Deep in the bowels of a 19th-century Boston church – beyond a hobbit-sized door hidden off a back alley, and down a vertiginous stepladder – a tiny woman in a paint-splattered apron labors in a world that mirrors those beyond C.S. Lewis's wardrobe or the Grimm brothers' trap door. Aided by the angular light pouring through the basement windows into the depths of her creative realm, she snips away at a swath of sparkling blue fabric that could morph into a fish, a cloud, or a bureaucrat's hat.
This is Sara Peattie – puppet builder and liberal political activist. In her subterranean workshop – known as the Puppet Free Lending Library – imagination reigns supreme.
Her cast of characters appears regularly on the stage of world opinion at political demonstrations. They include many breeds of puppets from small hand-held creatures to "backpack" characters that ride atop a person's shoulders to giant figures mounted on scaffolding and carried by several people so that they tower over crowds in parades and political demonstrations.
It's a soundless gang that populates her workshop; yet the intensity of color and expressions worn by Ms. Peattie's creatures fairly screeches with meaning. A butterfly with a 10-foot wingspan, symbolizing the dangers of genetic engineering and used for biotech protests in several Northeastern cities, has alighted on the floor. Propped against a wall is a gigantic black box puppet – once trampled by a crowd in an antiwar rally – that displays the Iraq war death toll. Dragons and six-eyed demons dwell alongside mylar robots and polyester goddesses. Black cats wear war paint, while maids-a-milking conspire in a corner.
"With puppets, anything can happen," Peattie writes about the craft on the Puppeteers' Cooperative website. "A space people walk through every day ... suddenly becomes other[,] and people see that they can make anything they want of their own homes. Puppets can make thoughts real."
No matter their form or character, Peattie's puppets represent ideas: Peace. Economic progress. Exasperation. They help Peattie and political protestors she works with to "complain or accuse" in a vivid but indirect way, she explains on a recent tour of her workshop. "It's easier for people to look at a puppet that expresses discontent rather than a human face, which is so freighted with meaning. [Puppets] let people stand back from the idea and look at it from a distance where they aren't so implicated that they can't cope with it."
Peattie has been building puppets for protests as well as for community festivals and theater for more than 30 years. Often, she's at the protest or performance herself, dancing inside a puppet ("Being in a puppet is a bit like seeing a monster movie from the monster's point of view," she says) or shepherding puppeteers.
More often, it's her "68 Ways to Make Really Big Puppets" pamphlets or the puppets themselves that travel; she lends them to artists, community groups, and left-leaning activists. (She says that she'd lend them to right-leaning groups too, but they've never asked.)
Peattie's puppets sometimes dispense with the symbolism and are bluntly literal. For a February 2003 New York City anti-war protest, Peattie and members of her cooperative constructed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – likenesses of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and the Grim Reaper. The puppets soared over 12 feet high. A photograph of the foursome striding across Second Avenue looks like a reimagined album cover for the Beatles' "Abbey Road." But police in various cities cracked down on puppets like the Four Horsemen, Peattie says, because sticks used to move the arms were considered dangerous. She adapted by making giant inflatable puppets from rolls of garbage-bag plastic heat-sealed with an iron and pumped with air by electric fans.
Puppets can play different roles for different occasions: The library's "bad guys" section includes a puppet she calls an "all-purpose wicked thing" – a skeletal figure that in this incarnation wears a star-spangled top hat to play Uncle Sam.
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Lured by puppetry and politics, Peattie dropped out of high school in 1969 to tour Europe and protest the Vietnam War with Bread and Puppet – a Vermont puppeteering troupe. "I claimed it was educational, and it was," she says.
While it was mostly men who built and operated puppets, that didn't stop Peattie, an inveterate tinkerer, from trying her hand at making puppets herself. And over the years, Peattie has invented dozens of features to make her puppets more functional or more fun. She's become a legend among her colleagues who talk about her as "mysterious" and "something of an elf," not so unlike her creations.
Theresa Linnihan, a New York puppeteer, recalls first meeting Peattie at a puppet-building workshop, describing her as "a woman with an almost dour expression ... pulling magic out of her hat left and right." Ms. Linnihan says Peattie's "love affair with cardboard" is what sets her work apart: "Where others will use only papier-mache, Sara will use cardboard to make armature and use papier mâché as the skin."
Arny Lipkin, a Brooklyn-based biochemist and puppeteer, considers Peattie's genius to be her ability to engineer "simple to operate" puppets that are accessible to the average person she might encounter at a street protest or festival.
One of Peattie's innovations – a scaffolding of a bamboo triangle inserted horizontally inside another standing vertically – allows fabric-and-cardboard figures that are more than 20 feet tall to be held erect easily with sticks by groups of children who are less than four feet tall.
Peattie seems to work tirelessly – obsessively – on details, like making the expressions on her puppets' faces. "I've spent a long time figuring out how to make a human face out of cardboard – how to fold it, how to score it, how to cut it," she says.
Recently, she's been rigging her creatures with electronics. A "surveillance" puppet she made to protest the National Security Agency's wiretapping program had a video camera on its finger wired to its two TV-set eyes to literally show people "how easy it is for the apparatus to look at you and decide what happens to you." But for all her success at political theater, Peattie seems to prefer her apolitical work with community groups, calling it "the place where change really happens." In addition to theatrical shows at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival in New York, she performs with puppets at First Night and other community festivals in various cities.
Peattie actually resists calling herself a puppeteer, saying she's more "connected to the people" she works with than the puppets. Her true mission, she says, is to get "everyone out there making noise," whether it's dancing, demonstrating, or putting on plays.
Amid this noise, there's no denying that she wants to hear echoes of political change. "What has happened to this country is that it's not just one thing," she says. It's not just the war or the political system, she adds, "there just needs to be a lot more noise from the bottom."