Melinda Lopez, on the magic of puppetry: Puppet Showplace Theater Gala 2017

On Wednesday, June 7, 2017, the Puppet Showplace Theater hosted over 200 guests, performers, and volunteers at its annual fundraising Gala . This "Evening of Enchantment" featured puppetry performances, a live brass band, a silent auction, various displays of puppets large and small, and much more!

Below is the transcript of the keynote address delivered by the Gala's emcee, Melinda Lopez, preceded by opening remarks from Puppet Showplace Artistic Director, Roxie Myhrum. 

ROXIE MYHRUM:

Tonight, we are joined by one of the brightest lights in Boston’s theater scene: award-winning actress, playwright, and educator, Melinda Lopez.

Melinda is a Fellow and Playwright-in-Residence at the Huntington Theater Company, and her work has appeared on stages throughout New England and far beyond. If you think of Puppet Showplace as a candle in the Boston theater scene, Melinda comes from the world of the comets and the supernovas. So I feel really awesome that our evening of enchantment features a superstar emcee!

Personally, I am a huge fan of Melinda’s work.  As an audience member, I’ve watched her characters travel through time, build worlds and set them on fire, and negotiate with wise-cracking ghosts. Most recently, with her award-winning and critically acclaimed play Mala, she conjured the snowstorm of stories that surround a parent’s passing, and she guided a room full of strangers to find comfort and community in the face of death.

Melinda is also a leader in Boston’s Cuban-American community and a champion of humanitarian causes, both on and off the stage.  She gained unexpected notoriety in 2016, when President Obama shared her family’s story of revolution, refuge, and return in his speech to the Cuban people about the end of the embargo. All of us who work in Boston’s theater industry are inspired by her chutzpah, and our work is greatly enriched by her perspective.

I had the pleasure of meeting Melinda almost nine years ago, when she was commissioned by Underground Railway Theatre and the National Institutes of Health to write a play, From Orchids to Octopi, celebrating the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. I was her dramaturge, which is a fancy way of saying I did a lot of fact-checking. I also got to dress in a vest decorated with double-helixes and puppeteer a talking giraffe.

Not only did Melinda create a beautiful, thoughtful script that inspired the entire production team, but she also navigated the complexities that came with bringing artists, scientists, government funders, and, yes, puppeteers, together in the same place. I was very fortunate to have had Melinda as a creative mentor right before I started at Puppet Showplace, and I am so grateful to her for joining us tonight. Please welcome: Melinda Lopez.

MELINDA LOPEZ:

Thank you, Roxie, for inviting me to be part of Puppet Showplace Theater’s "Evening of Enchantment." I feel truly enchanted by the work that you all do.

I loved seeing so many puppeteers in action tonight. I especially enjoyed seeing the incredibly varied shadow puppetry performances done by Brad and his students.

  Harriet Tubman shadow puppet from  Are You Ready My Sister?  by Underground Railway Theater

Harriet Tubman shadow puppet from Are You Ready My Sister? by Underground Railway Theater

It reminded me of the brief but influential chapter in my own life when I worked as a shadow puppeteer. Now, I don’t talk about this very often, because, quite frankly, I wasn’t very good at it. I was an actor touring with Underground Railway Theater’s production Are you Ready, My Sister. Part of my job was to bring the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad to life with overhead-projector shadow puppetry. The intense precision of performing with puppets always stressed me out. A lot. What do you mean they can break? What if one goes missing? What if my hands are shaking or someone sees my arm? What if everyone is laughing at me on the other side of the screen!? Nevertheless, I practiced and practiced, and eventually things got better. I learned something really important about puppetry from that experience: puppetry meant that we humans weren’t alone up there on stage. We had light and shadow, and shapes and stars on our side. Puppetry made it possible for anything — anything — to happen.

A few years later, I wrote How Do You Spell Hope?, a play about literacy, which brought together the stories of a Cambridge high school athlete, a Latina immigrant, and Frederick Douglass, all struggling to learn to read. Now that puppetry had stretched my imagination, I felt a lot bolder as a playwright. In fact, on the very first page, as a character talked about what it was like to read fairy tales in her native Spanish: “Habia una vez, en un reno fantastico, todo era possible….” I bravely included the stage direction “As she reads, we see magical figures, dragons fly upward.”

Thanks to puppetry, we could transcend language. The audience would know that once upon a time, in a fantastical kingdom, anything was possible. I could show audiences how the simple act of reading was actually something magical.

  Young Frederick Douglass puppet from URT's   How Do You Spell Hope?

Young Frederick Douglass puppet from URT's  How Do You Spell Hope?

During that show, I also learned that puppets have an amazing ability to speak without talking. It often takes actors a really long time to learn how to do this. But puppets are born with this ability. I remember the first time I met the main puppet character — a young Frederick Douglass, who commanded a room even though he was only about three feet tall. I was so moved the first time I saw him come to life that it made me cry. After rehearsal, I went home and cut half of the lines I had written in that scene. The truth is that puppetry is often much more powerful than words. Puppets say so much just by existing on stage. They activate our imagination. They make us lean forward, pay attention, and care.

So why does this matter? Why do we care about what happens in the realm of the imagination? Don’t we have bigger things to worry about here in the real world?

In the realm of imagination, we are all citizens.
We all carry the same passport. We all speak the same language.
We all have a pet dragon who eats cupcakes and reads us bedtime stories.
In the realm of imagination, we can all spell HOPE.

So... how do we get there?

Step number one: we need to turn off our cell phones. Too often, we rely way too much on technology to do our creative work for us. We get lazy, and the muscles of our imagination get soft. The realm of the imagination is much bigger than a screen. You can’t see it in your friends’ Snap Chat, and it doesn’t show up in Google Maps. In order to get there, we need our eyes open, our hearts open, and our feelings awake.

Step two: ask a kid for directions. We are all born with the capacity for joy, wonder, and imagination. Sometimes, the grown-up world kicks dirt all over those flames. But kids still have that guiding light. To the kids here tonight...stand up! Look around! On behalf of all of the parents and grownups, I want to say thank you for giving us excuses to go see puppet shows with you. You show us how to play and let us exercise our imaginations. Sometimes it’s hard for us, and we may take a little extra time to figure out what’s going on, because your imaginations are much more powerful than ours. But, with your help, we can get there. The next time you go to a puppet show, remember that half of the people in the audience are grownups who need your help to find their way.

Step three: let a puppeteer be your guide. Puppeteers are among the hardest-working performing artists I have ever met. Not only do they write scripts and tell stories, but they also build sets, paint eyeballs, play music, and literally carry their shows on their backs from venue to venue. Why? Because they believe that every community center, every classroom, every cafe-gymnasa-torium should have a border-crossing to the realm of imagination. And when they unpack their stages, test their microphones, and bring these handmade, miniature worlds to life, they create a magic glowing portal that is just big enough to get everyone in the audience inside. 

Last, and most important: don’t leave anyone behind. One problem with the realm of imagination is that once we get there, it’s so awesome and magical that sometimes we forget to stop, look around, and see who’s missing. Does everyone there look just like you? Was there a ramp next to the staircase? Did the funding for imagination portals just get cut… and cut again… and again? In a realm where anything is possible, we have to remember that it’s in our power to break down barriers and build bridges so that everyone can find their way across the border.

We are here tonight because we all believe in the mission of Puppet Showplace Theater, and because we believe that puppetry and live theater and imagination should be accessible to all. Your gifts, your generosity, your time, your talents, your compassion, and your kindness all make this possible. You have taken care of Brad for the past eight years as he journeyed to Sherwood Forest, sailed across the ocean, and built kingdoms out of cardboard. We will do the same for Sarah, as she sets down roots in Boston and her art begins to bloom. And we will do this for thousands of kids each year who wake up penniless but who still get handed a golden ticket and are greeted like royalty when they get to Puppet Showplace and are welcomed inside.

Thank you for welcoming me into this strong and creative community — it has been an inspiring night. I know exactly where I’ll go the next time I need help from a dragon. Or a brush-up on overhead projector shadow puppetry. With you, I imagine a great future for Puppet Showplace Theater, and for the all the kids and grownups here who believe that anything is possible.

  Gala Emcee Melinda Lopez with Artistic Director Roxie Myhrum.