fellowship in 2004, and raised outside grant money to produce her idea on stage. Fordham provided a research grant for the production, and she was able to commission someone to write the musical score. The materials used to make the puppets were bought with funding from the Jim Henson Foundation.

“I would say that this project represents the culmination of research I’ve been doing for the last 10 years into developing new work with puppetry and music,” she said.

Why puppets? Because they offer a theatricality that humans can’t, Margid said.

“Puppets are like us, but they’re more than us because they have liberation of movement and are free from gravity,” Margid said. “Puppets make a wonderful choice for certain types of characters and certain kinds of actions that are larger than life or fantastical.”

Margid began exploring puppetry about 10 years ago, when she helped develop a musical theatre piece called A Visit From the Footbinder based on a short story by Emily Prager.

“I’ve done a lot of creation of new musical work for the stage, but that was the first time I began to integrate puppetry,” she said. “Two springs ago, I directed the production of [William Shakespeare’s]Pericles, which also blended puppetry and music.”

Margid collaborated on Pericles and Martian Chronicles with a puppet director whose job it was to teach the cast and crew how to work with the puppets. Practically all of the alumni cast members were new to the experience.

“All the people that we cast were people that moved well, yet none of them were puppeteers,” Margid said. “We used a range of puppets—everything from a 12-foot puppet on rods to hand puppets, miniature marionettes, and shadow puppets.”

Margid plans to continue her focus on new script development while helping the Fordham Alumni Theatre Group stage productions.

“I don’t necessarily know that [my work]will always have puppetry in it, but I do think I’ll continue to focus on writing because I enjoy it very much,” Margid said.


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