It’s a sunny October afternoon in Clark Park. As per usual, there are plenty of children on the playground and men and women playing with their dogs. But something out of the ordinary is going on. Toward the top of the hill in the dog bowl, Tracy Broyles, Spiral Q Puppet Theater’s Executive Director, stands with a microphone. She’s waiting to set a run–though of the organization’s annual Peoplehood pageant in motion at the show’s final large rehearsal.
“Birds, flap your wings for me,” Broyles yells. “Elk, are you ready? ... Wolves, are you ready? … Howl if you’re ready.”
Several minutes later, the run–through begins. Groups of community members of varied ages and races enter and exit the performance area — the participants in bird costumes pretend to fly across the park, the elk graze. A group comes out wearing small houses. Suddenly, a large, cardboard bulldozer enters and crashes through the formerly happy community of residences.
The scenes’ transitions are not quite set and Broyles is constantly yelling into the microphone, telling people where they should be going and what they should be doing throughout the run–through. It’s “beautiful chaos,”says Spiral Q Program Director Ted Enoch.
And it will remain beautiful chaos right up to and through the actual performance this coming Saturday, Oct. 23. Because Spiral Q needs large groups to “tell big stories” and because they anticipate people coming to join in and participate in the fun, Enoch estimates that up to 100 community members will act in the show that haven’t attended a single rehearsal. These newcomers aren’t a burden — in fact, they’re totally welcome. Spiral Q has accounted for these last minute add-ons and has scheduled several, smaller rehearsals held in the week leading up to the pageant where scene leaders gain familiarity with the show in order to be able to quickly explain the scenes to those who want to join in.
In keeping with “what the art form of pageantry is all about,” Enoch said the performance will have no dialogue. Instead, it will be all visual spectacle with musical accompaniment provided by a group of live musicians, who have been watching these rehearsals carefully in order to refine their compositions and figure out their cues. A motley crew made up of a banjo, an accordion and a Greek, guitar–like instrument called a bouzouki provide the accompaniment for this rehearsal. Come Saturday, there will likely be drummers and violins. But then again — who knows? The morphing, surprising nature of Peoplehood is just part of its charm.
Spiral Q is an organization that engages with and empowers community members through puppet making and performance. As its mission statement reads, it “builds strong and equitable communities characterized by creativity, joy, can–do attitudes and the courage to act on their convictions.” While there are other similar types of puppet groups across the country — notably Bread and Puppet in Vermont and In the Heart of the Beast in Minneapolis — according to Broyles, Spiral Q distinguishes itself from comparable organizations through the ways it uses puppets and pageantry as a community–organizing tool.
Throughout the year, Spiral Q engages in a number of different activities and programs. Staff from the program go into schools, nursing homes and rehabilitation centers to hold educational programming. The group also hosts a variety of parades and pageants throughout the year, in addition to Peoplehood.
Now in its 11th year, the Peoplehood parade and pageant have become “almost like a holiday,” for Philadelphians. “It’s for everyone,” says Spiral Q Teaching Artist Annie Daley. But the show is more than just brightly colored costumes and pantomimes, people dressed as animals and towering puppets. Every year, the event seeks to bring together performers of all ages, races and theatrical skill levels to express themselves creatively and tackle an important issue of the day. Last year focused on the theme of economic scarcity and several years ago, when the murder rate in Philadelphia was spiraling out of control, how violence effects local communities.
This year’s topic, discrimination, was chosen in part because of intolerance escalating at the national and local level, Broyles says. She pointed to the Arizona immigration law, a rise in anti–Muslim sentiment, an increase in gender violence in Philadelphia and the rash of teen suicides in the Queer community as examples.
“Given our mission and our roots and our history,” Broyles says Spiral Q feels they have “an obligation” to come together about this issue right now. “The very foundation of our work lies in challenging discrimination. We are a place of inclusion.”
Starting work on Peoplehood right after Labor Day, Spiral Q first looks for inspiration for the pageant’s scenes through a process the staff calls “taking the pulse of the people.” Staff have discussions with community members where people share their stories about discrimination. These conversations recount everything from school bullying and reentering the community following incarceration to instances of red lining and being unable to get loans to fix up homes.
From there, Broyles says, Spiral Q finds common ground from the discussions and scenes begin to emerge. This year, one frequent concept that developed was the idea of being a “stranger in your homeland,” she adds. These “vague, scenic ideas” become the fodder for the staff rehearsals, which begin very generally and then hone in on the specifics that will be included in the final pageant. Though Spiral Q has a team of professional artists and choreographers to develop the materials and guide this development process, Broyles still emphasizes that Peoplehood is “a collaborative process.”
“The point was rather than be a director and team of artists” that create a show in isolation, Spiral Q gets community members to “tell the narrative and theater and drama of their own lives,” says Broyles.
According to Patrick Sampson, who composed most of the songs for the parade, it’s hard to put together a show in the style of Peoplehood, but he finds it rewarding to work on a performance that addresses a cause.The issues of discrimination the show is trying to tackle are issues that don’t get the type of discussion they deserve and he said “that’s always in the back of my mind.”
For Jennifer Turnbull, a Spiral Q Teaching Assistant helping with choreography for Peoplehood, the show has personal meaning. Growing up as a person of color in a low–income, immigrant neighborhood, others empowered her to be successful. Now, she says, “It’s time to keep spreading that empowerment around.”
One of Turnbull’s projects for this year’s pageant is blocking the “Bad News Deli” scene about gentrification to be performed by staff and patients from a residential addiction recovery program at Girard Medical Center. She keeps the choreography simple to make it easy for the performers and “to make sure it reads to the audience” since there’s no traditional stage. “It has to be simple and profound,” says Turnbull. Peoplehood is “by the community, for the community.”
The parade brings together the community in surprising ways. Anyone can get in on the act, whether it be through marching in the parade, building the puppets or performing in the pageant. Participating groups include and have included the United Black Captains, high-school community service organizations, dance teams, Casino–Free Philadelphia, an HIV/AIDS activist group and drum brigades.
“People come with their babies,” Daley says. “It’s literally this huge mix of people.”
Said Broyles, “Everyone has a story to tell.”
Most of the larger human-like puppets used at Peoplehood will be recycled from other performance and workshops, with some characters recurring year after year. These often–eight–to–twelve–foot high puppets consist of a head attached to a wooden frame which a performer wears like a backpack, with cloth draped over the frame, covering the head and body of the live performer, creating the illusion that the puppets are giant people. The hands, which are connected to poles and attached to the framework with rope, are operated by two other puppeteers. As their size might indicate, making a giant head is very labor intensive. The puppets themselves are humorous, a huge head on top of a body with proportionally very tiny feet.
Constructing the face of a giant puppet is akin to constructing a person, Daley says.
Start with cardboard, what Daley considers “the bones of the puppets.”
Next, she uses newspaper to create facial features, the puppet’s “muscles.”
After that, the “skin” is created using grocery bags and mache. Spiral Q’s mache is made of tapioca starch and water.
Sustainability is big concern in the puppet-making process, says Productions Manager Liza Goodell. Spiral Q tries to use recycled materials — a printer near the airport provides cardboard boxes, grocery bags are repurposed and other supplies are also donated.
Daley relates using recycled materials back to accessibility — using these supplies makes puppet–making into an art form that is available to all, utilizing materials that most people can find in their own homes. Sometimes, people even bring their own puppets to the parade.
Not all of the puppets used in Peoplehood can be recycled from past events. The group is constructing some puppets — defined by Spiral Q as “any inanimate objects that you can animate” — specifically for Saturday’s festivities. Several were being made on Columbus Day afternoon at Spiral Q’s studio, located at 31st and Spring Garden streets.
While top–40 music plays in a room with a paint–spattered floor and a wooden ceiling, students and staff amuse themselves while dutifully working at tables. Leading up to Peoplehood, Spiral Q hosts open studios where different groups can come in and work on the puppets. On Columbus Day, the artists were joined by students from Upper Darby High School’s chapter of Build On — a community service organization which also has groups at other high schools that help out with Peoplehood.
At one table, a group from Build On paints cardboard wings yellow. At another, teenagers tear up fabric that will become part of the wolf puppets. Alicia Willett, a College junior at Penn who does work–study at Spiral Q, uses a staple gun to attach a cardboard wolf’s head onto a wood pole. In the back, Goodell is using a jigsaw to cut out more wings — a task she won’t let just anyone do because Spiral Q is “serious about safety.”
Aisha Bango, an Upper Darby High–School senior, brought the group to Spiral Q after getting involved in last year’s Peoplehood. “It was probably my favorite project,” Bango says. “I thought that it was really creative how it came together.”
The service aspects of Spiral Q also are a plus for Bango. “We’re doing a lot and we’re getting the community involved,” she said, adding that Peoplehood makes the community more connected because the stories being told are their own.
Angelica Rivera, a junior at Upper Darby High School likewise found the philanthropic aspects of the project particularly gratifying. “I think it’s for a good cause and I like helping out,” she says. “Each art tells a story.”
Dorcas Jean-Baptiste, an Upper Darby sophomore, calls the experience “super fun” and likes “the atmosphere, the whole arts scene.”
For Willett — a Penn architecture major who started working at Spiral Q this past summer — the art project’s lessened rigidity compared to her classes is welcome.
According to her, people “have to be more creative here because the materials aren’t standard.”
Willett’s not the only Penn work–study student involved in Peoplehood. Goodell said they’ve had “a lot of people from Penn” work at Spiral Q over the years. While Willett has an art background, Goodell noted, not all Penn students who participate do. Students from other colleges and art schools have also gotten involved.
College sophomore Sara Outing just started as work-study for Spiral Q about a month ago. She already has high hopes for Peoplehood.
“It’s a kid magnet to have a giant puppet out,” she says. “I’m really excited. It’s gonna be great.”
The parade will start Saturday, 10/23, at 1 p.m. at the Paul Robeson House at 50th and Walnut streets and will culminate at Clark Park in the dog bowl near 45th and Chester streets, where the pageant will be held. For more information, check out their website, SpiralQ.org. To get involved as a volunteer, e-mail Liza Goodell at email@example.com.