Puppets on parade

Close to every inch of the Spiral Q Puppet Theater museum is covered in original art. Giant puppets—some several feet high—hang on the walls and dangle from the rafters. Some depict presidents or community heroes. Others assume the form of butterflies or vultures. A few puppets on display in the cool, dark room show the influence of African masks, while others are more abstract.

Constructed out of cardboard and covered with papier maché, the puppets are painted and decorated with everything from yarn, fabric, yogurt containers and bottle caps to beads, feathers and toilet paper rolls.

Whimsical as Spiral seems, its focus is very serious. The community-based arts and social justice organization helps groups create original puppets around a theme or person that is meaningful to them. These groups then take to the streets in giant puppet parades. “It is in the community, by the community,” says Tracy Broyles, Spiral Q’s executive director. “We try to be compassionate watchdogs. We’re trying to be reflective.”

Located behind a bright yellow door at 3114 Spring Garden St., Spiral Q has several initiatives to engage Philadelphians. As well as teaching puppet-making workshops to students and social service agencies, the organization brings people together in various neighborhood parades and pageants, helps groups interested in social awareness demonstrations make puppets that reflect their philosophy and creates new works in collaboration with local arts organizations. Broyles says the artists and educators at the Q tease out what is important to the community groups or students who approach them. Their goal is “to help groups articulate their ideas through art.”

The Living Loft Giant Puppet Museum is open to the public for tours, and offers studio workshops for those interested in the power of puppetry. It’s $5 per person, per tour and $12 per person for a tour and one-hour workshop. “The museum serves to legitimize the form,” Broyles says. “It puts a stamp of validity and helps to spread those stories even further.”

Many voices

So, why puppets? It’s a very simple, universal concept to grasp says Jerushia Graham, museum coordinator and staff artist. Broyles adds, “the medium is really accessible for all skill levels.”

In the annual Peoplehood Parade, held every October, people of all talents create giant puppets around an agreed-upon theme. They march with their creations from the Paul Robeson House at 4951 Walnut St. to Clark Park at 45th and Chester, where they end the day with a big pageant. “It’s something that’s been woven by many, many voices,” says Broyles. Last year, more than 100 people participated in the process from start to finish.

Getting involved

Even if you’re not artistic, there are still numerous ways you can weave your particular talents into the fabric of the Q. The Theater needs volunteers to manage its database, a Mac-proficient technical advisor and people to archive the collection and collect oral histories. “You don’t have to be an artist or a puppeteer,” emphasizes Broyles.

Broyles and Graham have also put together a wish list, which includes bolts of fabric, yarn, latex-based paints, art supplies, old shoes, gloves, costume jewelry, Christmas decorations, tools, thread, twine, bamboo, sewing machine needles and paintbrushes. Bigger ticket items include a new monitor for their computer, a recording device to enable them to collect oral histories and a video camera.

Or you can get involved by attending Q-licious—a benefit for the Theater on Feb. 11 from 8:30 to midnight at Neighborhood House at Christ Church, 20 N. American St. There will be a silent art auction, dancing and a Faux Celebrity Charity Auction; advance reservations are $25 each, $40 for a pair or $30 each at the door.

Work-study opportunities abound for students, too. Wil Medearis, a Penn MFA student who will graduate this spring, worked at the Q last summer, overseeing the studio, keeping track of inventory and building puppets. “It was like nothing else. It was a great experience. I would totally recommend it, “ he says.

For information on volunteer opportunities, donations or visiting the museum, call 215-222-6979 or go to www.spiralq.org.

Originally published on February 9, 2006