A Conversation with Liz Joyce

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Liz Joyce with her puppet, Minkie the Monkee
Liz Joyce with her puppet, Minkie the Monkee

By Stephen J. Kotz

Liz Joyce, whose Goat on a Boat puppet theater has become a Sag Harbor cultural institution for the prekindergarten set and their parents, talks about the upcoming Bambini Ball, what led her to pursue a career as a puppeteer, and why she thinks the art form remains vital in a plugged-in world.

The annual Bambini Ball takes place this Friday, May 20. What does it entail?

It’s basically a family party. It is going to be at Bay Street Theater — our new home — from 530 to 7:30 p.m. And it costs $15. We are going to be wearing our festive attire, we are going to be doing crafts. Lindsay Morris will be taking photos. There will be pizza for the kids, DJ Carlo Lama. Raffles. And the adults will be doing the giant underpants relay. That’s a lot to cram into two hours.

It is also a fundraiser. We have a Gofundme page and we are trying to raise $10,000 to help with our guest performer series. We’re also starting a school series and this will help fund that.

It’s been about a year since Goat on a Boat moved to Bay Street. How is your new home working out?

Bay Street is great. It’s fabulous. I love the team over there. I love the malleability of it how it changes from day to day, from week to week.

And they help me with all the things that would take me away from creative projects. Before moving to Bay Street, I had to handle all the administrative work. I found that I wasn’t able to make a lot of new work over the past few years. Now I have a new show, “The Doubtful Sprout.” It’s an underground puppet odyssey about soil ecology.

You have been at this in Sag Harbor for 15 years now. How did you settle on a career as a puppeteer?

I went to Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia and I knew I didn’t want to be a fine artist. I wanted to have a functional craft. I had a little music, a little performance, a little art in my background, and it turned out to be a nice way to blend it together.

But I was literally trying to find a job in the early ’90s in the recession. I was making little Christmas presents. I made little dolls and stuffed them and they were puppets. This woman at the Children’s Museum in Richmond, Virginia, said I had to put on a puppet show. The first one was like, yuck. The second one was not so bad. I thought, “That was kind of fun.”

It wasn’t so much a choice as it was a thing that happened to me. But I love it.

I moved to New York in 1996. I worked with so many different theater groups and visited every elementary school in Brooklyn and every library in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. And that was before there was GPS, mind you.

I came out here in 2000 and thought, maybe I could do it out here. I envisioned it as a summer thing, but it took off.

What is it about puppet shows that makes them so able to capture the imagination of children?

Everyone is trying to make the TV talk to the kids. The kids know the TV is not talking to them, but when a puppet is making a joke or being heckled, the kids realize they are part of something in the moment. And that’s the essence of theater. It only happens because you are there, so in a sense we are creating young theater lovers.

As the person behind the scenes pulling the strings, so to speak, do you have a favorite puppet show?

I hate this question! I saw this puppet show Patty Smithsonian did. She did “A Night with Dewey Decimal.” It was about a puppet that got locked in the attic of a library. I laughed. I cried. I loved the way she created her own world out of puppets and everyday objects.

What’s next for Goat on a Boat?

I’m working with others to create a mentorship program. We’re calling it “The Puppeteer’s Challenge.” It’s in the early stages, we want to work with UConn. And I planning to go on some small tours; take my show to arboretums and gardens.

For tickets to the Bambini Ball, visit baystreet.org or goatonaboat.org.

 

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