La Vita Belli.

posted in: Art 3
Belli (pretty much.)
Belli. Our version is rounder and in my mind, far cuter. (It’s different when they’re yours.) Little Cat Puppet by Folkmanis.

I am a (very) grown woman. I own several puppets — and zero shame.

You can attribute my puppet-owning to the four years I spent studying theatre in college or the nine I spent making it in Chicago. When I was a straight-up stage actress there was a dearth of puppets in my life and I didn’t even realize what a bummer that was. When I made the exhilarating break to be a performer rather than an actor — the difference between “firefly” and “fire” — the number of puppets in my life grew exponentially and I was a happier artist. It wasn’t that I was using puppets right away, it’s that I saw them more in the art I was exposing myself to; intricate, enormous, wild, complex, frightening, and fascinating puppetry seemed to be everywhere in Chicago. When I became a Neo-Futurist, the aesthetic wormed it’s way into my work — or maybe I just came home to the first version of me I remember, maybe I found my inner Sesame Street. I put googly eyes on mittens and stuck them on sticks and did a little play called “Mitten Time.” I put a bird on a wire. I made talking boxes that flew up into the grid on a string. I strung my retired brassieres on dowel rods and sang them to their death in a little play called “Bras I Have Known.” Searching my laptop tonight, I found the lyrics to “Bras I Have Known.” Why not put them down? It’s a simple cut-and-paste and then I’ll (quickly) tell you about Belli.

This was sung (in chorus) to the tune of “Baa-Baa Black Sheep” as the actual brassieres from my life were strung up on sticks and bobbed around onstage. Shocking? Nope. Great fun.

Bra bra old bra
Opposite of young
Lace torn, cups stretched
Underwire sprung

Purple ones, gold ones
Yellow, white, and pink
Cotton, lycra, spandex,
Time to say goodbye, I think

A fine job you’ve done here
To lift and separate
Rest dear, rest dear,
The garbage is your fate

Each bra before you
Tells a story of its own
That one was there the night
Sin came free on loan

This one was present
When Jeremiah died
That one I never wore
But trust me, I tried

The gold one was funny
Never looked quite right
But I wore it frequently
Cause I thought one day it might

I couldn’t toss these out without
Offering them some art
Sure, they’re just old bras but
They literally crossed my heart.

Thus ends the lesson
And your straps on my body
Time to go pick up a new
Thirty-four D.

Good times.

A month or so ago, I popped into the toy shop on 9th Street, about a block from where we turn in our laundry. The shop is called Dinosaur Hill, and if I wanted to have a baby before I walked past the windows of Dinosaur Hill Toystore, boy, do I want one now. Little painted wooden figurines, toy trains, princess costumes. They’ve got everything. They carry many hand puppets, too: I learned this when I went inside, a (very) grown woman with no child who was determined to buy a toy anyway.

I spied a kitten puppet. She was so cute. A little small for my hand, maybe, but soft and so realistic, with wide eyes and soft paws. I surprised Yuri with it when he came home that night. We sat on the couch and I whispered, “I have a surprise for you.”

“Oh?” he said, smiling. “What is your surprise?”


The little cat had been on my hand the whole time and I pinged it up and waved a paw by moving my pinky finger inside the puppet. Yuri laughed, delighted.

“Hello! Oh, my! And what’s your name, little kitten?”

I hadn’t decided. Yuri said her name should be “Belly” but when he said it, he didn’t think how “belly” is a tough word for me to process as cute, what with my own belly being such a battleground. Funny thing is that I didn’t for a moment think he meant “belly” with a “y.” I figured he was being brilliant and going for something Italian, so in my mind, I instantly saw “Belli” as the kitten’s name. And so it was that the little cat puppet was named Belli and she has brought us great joy since that day.

Ghost Light: Philip Seymour Hoffman

posted in: Art, New York City, Paean, Tips 1
Playbill, 2000.
Playbill, 2000.

This very morning, I passed a poster for a George Bernard Shaw play and thought, “Don’t wait, Fons; see a show.” When you’re in NYC for longer than a few days, it’s easy to allow art opportunities to slip away because the sense of urgency isn’t there. You have time, you can get to that show before it closes, you can see that exhibit before it’s gone, etc.

The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died this morning, or maybe he died last night or Friday night; only the coroner knows for sure. Hoffman was found, maybe at the moment I was looking at that poster for the Shaw play, in the West Village where he lived. The New York Times reports he had a needle in his arm and that there was an envelope of heroin nearby. An addict’s nightmare would be one without the other, I guess.

When I was in the city in 2000, I went to see True West by Sam Shepard at Circle in The Square Theater on Broadway. Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly careened through that delicious brother-against-brother play, hitting the highs and the lows with this painful tenderness that made the crashes even worse (or better, depending on how you see your emotional manipulation as an audience member.) They made that theater ache, man. I didn’t come up for air the whole time. How could I? They weren’t breathing. That script was bare-knuckled before those guys got to it; in the hands of a director who had the foresight to a) cast Hoffman and Reilly and b) get out of their way, it was a life-changer.

I mean it. I was at a place in my life where I had to decide if I was going to get married to the theater. After seeing True West, I knew I would. I completed my theater degree from the University of Iowa and promptly moved to Chicago, still the best place in the country to make stuff to put onstage. I helped found the (now) wildly successful Gift Theatre Co., and found an artistic home with the Neo-Futurists. Someday, we’ll talk more about all that, but not now.

This is about the actor I saw in True West fourteen years ago who showed me that good theatre is so hard to make, you’ll see it about as often as you see a shooting star — and when you see it, your DNA changes. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one role, in one production, wiped every crappy college show from my eyes and removed the illusions I had about what I thought I knew about making theatre. His ferocious performance was in fact an act of kindness to me, and he had no idea I existed. But I did, in that dark theater, and I was watching him. He helped crystalize for me a vision of the kind of work and the kind of art American theatre is capable of and when I heard he died, my hand shot up to my heart and I could feel it beating.

I’m sorry you were addicted to heroin, Philip Seymour Hoffman. That is a terrible drug and I know you were afraid when you died. But it’s over, now, and in all the good ways — only the good ways — you’re still making great art. You made it in front of a lot of people who were watching, hard, and plenty of us are still alive, still trying to reach your standard.

* “A ghost light is an electric light that is left energized on the stage of a theater when the theater is unoccupied and would otherwise be completely dark.”