More than 20 faces stare up at Aaron Cromie, each frozen into an exaggerated, often grotesque expression. One registers surprise, another dismay, still others confusion, elation or outrage. Someday in the near future, this mute rabble will convey those emotions to an audience; for now, they’re simply a menagerie of masks concocted at Cromie’s imaginative fancy.
Barefoot and bearded, with thick-rimmed glasses and hair shooting up into three points like an unruly crown, the 40-year-old theater artist is animated enough to match his small army of false faces. “For the person performing in it, the mask is who they are,” Cromie says, chatting in a 17th-floor classroom at University of the Arts while sanding another papier-mâché face.
“It’s their skin. It motivates all of the physical life of a character. You don’t want to get the sense that there’s a person under that mask, you want to get the sense that the mask is that person.”
In the years since he arrived in Philly in 1995, Cromie has transformed himself and others into countless whimsical personae: the Russian witch and tormented villagers of The Foocy, the glaring, fanged beast of Carlo Gozzi’s The Blue Monster, a mob of towering grotesques for Roald Dahl’s The BFG. Next Thursday, as part of the biennial Puppet Festival (r)Evolution in Swarthmore, he’ll teach a workshop called “Creating Character Through Multiple Masks” using the glowering creations currently massed on the table in front of him.
The tradition of telling stories with masks dates back, Cromie shrugs, “to campfires and cavemen, I guess. Every single culture has their own trajectory toward the different dramatic figures, comedic figures, trickster figures. Each culture has found its own way to masks and to puppets as avatars for their own creativity and expression and traditions of storytelling or just expressing their belief systems.”
Cromie came to masks and puppets via a circuitous route, beginning as a music major at the College of New Jersey, where “my interaction with objects was very formal. I played the trumpet and the trombone, so I was learning how to literally manipulate an object to artistically express oneself.”
He came to Philly as an acting apprentice at the Walnut Street Theatre before working at the Lantern and Arden theaters. But as with so many local puppet makers, it was through the late, lamented Mum Puppettheatre and its founder, Robert Smythe, that he discovered his passion. “I consider Robert a grandfather of puppetry in this town,” Cromie says. “That will make him groan, but I learned things from him that I’ve brought into my own art, and now I’m starting to teach my own students who are going out into the world themselves.”
It's that sort of connection and continuity that Smythe hopes to foster by bringing Puppet Festival (r)Evolution to Swarthmore College, where hundreds of artists from across the country will converge beginning Monday for six days of performances, workshops, community events and old-fashioned networking on and off campus (see sidebar on the following page for festival information and highlights). The festival is sponsored by the Puppeteers of America, which was founded in 1937 to bolster puppets’ rep as a legitimate art form.
During Mum’s 23-year lifespan, Robert Smythe accomplished just that in Philadelphia. “By the time Mum closed, we had pretty much achieved my idea of our mission statement, which was to get puppets on every stage in Philadelphia,” Smythe says. “That’s a testament to two things: One, I rarely take no for an answer, but also that the world of theater is changing, and where puppets were once seen as this exotic, even creepy, thing that people didn’t understand, now puppetry is seen as a theatrical technique that enables things to happen onstage that couldn’t happen otherwise.”
Smythe recognizes that Mum was so synonymous with puppetry in this city that its closing meant for many that the art form was dead here. He argues against that misperception, pointing to artists like Cromie and Sebastienne Mundheim and to groups like Spiral Q and Berserker Residents as keepers of the flame. He hopes that the festival’s spotlight helps to open people’s minds.
“I would love it if people see these examples of what can happen with puppets and performance,” Smythe says, “and as artists start to rethink the possibilities of their own work, or as audience members start demanding that the work that they see on stage expand its horizons to include the other kinds of storytelling and forms that puppetry enables to happen.”
The wide variety of approaches that will be on display, Smythe says, will help broaden people’s perception of what puppetry means. As he points out, “Puppetry is breaking out of this idea that it’s only one thing. And depending on how old you are, that one thing is different things. For people who are really old, it’s Howdy Doody. For another generation, it’s Jim Henson. Now it could be Avenue Q or Being John Malkovich.”
Puppetry, he points out, has a long history in the city. “The first recorded performance of a European puppet show in North America took place in Philadelphia in 1742,” he rattles off. “More than likely in an inn on South Street.” And the inventiveness of puppetry in its various forms is a perfect fit for Philly’s theater community, which celebrates the nontraditional approaches of companies like Pig Iron and New Paradise Laboratories.
“Philadelphia is known around the country, if not the world, as being a place that develops new work in ways other than starting with a playwright,” Smythe says. “And puppetry goes hand in glove — or hand in puppet — with the ability to create work that is imagined in other ways than with words on a page.”
Cromie has studied commedia dell’arte, masks and puppetry, clowning, mime and physical theater in the States, Italy and Paris. But he gives equal credit to the inspiration of “a lot of walking down the aisles of Home Depot and Lowe’s looking for parts to make puppet things.” He is currently passing that creativity along to the next generation of artists at Drexel, where this fall he’ll work with students on a Japanese play about a love affair between Godzilla and a human girl, and as an adjunct associate professor of theater at UArts, where he will teach pre-college students about mask-making and performance through an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
At his festival workshop next week, Cromie will help actors find ways to communicate emotion and character through physical means while their faces are covered by masks: “Sometimes a mask can do one thing really well and that’s all it can do, and sometimes a mask has a whole number of expressions that can come out depending on who the performer is. This workshop will give them a chance to find different approaches to creating a physical character. Training in the mask allows the actor to make bigger, fuller, grander choices. Subtlety is on a grander scale.”
Earlier this year, Cromie directed an entirely unmasked, flesh-and-blood cast in the wrestling-themed American Sligo for New City Stage Company. He points to that show as one example of how his own career has flourished even in the absence of Mum. “I wish [Mum] was still here because I know that we’d be making other amazing pieces for people to come and see,” he says, “but ultimately things have to be born out of the ashes. I went from being a musician to being an actor to being a puppet maker and now I’m a director and a writer, so this world has allowed my imagination to go pretty crazy.”
Cromie has no plans to abandon masks and puppets for actors requiring manipulation by less physical means. At this year’s FringeArts festival, he’ll team with his partner in life and on stage, Mary Tuomanen, to explore the story of Joan of Arc in their new play Saint Joan, Betrayed, which involves both toy theater and mask work. They hope to eventually tour the piece to theaters and classrooms. “We always hear the grand, romantic story of Joan of Arc,” he explains, “but we’re also interested in hearing what the soldiers and the people around her were going through so that we can examine when the usefulness of a symbol runs out — and how people react to that.”
The masks arrayed at UArts immediately evoke ancient Greek theater, but Cromie argues that there is an advantage to such a classic form in our modern, high-tech age. “It’s always relevant when you put people in a room and they react to stuff,” he says. “In Greek times, the masks and machinery that they would use would blow people away. Conversely, we’re in this world where there’s so much technology — film, television and whatnot — where it’s easy to see things explode or have a totally wicked dragon flying around burning people up. But when you put people in a room with something tangible like this, there’s a chemical event that happens.”
He pauses, then adds, “It’s a different kind of food. It’s like walking outside and getting vitamins from the sun: You get a different kind of soul-filling vitamins from this kind of thing.”
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