Jack Baumgartner and The School of the Transfer of Energy Puppet Theater: part II

This is the second part of an interview with American artist and creator of The School of the Transfer of Energy Puppet Theater, Jack Baumgartner. All images courtesy of the artist. You can read part 1 HERE.


Below: Jack Baumgartner behind the shadow-screen of his puppet theatre during a performance.

CH-J: Unless I’ve misunderstood, it seems to me that you have a one-play-repertoire: The Two Deaths of John Beartrist Laceroot. Is this how it’s been since you began making and then performing with the theatre? A single evolving play? I see that there’s a ‘part one’ titled Transmigration. This implies either an existing part two, or an intention to make one. Do you have an over-plan, or does this evolve as the spirit moves you?

JB: You understand correctly, Clive. The theater was built in conjunction with the writing of the play, and the concepts essentially evolved together, responding to one another. Throughout most of the disciplines I am engaged in, I have been a very intuitive worker. The plans are usually just skeletons, with more than a few missing bones, before I engage the actual work of making. The making, then, is a vital part of discovery and interaction where the work develops and matures. I don’t think I could muster up the heart of what I am communicating and establishing without being involved in a “call and response” process with the ideas and materials and the deep spirit of the whole affair.


JB: There has never been another play, though I have considered adapting the theater to other projects. There is an older song called The Golden Willow Tree with a haunting refrain about the “lonesome lowlands…the land so low”, about a carpenter boy who saves his out-matched ship and crew by swimming to the more powerful enemies’ boat with a mysterious tool that can bore nine holes all at once, and sinking it. When he swims back, the captain, who promised him his daughter’s hand before he undertook the mission, will not take him back on board, betraying him. So rather than revenging himself he swims to the bottom of the sea. I always thought it would make a striking show, and have retained a keen desire to make it into one.

I also cannot escape the pervasive story of Jonah. It has always been in my heart to make a play about God and Jonah and the beasts of appointment. As I live my life in preparation for continuing the story of John Beartrist Laceroot, I can sometimes see the possibility of aspects of both of these undeveloped stories (Jonah and the Golden Willow Tree) finding a meadow of expression in John’s saga.


Baumgartner operating a rod-puppet of John Beartrist Laceroot. The likeness between the puppeteer and the character is remarkable.

JB: So yes, there will ultimately be two parts to the play, which was anticipated from the beginning. There are some characters and a many rough concepts, but mostly I am still waiting for it to fully develop. It took about 25 or so years of living that ultimately flowed together into “part one”. I may have to build up that much living to grow part 2 as well (part one was initially developed about 13 years ago). I am anxious to start, and I have a lot of ideas written down, but I know it is not time yet.


Doppelgängers: two versions of John Beartrist Laceroot

JB: I start with a basic framework or concept, as I mentioned, but it evolves considerably as I engage in the working process. My intuition fills in the framework in response to the Spirit. -This theater began with a few drawings in my sketchbook (remind me and I will send them). In writing and building the Two Deaths of John Beartrist Laceroot this was very much the case. I especially enjoy the plane of problem solving where puppetry happens- wrestling away at how to communicate within a certain space and within certain fantastic parameters. It is important enough that I would say it is a part of my destiny to do it. Yet, even within the boundaries of puppetry, the playing field still feels eternal as I look across it. I have built a little arc that sits upon the plane, a sacred tent to work out my relationship to the Vastness. A little framework of communication built into a specific theater is good instead of having to react to a more “generic” space of a standard puppet theater, not that I have really ever seen one.

And, yes, the process is still ongoing, as I am continually rebuilding and retooling the theater to tell the story more completely. The story as it has been written so far does not change very much; mostly what I am editing is the technology of the story telling- and there is much to do. It is always disconcerting to me, working on this interview with you, Clive, because the work still feels so unfinished. I feel a little unnerved, like I should still be hiding with this thing, until it is ready.


CH-J: Tell me a little more about the character of John Beartrist Laceroot. I see your likeness in him… I guess it’s that rangy figure coupled with the beard… and you’ve mentioned that the story presented is a version of your own life-journey and seeking-after-truth. Can you explain which came first in the process, the idea that you’d make a puppet theatre in which some kind of story would be told, or the imperative to tell your story through the medium of puppetry? The created character suggests that as an artist you’re standing outside yourself watching an unfolding narrative.


JB: There is certainly a similarity there, between him and me. I can’t seem to help turning all my work into a degree of self-portraiture. It is true of most art and artists I would venture. There is always a discernment of the individual behind the story. In this case it is obviously a bit more direct. I am introspective by nature and my work has always been an exploration of myself in relationship to God- the inward journey if you will, and the outward one as well; me in the vast plane of the eternal present.   At any rate, it is the story I know best and the least, which is maybe why I have to work on it so much.



JB: John Beartrist Laceroot’s name is a bit of wordplay with the names of John the Baptist and Lancelot. Maybe I wanted him to embody some of those fellows’ traits and passions. I would say that my favorite Lancelot is T.H. White’s brilliant depiction of a greathearted man on an entropic purity quest. There is only one version of John the Baptist: a man chosen for and driven to the wilderness by his God-given nature, yet called to proclaim a standard and make a way, and ultimately to “behold the Lamb of God.” Then he would get his head cut off; another self-destructive purity quest.


JB: What came first was the desire to build a theater. I initially started wanting to build a half automata-half puppet theater of very simple animated scenes. For some reason the first scene that came to me was a deathbed scene. At any rate I did begin building the theater first, but I began writing soon into that process. I sat down to write every day and I witnessed a lot of disparate experiences, ideas and work, which I had created over the years, fold together into this story. It was exiting to see lonely parts of my vision over the years suddenly have a place. It is hard for me to say if the story is really that good at all, but it functions with the theater well enough to have some fairly deep effects upon certain people. And it means a lot to me of course.

So once I saw the story itself taking shape the Theater had a weight behind it that I could not ignore. So I have been engaged in the great struggle ever since. I really do believe that all of my work is connected by a thread or cord, beyond the common hands that do the work- so that I am really always working on something, even when I am not. Just as there is a vast underground root system to the garden, which is unseen, though not invisible, always growing and developing. Further still, if you consider Biodynamics as an example, there is also a vast unseen and invisible spiritual system extending even further and even more mysterious. But that is another conversation.


Everything for the performance meticulously ordered and labelled. These are unusual rod-puppets, operated through an elaborate arrangement of slots in a solid stage.

CH-J: How does the John Laceroot story unfold? Is there a spoken text, and if so do you speak it, or is it shared between you and your assistant? And if there is a text, is it given by a narrator ventriloquising the characters, as in a storytelling, or is it told directly by John Laceroot, performed by you? (These questions must seem obvious, but not having seen the performance, I’m trying to get a picture of how it works.)


JB: The story is not unlike many stories told before. John is essentially a simple man, who has had some remarkable experiences that he cannot explain. He is convinced that he has received some very meaningful and sacred messages through his experiences, but all he has to show are two blank scrolls or banners. He sets out on a pilgrimage to discover what he has received. He starts by binding one banner into a book, and then he decides to eat the second one. Things begin to happen as giant chimeric wolf appears and sets John off on his quest.


JB: There is a lot of spoken text, all voiced by me as I am working with the puppets. There is the narrator marionette, with his side stage. He sets the story in motion and speaks during some of the transitions between scenes. John has dialog until he loses his voice and there are other puppets with different voices and sound effects. It is a lot to keep going during the performance. And I feel pretty naked while I am doing all of it. If I had a permanent assistant I would like to turn some of that over, but for now it is just me.


CH-J: Do you use music, live or recorded? I believe you play the banjo. Does that play a part? Music is often an integral part of puppet shows, and finding or creating the right material can make or break the atmosphere. Richard Teschner was aware that the wrong accompaniment might destroy the dream-like character of his puppet-stage and performers, and  settled on a music-box for the ghostly accompaniment to his productions. I think that table-top puppetry is particularly sensitive to the scale of its accompaniment, especially when there is a delicacy of construction. The rough and tumble of a noisy Punch & Judy show in front of a lively audience can take the liveliness of a squeezebox and drum, whereas for the Pollock’s toy theatre performances I gave as a child, I used a wind-up gramophone. The images of your theatre and puppets suggest the folk-art idiom, and I wonder whether you turn to an equivalent in music as their accompaniment.


JB: There has always been live music with each performance that I have done. The banjo is the main musical voice of the play. After that I try to have a violinist on hand, to accompany the banjo and offer some sound effects at certain moments. I’ve been fortunate to have friends or acquaintances that can supply this for me. The banjo I play myself. I’ve added accordion a few times as well, usually when I can’t find a violin, and I don’t trust my own violin playing to not drive off my audience, so I use the accordion.

There is some specific music that I have written, namely a theme for John. The opening moments begin with a short monologue spoken in the dark and then John’s theme is played on the banjo. It is really like an opening prayer that establishes the atmosphere for the performance.


CH-J: What duration is your performance? I’ve generally found with ‘table-top’ theatre that the concentration of the audience can wear thin if the performance is overly long. (Though it’s a fact that in some traditions of puppet theatre, such as the Javanese shadow plays, the performances can go on for days!)


JB: This one lasts about an hour, maybe forty-five minutes. I have really worked to make the transitions flow well, which can be extremely difficult to do, moving so many pieces of scenery and props and puppets around in the dark, with just the faint glow of a little red light I have mounted between the two levels of the table.

Having another musician beside myself really helps with these transition periods. That being said, intervals of darkness and silence can be quite powerful in their own right.


JB: The play seems to hold an audience well for that time frame, which usually includes a wide variety, from little children to the folk of greater years. I do believe that shifting between different puppet forms helps to break the monotony considerably. The shadow theater helps with this significantly.   It would be wearing, I think, on an audiences’ eyes to focus on the detailed rod puppets for so long a time, but the shadow theater which is so clear and graphic carries a great distance, so that even the furthest members of the audience have a sense of relief being able to participate in the story without a struggle.


CH-J: When you give a performance, who comes to see it? Is it your community of family and friends, or do you encourage audiences from further afield by advertising performances? And where are they given, in your home or a venue?


JB: Most of my performances have been in “art gallery” settings, as part of a larger gallery event, sometimes a show of my own work, or a group show. In these cases the demographic has been your regular gallery going folk. I have never done much in the way of publicizing it, other than it being part of standard gallery advertising.

A notable, and enjoyable exception for me was a performance in Colorado, in a tent in someone’s back yard. He was a clown, so the audience was filled with his friends, other theater performers, clowns, musicians, artists magicians, puppeteers, and even a sword swallower who caught cannon balls. They were very loud and involved, speaking out their observations during the show. I really actually liked that level of involvement. It was very different from the hushed gallery crowds. Afterwards I received a great deal of helpful counsel and advice from some seasoned performers.

 Baumgartner’s craftsmanship shines from his creation.

JB: At this point, I am essentially convinced that art galleries are not the best space for the show, but I have yet to discover the right type of space. I’ve never been very comfortable in galleries, and I expect John isn’t either. Maybe that is another reason why it hasn’t been performed much. Performing in peoples’ homes was always my original idea, but the theater has gotten almost too ungainly for that. It takes hours and hours to set up and take down, and between the main stage, all the props, the lights, musical instruments, performer space, and the narrator’s stage, the space requirements are very substantial. Sometimes I think about completely starting over and building a whole new theater. That may sound insane after I have labored so long on this one, but I have learned so much since I started. Ultimately, I am just ambivalent about performing, and it really feels like my weak spot.

With the Internet becoming the primary landscape for sharing my work, I have given serious thought to filming the play. As you and I have spoken of aside from this interview, this would not be filming a performance, but a retooling of the theater for film. This feels like the best direction I can go for the present, but it will never have the intimacy and vulnerability of a room full of people, so it isn’t really a solution to my problem. Time will tell. I am convinced that God will unveil some path through my labors.


CH-J: Do you work with a regular assistant, and if so who?


JB: The play needs an assistant to perform, but there is no regular assistant yet, as I mentioned earlier. I have trained someone in as short a time as a few hours to help me, but it is best to have someone familiar with the theater and all of its nuances. Lately, I have hopes for my oldest son, who is about halfway to 8 years. He has stunning motor skills and coordination and pretty amazing focus when he is interested. I would just have to make sure the play doesn’t devolve into a slapstick routine, which is usually what happens when he gets ahold of my puppets.


Jack Baumgartner puppet CV

  • April 2009: Performances of The Two Deaths of John Beartrist Laceroot, by the School of the Transfer of Energy Puppet Theatre, Grisham Fiber Studio, Wichita, KS
  • September 2005: Puppetry workshop and demonstration, by Jack Baumgartner of the School of Transfer of Energy Puppet Theatre, Highlands Ranch, CO
  • August 2002: Performances of The Two Deaths of John Beartrist Laceroot, by the School of the Transfer of Energy Puppet Theatre, Colorado Springs, CO, and Longmont, CO
  • July 2002: Performance of The Two Deaths of John Beartrist Laceroot, by the School of the Transfer of Energy Puppet Theatre, Stick To Your Guns Group Art Show, Roanoke, VA
  • February 2002: Performance of The Two Deaths of John Beartrist Laceroot, by the School of the Transfer of Energy Puppet Theatre, Hashinger Hall, Lawrence, KS
  • January 2002: Puppetry workshop and performance: created, and performed The Two Deaths of John Beartrist Laceroot, by the School of the Transfer of Energy Puppet Theatre, Kansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, MO
  • 2001: Founded the School Of Transfer of Energy Puppet Theatre

5 thoughts on “Jack Baumgartner and The School of the Transfer of Energy Puppet Theater: part II

  1. A wonderful interview with fascinating answers.
    JB’s obsessions, iconography, skills, vision(s), eclectic use of materials and intricate process seem all seem to be working in an atmosphere of great empathy.
    Wild thought:
    It would be fascinating to see him take this to some place like Indonesia and perform for the shadow puppet theatre traditionalists. Such an exchange of storytelling could be so energizing on so many levels.

  2. Pingback: Onforan | The School of the Transfer of Energy

  3. I thank you deeply, Clive, for honoring me with so much consideration on your blog. The show is important to me, but I never much expected it would matter much to anyone else. I have truly enjoyed the process of engaging you and your questions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s