Create new worlds with Chamindika Wanduragala

Chamindika Wanduragala can turn paper bags into papier-mache. She can sew cloth into creatures. She stirs ingredients into food for family and peers, and she has converted many rookies into full-fledged puppet artists. Her appetite for transformation — for iteration — has shaped her life and others’, creating community out of curiosity.

Wanduragala is the founder and artistic director of Monkeybear’s Harmolodic Workshop, a nonprofit puppet hub she created for Native, Black, Indigenous, and POC artists. “In the beginning,” Wanduragala says, “I was just emailing people, like, ‘Do you have any friends that might be into doing a puppetry intensive? It’ll be free. Each day, you learn to perform a different style of puppet, and it’s a week-long thing. Free dinner, too.’” Nowadays, participants also receive a couple-thousand-dollar stipend; mentorship hours; a sound design budget; and free studio access. All they have to do is sign up.

Maybe it’s ironic that a puppet artist runs her nonprofit with so few strings attached. But enough demands already yank at Native, Black, Indigenous, and POC artists, and Wanduragala is happy to make this one thing easy. Working out of Monkeybear’s small Lyn-Lake studio, she offers access and mentorship to a growing group.

Wanduragala was born in Sri Lanka, then moved to Illinois at age six. As a teen, she moved to Minnesota and attended Roseville High School. After starting ceramics at 15 years old, she thought she was going to be a potter. “But then I went to the U of M,” she says, “and I hated the art department. “[The professors were] just a bunch of old white men … I stopped doing ceramics, because I just didn’t want to be there.”

Still, her curiosity led her to other media: oil pastels, music curation, and stop motion. In 1996, she saw a puppet show at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. “It was the Walker’s Out There series, and they brought all these New York City puppeteers here,” Wanduragala says. “They were such amazing performers … I believed the characters were alive. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I definitely want to try this out sometime.’”

“But I mean, the puppetry community is so white here,” Wanduragala continues. Many cultures have rich puppetmaking traditions, from Mayan títeres to Vietnamese mua roi nuoc, so the Twin Cities scene’s overwhelming whiteness didn’t make sense. “[But] what I realized later is that people learn informally,” she says. “A friend asks a friend to be in their piece. But because the puppetry community was so white, the people they were asking are their white friends. So it just continues to stay very white.”

Twenty years after the Out There show, Wanduragala decided it was time to make a space for Native, Black, Indigenous, and POC puppet artists. Instead of exploring puppetry alone, she started Monkeybear’s Harmolodic Workshop, crowdfunding money to hire and fly in Andrew Kim. Kim, a puppet artist who helped produce South Minneapolis’s MayDay Parade in the ‘90s, taught Wanduragala and approximately 20 other artists in the first workshop.

Since 2016, Monkeybear has hosted many programs. The Summer Puppet Performance Intensive is a week-long introduction to the many forms of puppetry: shadow puppets, tabletop puppets, and so on. Anyone who takes that workshop can join the New Puppetworks program, which lasts six months and supports artists as they create their own puppet show.

“It’s so magical to make the puppet come to life,” says Oanh Vu, who has participated in the Summer Puppet Performance Intensive and the New Puppetworks program. “The way that Andrew Kim runs the [intensive] is very much about experimentation and play, because puppetry is different from other art forms … You’re like, ‘Ok, make the character come to life.’ And everyone’s making goofy sounds. When you’re all playing and improvising like that, it helps you come to the medium in a less scary way.”

Vu started at Monkeybear as a filmmaker, and since then, she has transitioned to a career in puppetry. “I really liked it,” she says, “because it allows you to tell things in a more fantastical way … versus the reality of film. I mean, you can do things with special effects, but I don’t love sitting on the computer a ton. It was so nice to sit down with paper and cut things out.”

That grounding in physical space deepens during shared meals, which Wanduragala cooks or provides for nearly every Monkeybear meeting. “Any time anything lasts longer than one hour, I’ll either cook or get food,” she says, laughing.

“When you start working with folks, you have to be very vulnerable to share your work,” Vu says. “That time to eat and socialize … really helped with the process. It was really sweet to have this close, tight-knit community.”

Wanduragala will do nearly anything to make Monkeybear go: cooking, grantwriting, and beyond. But early on, she discovered she doesn’t enjoy performing. Instead, she prefers directing shows. “My favorite part about puppetry is watching it come to life,” she says. “As a director, I make the piece, and I get to watch it all happen.”

Lately, Wanduragala has been exploring sound design and modular synths, inspired by a documentary about the Stranger Things soundtrack. “They were talking about the sound they made for the demogorgon, like, ‘We used this analog step sequencer,’” she says. “And I was like, ‘What is an analog step sequencer? I need it!’”

Her interest in audio doesn’t stop at sound design. Using the name DJ Chamun, she occasionally spins at arts events, throwing on Blood Orange, reggae, and whatever else she might reach for in the moment. She’s also exploring music theory on YouTube. “This one guy was really good at teaching,” she says. “So I watched all his videos, and now I understand how to make chords.”

“I’m always trying out a different thing every few years — like with stop motion or modular synths,” Wanduragala says. “And I’ve talked to lots of artists [who] wonder if they should try out this new path that they’re interested in, or if they should just focus on one thing. And I feel like it’s always good to explore whatever you’re interested in. It all comes back around.”

Chamindika DJing Springboard’s groundbreaking party, by Anna Min of Min Enterprises Photography LLC

Vu describes Wanduragala as an encouraging, empowering mentor. “Chamindika has been in the art community for a really long time,” she says. “She’s seen the history of arts organizing in the Twin Cities, when all the big institutions were getting all the arts funding, and organizations of color were not … She’s very intentional about creating a space that’s only for folks of color.”

In fact, Wanduragala has seen Monkeybear foster the relational, informal skill development she noticed among white puppet artists years ago. “Everybody helps each other out, and a lot of them are in each other’s pieces,” she says. “And when they get an opportunity, they always hire another Monkeybear artist to be in it.”

“I think Chamindika has created a lot of puppeteers through the program, because the model works so well,” Vu says.

“I just wish everyone would just copy our programming,” Wanduragala admits. “Because [puppetry] is very white everywhere in the United States, not just Minnesota. Creating that access — the entry point into it — is really important.”

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