Jack Baumgartner and The School of Transfer of Energy Puppet Theater


This is part one of an interview with the American artist Jack Baumgartner, who as well as drawing, print-making, painting and wood-turning, has created what I hesitate to call a puppet theatre, because it clearly is a great deal more than that in terms of its importance to him.

The puppet theatre in 2011


Baumgartner’s theatre is an ongoing project connecting the artist to his spiritual world in a way that intensifies his experience in the process of creativity. There is an immaculate craftsmanship that reminds me of the joy-in-endeavour familiar from the design and carpentry of the Amish community. The artist gives performances rarely, and I suspect that for an onlooker privileged enough to see one (and I haven’t) the experience would be profoundly moving. Baumgartner is a multi-disciplined artist whose dreams coalesce in his miniature world created in the form of a puppet theatre. All images are courtesy of the artist.

A display of Baumgartner’s puppet theatre at The Wichita Center for the Arts in 2003

CH-J: What was your first experience of seeing puppets? Did you witness something as a child that stayed with you?

JB: I wouldn’t be able to point to a ‘defining experience’ I had as a child. There is of course, Jim Henson. But his work never made me want to be a puppet maker. Looking back I can see there are a lot of parts of my design, discovered as a child, that fit naturally with puppetry. One example that stands out at the moment, is a fascination with miniature worlds, or the world within a world. That scale-relationship of the small world to the big world is something I react to from the core of my being. A lot of what I made or desired and attempted to make as a child follow that pattern.

CH-J: Has there been any puppet theatre you made before this?

JB: In college, my friend, Annie Stone and I built a number of small theaters together. We always had the model of a table-top theater that could be taken into people’s homes. We liked that intimacy. We would sit facing one another on either side of the table. We didn’t consciously intend as much, but looking back I see our deliberate visual presence and movements were as much a part of the play as the puppets. I suppose that is part of the scale relationship I was talking about earlier, the large and the small.

The theaters started as decorated boot boxes with flat cut out paper scenes and flat paper rod puppets with specific movement limited to acting out a few motions to tell our stories, which were old American folk ballads of the cautionary tale variety. We kept paper as our primary medium, but gradually moved into three dimensional puppets and theaters built from paper, with some wooden props. Annie and I both made pretty meticulous and delicate work so everything was extremely fragile, and we were constantly making repairs. Eventually we had a little stage built from a strangely carved antique dish rack as a frame and proscenium, which we attached to a rickety old hall table we refurbished from a junk-market. It had been hand marked as a ‘primitive hall table’ but the ‘primitive’ looked to us like ‘Princeton’, so we became the Princeton Hall Paper Theater. We had a play called The Strange Visitor that combined shadow puppetry, marionettes and even some automata. There were a lot of complex problems to solve, and our adaption of the story tended to make them even more difficult. One puppet had to enter the scene in parts: feet, legs, thighs and so on. Another puppet had a small shadow theater built into its side that would open at the end. It was tiny, only a few inches, but it was amazing how people could see it from a good distance. There was also a fireplace which became a small shadow screen. The Princeton Hall Paper Theater and The Strange Visitor had a lot of elements that became important parts of my current theater and play. Collaborating with Annie is when I really understood puppetry to be a valuable part of my work and calling, so to speak.

I had a few experiments with larger scale carved marionettes telling the story of Jonah after I left school, which I abandoned in order to start building the theater I have now.

CH-J: It’s intriguing to see a rod-puppet stage of this construction. The more usual form is a high play-board that the puppets appear above, while the puppeteers can move about freely below it, shielded from audience sight. But your theatre has a solid stage, and the rod-puppet of your character John Beartrist Laceroot is operated via mechanisms below it.

John Beartrist Laceroot in his rocking-chair

CH-J: Though I’ve seen quite quirky historic puppet theatres that have operating systems along these lines, it’s a really unusual form, requiring a lot of ingenuity. Some of those had been mechanised, and so perhaps should more properly be considered automata.

JB: I have never given much thought to concealment, unless the puppeteer becomes a visual distraction within a scene. Indeed, my original thought was to build a mechanized theater. I was alone so I had to give a lot of consideration to that fact when I built the scenes and puppets and the play itself. My grandad was a mechanical guru and I inherited some of his contraption building compulsions. I built a lot of mechanical devices for some of Annie’s and my plays. I was commissioned as well by one of my professors to build working models of a series of carts he had designed with automated scenes and characters, driven by the wheels of the carts as they were pulled. He was going to pull all these carts with his ‘Guignol Mobile’, which he had built before. So mechanical puppets (automata) seemed natural. I initially imagined a series of human powered automated dioramas or scenes comprising the play. There was a great deal of hardcore trial and error and many of my efforts at fully mechanized puppets were frustrated.

Red-Headed Woodpecker

JB: The system I ended up using consists of a removable floor insert settled into an opening in the main stage floor, which is the top of the table. In this way the scenes and characters and their mechanics could be housed-in or adapted-to the floor inserts and interchanged at need. The mechanical controls and rods are accessible from the sides of the theatre, housed in an eight inch gap between the top and lower levels of the table. There is a hole cut in the lower level to allow for longer controls or bulky mechanisms.

The shadow theater portion works from a similar concept. Each scene is built into its own removable frame. The concept for both systems of the theater rely partially on direct manipulation and partially on mechanics.


JB: I find myself constantly rebuilding and refining the parts, trying to achieve better and more efficient movement – or a stronger and more unified design. It is gold when I can figure out how to make a puppet do more, fluidly with one rod or lever than I could manage previously with two or three. Even so, what was meant to be a one man theater became complicated enough to need an assistant to be able to perform.

CH-J: How do you see what you’re doing when operating the puppet? Are you watching it from above, looking down at it while your hands are busy beneath the stage with the controls? And does this mean that you’re working controls that are unseen by you, operating them only by touch? Sorry if these questions seems strange, but it’s interesting to know what experience you have as the puppeteer.

JB: I stand at the right side of the theater (from the perspective of the audience) when I am operating the rod puppets and my assistant stands opposite. I use concealed convex mirrors to help me see certain things and I peak in from the side. I can sneak a glance down at my hands if I need too, or to make sure I hit the right light switch if my assistant needs help. The shadow screen is much easier to see the action as I am performing it from directly behind. It is a bit of a juggling act to be able to pull it off – and even more so because I get pretty nervous in front of an audience. That might be why I only perform a group of shows every few years. I really have to work up to it.

Under-stage mechanics of the theatre

JB: Add to that interim between performances that I am constantly rebuilding aspects of the theater and adding onto the story. In truth, I feel a lot less of a performer than I do a builder – but that gets to your next question I think.

Prototype puppet of Tremendum Goldbeard: cedar wood and copper

CH-J: From what I can see, the puppet is probably quite rooted to the spot, which suggests a type of performance that’s not so much kinetic, as meditative. What led you down this route? I can see that the artistry of the creation is staggering, but something else beyond the desire to make must underlie this. Can you explain? Looking at the theatre in the photographs, what strikes me is that it’s not like the glove-puppet theatre made by the artist Paul Klee for his son Felix to play with. What I see in the photographs is not a plaything for a child. It’s unique, meticulously wrought, rooted in the traditions of folk-art with an almost shamanic intensity. I’m completely bowled over by your creation, and that’s without the power of the performer to animate it.

JB: Thank you, first of all. I still am amazed that people even like it. To speak the very first part of your question: the puppet is absolutely pinned to the floor. So when he needs to move there is a crank devise that rotates and lifts and moves his legs as if he is walking. My assistant slides the props and scenes by as he his walking to give the illusion of horizontal travel. There is also a rotating shadow projector that projects a moving shadow scene behind him as he walks.

Walking man in the trees

JB: To the rest of your question: The intertwinedness of myself with the play and theater built for each other is maybe at the heart of your question. The story, which is my spiritual journey, I am compelled to tell one way or another. It is a slow process, because I have to live the show before I can build it or perform it. There is a lot of waiting for the right time, or for an idea to to released. It’s a life’s work that I believe I will be working on and growing with until my time is done. That there is also so much meticulous labor involved in the various aspects of construction, retooling and performing, which does not feel like a spiritual encounter with God, is a sign for me.

A whale carved from Ash wood

JB: The struggle of John Beartrist Laceroot, is to see the unseen and to know God – to delve into the mysteries of what he has been given. The whole experience of the play and the theater, let alone the story is about this. That is one of the reasons I like the interplay between the physical world of the carved puppets and the spiritual world of the shadow screen, and that ultimately the veil is removed and it’s understood that what we have seen as separated, is not separated. I wish I could articulate this better. But it is about the struggle to communicate ideas that are not always compatible with verbal language, for me at least. I can try to make words work for me but it takes a huge amount of energy to do so, and I am always left with the feeling that I didn’t really say what I intended to say.

An early Baumgartner puppet in the form of a ventriloquist’s dummy

JB: When I perform this play I don’t have that feeling. It is usually always riddled with fragility, errors and mistakes, but thanks to a great friend of mine, I have learned that the performance’s fragility, teetering on the edge of failure, and indeed even the failures themselves, are a great portion of the beauty of the piece. My humanity and spirituality on display together, on many different scales and levels. And the intimacy is always astounding. When I was younger I had the dream of traveling the country with my banjo and trading songs in exchange for people’s stories. I would play a song if they would share a story with me. The theater works that way on a profound level. I even get to play my banjo, and people invariably line up to tell me stories from their deepest places. It is remarkable and a rich blessing for me.

John Beartrist Laceroot’s living-room

Jack Baumgartner cutting shadow-scenes

There will be a second part to this interview.


14 thoughts on “Jack Baumgartner and The School of Transfer of Energy Puppet Theater

  1. Reading this interview Pt.1 has been on my ‘to do’ list for some time. I’m glad to gain more of an understanding of the intricacies involved with ‘powering’ this performance and the insights from J.B. about his multilayered or multi dimensional artistic process. Beautiful work and a wonderfully sensitive inquiry.

  2. Pingback: Jack Baumgartner and The School of the Transfer of Energy Puppet Theater: part II | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  3. Pingback: Landscape Hewn and Tender | The School of the Transfer of Energy

  4. oh, this really makes me think of shamanism. and what a wondrous way to join people together and pull out their stories! this is really amazing, amazing…thank you clive, for this discovery!!

  5. What an inspiring interview and artist. It pleased me to hear that Jack does not give many performances with his puppets and stage, as I most likely will not give many performances with mine either. To me, art is a very personal experience and some of my artwork will not be seen by many people. What is most important, is how art connects you to your spiritual life.

  6. The man is a mystic. Hildegard of Bingen depicted the eternal mysteries through music, and Baumgarten does the same through bits of wood. I envy those few privileged to witness his magical rites. I hope he does indeed take to heart that the delicate “frailties ” of his work capture the fragility of the ‘string’ that attaches us all to this strange plane. I look forward to the next interview.

    And btw, I confess I am pleased he is an American. I spend so much time admiring the Brits it is refreshing to find a countryman with such a rich and ancient soul.

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