In the middle of a home in Algiers, is a puppet theater. Yes, puppets.
Toys from all over the world line the walls a shotgun home in the 600 block of Vallette Street. But to puppeteer Karen Konnerth, they’re more than toys. They connect people to other worlds and help them learn about things they’ve never seen.
She talked to us about her craft:
How long have you been doing puppetry?
“About 35, 40 years.”
How’d you get into it?
“I was very shy growing up, I never thought I’d be doing anything like this. I always loved stories and I loved working with my hands, making art. And music as well. Puppetry incorporates all of that. I really just kind of fell into it.
I ended up in a program where I was exposing to mime, and I really loved that. I think it was because it was storytelling without words. That led me into it. I was making soft sculpture and I started making puppets to sell, and then I started doing shows with them. I only did original stories for a while. Then I started finding opportunities to work in school, and I started working with a lot of folklore, and that was something teachers could connect to and build into the curriculum. Now I teach arts integration, so when I’m working in a school, I use arts integration. So they could be making puppets but they’re learning about a social studies curriculum, or language arts or something like that. It’s an alternate way that’s really engaging to the kids to learn about.”
In this room, I see a lot of different puppets and cultures represented.
“I just think travel is so important to learn about other cultures. And to see that teachers worldwide want to see the same thing for their students; they want the best for them. I think it’s really important to in every country there’s excellent in many different ways. And I’m influenced by all the different. I’ve just come back from the Czech Republic and I was really influenced there and I didn’t expect to be. What I especially loved was their style of performance.
They just have a small stage, so the puppeteers are very apparent. But their focus is totally on the puppet, so they’re not making eye contact with the audience at all. They might even stick their head into the little theater and talk to the puppet! So it’s very free, it’s OK if their hands show or the puppets controls show, it’s a very free kind of style. They go out and interact with the audience too, but it’s always through the puppet. My shows always have some type of interaction, it’s a way to carry a step further. I’m very excited to be focusing on this and that’s the show I’m building right now.”
What do you think your studio brings to the city?
“There is not a whole lot of puppetry here. There are some who do more shows for adults, but my focus is for children and families, generally. I think it brings something unique to the city. It’s nice having a small venue too, I think, because then children can be really close to it. It’s nice if they go see ‘Sesame Street Live’, or something like that, but that’s really far away on a great big stage. It’s really a powerful experience to understand the art form and really get impacted by it to be close to it. They get to touch the puppets afterward. It brings an awareness of an art form that’s ancient and still very vibrant today.”
What’s next for Calliope Puppets?
“The Czech marionette show! I’m totally in love with it. You get to build your own little world. The way I worked before was with a black curtain, so I’m standing and I can see through the curtain and I just hold the puppets out front. Here, I can see through the curtain but I can’t have scenery or anything, so I love this because I can build this whole little world, and I can change scenes with different furniture, it’s all very magical.”