Puppeteer Q&A with Jim West
Interview by David Manley
While enjoying a week at the Puppeteers of America Festival in Swarthmore, PA back in early August, I was taken by a wonderful sense of community. As a relatively ‘new’ professional puppeteer, there were so many in attendance I was able to learn from and those who were asked, were happy to share their experience. Through my work with Theatreworks, USA, I was introduced to fellow puppeteer Jim West
who has been in the puppeteering business for thirty years. His shows have been presented for young audiences throughout the world. Jim has easily become one of my idols with his longevity in the business and the joy he gives his audiences through his colorful and engaging performances. To continue the spirit of community I encountered at the POA Festival, I contacted Jim to answer some questions for the Puppeteers Unite audience.
Q. How did you get your start in puppetry?
A. A friend told me about an audition for Poko Puppets produced by Larry Engler, and I got cast and did some work for him. Then Marshall Izen was looking for a new partner. Larry recommended me and I got cast because Marshall’s first pick had a conflict with the Village Halloween parade. So I got the job. Thirty years later, he’s still in my life and I’m still doing puppets. Marshall was represented by TheatreWorks in 1983, and after five years with Marshall, I started a one-man show, also represented by TheatreWorks, called “North, South East and Jim West,” using hand puppets, shadow puppets and cartooning, which Marshall directed. Eventually when Marshall retired, I took over doing the larger puppet shows for TheatreWorks, building on Marshall’s material and adapting it for my own. At the same time, I was supering at the Metropolitan Opera and had the opportunity to develop hand shadows for a production of “Manon” directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.
Q. You have a great catalog of shows developed for Jim West Puppets. I saw your show “Aesop’s Fables” and was taken by the variety of puppets you used from hand puppets to rod puppets and shadow puppets. It really kept the audience engaged. What do you think goes in to making a good show?
A. In developing shows, I like to use a variety of puppetry. I find that by changing the visuals, I can keep the attention of a younger audience, so I contrast shadow puppets in one segment with rod or hand puppets in another. Also by segmenting the show, I can hold the young audience members’ attention better than I could with one long story. In conjunction with the variety of puppets, I also demonstrate how the children can make the puppets themselves at home. Hopefully, this will keep them more engaged if they see how to use their own imaginations. I have been criticized for de-mystifying puppetry, but my shows have never been about me showing off, they’ve been about me showing how you can do it too—that it’s easy and fun. I also like the shows to be colorful, and certainly music enhances the puppetry.
Q. Do you create your own puppets as well or commission any builds with other artists?
A. I try to make my own puppets, especially the ones I show the audience how to make, but I also have Muppet-style host puppets in my programs, and those I will design and then commission professional builders to fabricate for me.
Q. I think there’s a common misconception with any artist that having a booking agent means you’re set. What is the business end of being a puppeteer according to Jim West?
A. In my 30 years, the business end has changed dramatically. We’ve gone from an era of abundant field trip opportunities for touring artists to one where teachers are very limited as to the number of outside activities they are allowed to provide for their students per year. These limitation are due to a variety of factors, including gas prices, budget cuts and standardized testing. Consequently, a booking agent has to adapt to a new playing field and that isn’t always easy. However, there are venues where I’ve been presented for many years, where they’re still selling tickets and filling their houses. I keep working to make the shows relevant to the current curriculum, which helps teachers to justify the investment of their time and field trip allotment.
Q. Drew Allison of Grey Seal Puppets said in one of his blogs “Sometimes the places those little hunks of polyfoam take me are just too cool.” Where have your puppets taken you throughout the States and across the world?
A. Thirty years of touring has been an amazing experience. You see places you would never have set out to see that are fascinating, fun, some quite beautiful, I don’t think I’ve missed a single contiguous state in the U.S. Beyond our country, I’ve also performed in Bermuda, Canada and Malaysia, the latter booking the result of producers from Kuala Lumpur seeing my show at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York.
Q. When you’re in a place like Malaysia, do you get the time to see sights, experience the culture and make the best of a rare trip?
A. I always try to enjoy the locale, whether it’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans or riding elephants in Malaysia. I even had a fish pedicure in Malaysia, where little fish eat the dead skin off your feet. It tickles, but the result is amazing—really old baby feet! But I really think the most beautiful place I’ve visited is the California coast highway right here in America. Big Sur is my idea of heaven.
Q. What’s next for Jim West Puppets, what kind of future do you wish to create for your company?
A. My immediate plans are to return to Malaysia this fall with a stop in Borneo, where I hope to keep my head. Solvent retirement is a more distant goal.