Storytelling Through Visual Arts: An Interview with Spica Wobbe (MA ’03), Puppetry Artist

Spica Wobbe (Shu-yun Cheng), (MA ’03), a puppetry artist who hails from Taiwan, earned a master’s degree in educational theatre in 2003.  In 2011, she founded the Double Image Theater Lab, a home for cross-cultural productions that explores the world of the past (and the present) though objects, light manipulation, music, dance, and poetry.  Last year she taught puppetry to patients with cancer and chronic illnesses at the Creative Center on the Lower East Side.  This year, with her teaching partner Karen Oughtred, Wobbe created The Memory Project, which offers storytelling through visual arts at culturally diverse senior centers in Manhattan.

Wobbe has been a collaborator with Steinhardt faculty member Nancy Smithner on ten educational theatre productions including A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2004), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2009), and The Tempest (2017).

Spica Wobbe teaching puppetry to chronically ill patients at the Creative Center at University Settlement.

 Your students make puppets and use them to tell stories.  How are both acts therapeutic?

Puppetry art has two parts—making and playing. Both are great tools of empowerment. Both involve creativity and imagination which we all born with. That’s why it attracts everyone from the very young to the very old.

Making puppets is very therapeutic because creators are able to make all the decisions that involve “giving life.” For example, what eye color can bring out the personality of the puppet’s character? Or what shape of the mouth can express the feeling the character has?  At the same time, there is a lot of problem solving as well. For example, how to create a joint that can allow the character to move smoothly…or simply figuring out what kind of glue is best for the material that the puppet is constructed from. All of these decisions allow the maker to be in control of the situation, and this is a great way to build confidence, too.

What stories do your students tell with their puppets?

Using a puppet as a medium to tell a story is extremely powerful because the puppeteer and the audience both have to use their imagination to bring the puppet to life. The imagination is like an invisible string that is held by both the player and the viewer. It also provides a safe and non-threatening environment as well.

Our students in “The Memory Project” share their memories with us though the art work they created in the workshop, including shadow puppets, pop-up book, stop motion animation, hand puppets and tabletop puppets. The stories are about their memories from their childhood to their life nowadays.  It can also be about an unforgettable celebration, a childhood game, or something new that changed their life.

“Scrolling through Life,” a workshop with seniors.

What is the best part of your job?

I love making puppets and using puppets to share stories. To be able to share my passion with others and show them what I know so they can use puppetry art in their own way is a tremendous privilege.  So, I will say the best part of my job is I am able to do what I love and love what I do.

Do you make your own puppets? 

Yes, I make my own puppets, and usually I will start with research to find some references for the design.  If the puppet is for another person’s production, these references will become a very good tool for communicating with the director and the designers.

Puppets created by students in Spica Wobbe’s class at the Creative Center.

During the design stage, I have to make decisions about the look of the puppet and also the style of the puppet. For example, a Bunraku style puppet needs 2~3 people to bring the puppet to life on a tabletop set. On the other hand, one puppeteer could manipulate two hand puppets at the same time behind some sort of curtain or set.  All of these elements could affect the look and structure of the puppet

After the style and the look of the puppet are decided upon, I will look for the right material to make it with. I love using recycled material, especially newspaper and cardboard. The texture and the look of recycled paper is intriguing and attractive to me and it’s also a choice that is helping to save the earth.

Do you have a favorite puppet?  

In recent years, I have worked mostly with shadow theater, and paper is the best material for that, not just for the puppets but also for the screen as well. I love shadow theater because it’s poetic and magical. One very interesting thing about shadow theater is that a shadow puppet is not completed until it’s shown in the light. By changing the distance or the angle of the puppet, the size and the look of the shadow will change as well.

Spica Wobbe in her solo shadow show, “Hand in Hand.” (Photo credit:  John Wobbe)

You are a visual artist, and yet you earned your degree at NYU Steinhardt’s program in education theatre.  Can you talk about why you decided to pursue that degree?

I moved to New York from Taiwan when I got married in 2001.  Since it was a brand-new environment for me, I thought that going to a school might be a good way to start a life in a new city.  After a long discussion with my husband, I decided to attend NYU Steinhart‘s program in Educational Theater. My idea was that since I knew no one in the field, going to a local school would give me a better way to build a connection with future collaborators. The other important reason was, besides being a puppetry artist, I was also very interested in teaching. Educational Theater at NYU was the perfect program for me to enrich my teaching skills and learn the about American education system as well.