Carrie Morris Arts Production uses experimental puppetry to narrate people’s stories

Carrie Morris Arts Production uses performing objects and experimental theatre to tell stories.

In other words, puppetry.

But this isn’t the soft, plushy children’s puppetry of Sesame Street – think less along the lines of Jim Henson’s Muppets and more along the lines of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. In fact, if you ask Morris, most puppetry is unfairly dismissed as being solely “for kids,” relegated to the domain of childishness like comic books and animation. And, much as any adult fan or creator of comic books and animation can tell you, that is anything but true.

“It can get a bad reputation when it’s just for children,” she says. “There are these really gorgeous objects telling these emotionally resonant stories that appeal to adults. To say puppetry is a children’s form really shoots it in the foot of what it can be. A lot of work I’m looking for really transcends age. I’m looking at stories that resonate; not to appeal to a particular age group. I’m less interested in producing age-specific works than object-specific narratives that anyone can access.”

For her BFA, Morris trained as a director of theatre at New York University and worked as a director in Off-Off Broadway theatres – the literal definition of fringe, both symbolically and physically. At the time she worked with very specific choreography combined with specific objects and projections.

“I knew I wanted to do that more,” she says. “For my MFA I majored in studio art, working with a lot of object makers, and that was very helpful in building my practice. I started looking at performing objects and creating a lot of those.”

While attending the University of Michigan for her graduate study, Morris met puppet artists from Indonesia and learned about how prevalent puppet culture is there, so she decided to spend a summer studying it. She later got a Fulbright grant to go back for another year, studying the importance of mythology and the aspect of storytelling in puppetry while also lecturing in the puppetry department at the Indonesian University of High Art and collaborating with Indonesian artists to create works in contemporary puppetry.

“This faculty had started to incorporate traditional techniques and modern technology,” Morris explains. “Seeing how that changed the form, paring modern technology with the traditional richness of designs and storytelling, inspired me. I started to look more at how projections can work in puppet shows and also creating custom sound for shows.”

She has lived in Michigan since 2004 and worked as an adjunct professor at College for Creative Studies and UM’s School of Art and Design. She also served as the Program Manager of Puppetry and Performing Arts at the Detroit Institute of Arts for several years, through which she made valuable connections in the puppetry world all over the world. By the time she launched the Performance Laboratory in 2010 with performance artist Emilia Javanica, she already had a strong international network of like-minded experimental performing and puppetry artists, object- and theatre-makers.

The Performance Laboratory is a forum for artists to create short 10-minute pieces examining what performance can be. Since 2010, the Performance Lab has featured over 70 new works by almost 50 artists.

“We try to do them every two to three months,” Morris says. “I always see things there that I have never heard about or seen before. I’m always seeing something new and always learning about the city. It’s cool to be constantly reminded of how big the city is and how many artists there are here.”

She formed Carrie Morris Arts Production (CMAP) in 2012, and purchased one of the city’s abandoned auction houses in Banglatown, an ethnically diverse neighborhood on the border of Detroit and Hamtramck with a robust grassroots arts scene, to be its home. She spent two years transforming it into a performance space for CMAP’s work, as well as host other Southeast Michigan artists and touring shows from around the Midwest. She also owns five adjacent vacant parcels of land used to host free outdoor shows for the neighborhood in the summer.

Once the venue’s renovation was complete and it was up and running as a performance space, CMAP produced 24 shows between May and October of 2015 due to the overwhelming response from the community. It was also a partner in the Detroit Fringe Festival and the Porous Borders Festival.

CMAP was approached by Powerhouse Productions to join them and two other Banglatown arts organizations – the Hinterlands, and Popps Packing – in the Carpenter Exchange, which received support from a National Endowment for the Arts OurTown grant to produce creative placemaking events along the Carpenter Street corridor.

CMAP took November and December off to regroup but has major plans for this year. The Performance Laboratory is once again running; CMAP will again host a monthly Outdoor Summer Series; they’ll also do some work to support the Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts residency “Sidewalks & Sidetrails” in the Brightmoor and Old Redford neighborhoods and will stage performances in Southwest Detroit.

One current project is called The Living Room Series, an artistic experiment with intimate space that presents contemporary puppetry and multimedia performances in the domestic interiors of the abandoned house Morris renovated to become CMAP’s performance space.

Through support from the Knight Foundation, the Living Room series kicked off last fall, and this year will present Morris’s Firefighter Project/Ten Lands, a project entirely conceived and directed by Morris that has been years in the making. For this project she interviewed Detroit City firefighters and uses Japanese Bunraku-style puppets, a style of puppet that allows for more delicate and refined movements, to physically narrate some of their experiences and journeys.

“Our firefighters do so much and we don’t talk about them,” she says. “The size of the city hasn’t changed but the number of firefighters has gone down 60 percent.” This performance explores the experiences of being a firefighter in a city under impossible circumstances.

“One of the things I really love about Detroit is people’s willingness to talk to each other,” Morris says. “There is a connectedness here I don’t see in other cities. The generosity of their time and sharing their stories with me – it’s generous and it’s an act of sharing. People are very interested and they actually show up to performance. That support has been so, so special.”

The Knight Foundation has also funded the Outdoor Puppet Spectacle project, involving three large-scale puppet performances over the next 18 months. Morris is looking to local and Midwestern puppet builders, as well as national and international artists, to collaborate, including Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theatre and South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company (widely known for their work in War Horse). These spectacles will be staged in three different neighborhoods in Detroit: Banglatown, Brightmoor/Old Redford, and Southwest Detroit, the latter of which Morris envisions as a large-scale Day of the Dead spectacle.

Being located in Banglatown, so christened for its large population of Southeast Asian and Bengali immigrant families, Morris also works on shows that are accessible in any language. She worked with the Bangla School of Music to translate traditional Bengali songs for an all-ages image-based production called O, Motherland!, which was part of Carpenter Exchange’s free Outdoor Summer Series. They sang songs in Bengali accompanied by shadow narratives with similar themes in English that everyone could access.

Morris is also looking forward to assisting the puppets on an upcoming piece by local artist Gabby Bookay, a shadow show based on the life of heavy metal musician and horror/occult/punk icon Glenn Danzig (who is also known to have a sense of humor). This will be included as part of a future Performance Laboratory show that will, we can hope, be called O, Mother! 

Reflecting back on her work and her own creative journey, Morris says, “When I think about what CMAP is becoming and this journey my creative work has been on – overseeing these performances, collaborating with other groups to put a physical space on some of the journeys they’re going through, like the firefighters – I feel really lucky and proud that we have such great community support, both supporting and being supported by those artists.”