Pulling the Strings – Puppetry Artist Linda Wingerter

Luna’s Sea, a full stage production with puppets, puppeteers and dancers at the American Museum of Natural History, 2012
by Nancy E. McCarthy

When artist Linda Wingerter’s grandmother was in hospice, she had one last wish. She wanted the marionettes her husband handcrafted and she costumed to go to another puppeteer. Wingerter had grown up around her grandparents’ marionette making and community puppet shows, but she was a children’s book illustrator, not a puppeteer. To placate her grandmother’s growing agitation, Wingerter told her that she met someone who would teach her to be a puppeteer.

Shortly after her grandmother passed away in 2004, Wingerter commiserated with her friend Margaret Carl about her dilemma of inheriting these puppets as they admired a colorful collection of cone puppets at a craft fair. The stars aligned. At the time, Carl was a freelance stage manager working with Puppetsweat Theater, and they were looking for a puppeteer for an upcoming performance! Carl made the introductions, which led to a Puppetsweat apprenticeship and Wingerter’s first experience as a professional puppeteer.

“Linda had an instant connection to the puppets,” says Carl. “Her success resulted not only in performing in subsequent Puppetsweat productions, but what she learned from founders Leslie Weinberg and Bob Bresnick was the beginning of her journey exploring the entirety of the puppet world.”
Wingerter would fulfill her promise to her grandmother – and then some.

Family legacy

Wingerter was born to an artistic family in New Jersey. Her parents were graphic designers and her maternal grandparents, David and Helen Bogdan, made marionettes and staged performances as The Stringpullers. When Wingerter was four, her father died from cancer and her grandparents, who lived nearby, helped her mother to raise her.

“They were always showing me how to make things, how to sew, hammer, design, draw, everything,” says Wingerter. “Making was the way we communicated and engaged with each other. But puppets weren’t so special to me then – they were just another part of daily life.”

By age 14, Wingerter and her mother were living in Vermont, where she attended high school. In 1996, she graduated from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), moved to Connecticut and pursued her childhood dream of becoming a children’s book illustrator.

During her last year at RISD, Wingerter was also helping her boyfriend Karl Gasteyer start a musical theater company in Connecticut. While attending a theater conference, she saw table-top puppetry performed for the first time. It was Bunraku-style, a hybrid version of traditional Japanese puppetry where puppeteers are seen manipulating the puppets. There was no magic curtain.

“I was so shocked at the movement, so different from my grandfather’s marionettes, that I began weeping in the workshop. I realized that there was a world of puppetry I didn’t know about,” Wingerter says. “At that pre-internet time, I didn’t know how to find out about it. So it was a sort of longing I put on the shelf for a long time.”

After college Wingerter started her illustration career and did well right away. She was solidly booked as a freelancer, illustrating children’s books for major publishing companies and taking on editorial, stationery, publishing, and licensing work.

From 2004 forward, transitioning from illustrator to puppetry artist evolved over time. At first, Wingerter continued worked simultaneously as an illustrator and in puppetry but after she broke her hand from a fall in 2006 she stopped illustration entirely. Wingerter had become less satisfied by that art form anyway. “I think puppetry was always the thing that would make me happy,” she says. “I just didn’t know it.” By then, she wanted her art to move, make sound and she wanted to be physically engaged rather than hunched over a desk.

Under the tutelage of her Puppetsweat Theater mentors Weinberg and Bresnick, she learned to make all types of puppets, write shows for stage (and later film) and perform behind or alongside puppets. “They set the foundation of my understanding of puppet theater and everything I do comes from them in some way,” says Wingerter.

“Linda was a great asset right from the start,” says Bresnick. “She brought with her a trained eye, an openness to experimentation, an understanding of process, a concern for detail, a desire to push herself and a love and enthusiasm for the work.” Wingerter became an essential Puppetsweat Theater troupe member.  

Later, Wingerter studied with esteemed master puppeteers from all over the world during the annual National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. Eventually she began teaching her own workshops and classes and building puppets on commission for schools and theater companies. Wingerter continued with Puppetsweat on and off, plus her own projects.

In 2011, in collaboration with Gasteyer, her boyfriend and theater collaborator, she revived her grandparents’ Stringpullers Puppet Company with Luna’s Sea, a full stage feature production. The sophisticated aquatic-themed adventure featuring puppets, five puppeteers and two dancers was produced for the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut and later debuted in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History.
Life in the Finger Lakes

After two decades of a romantic and professional partnership, Wingerter and Gasteyer parted amicably in 2016. Wingerter and her future husband, both students of the same meditation teacher, met during a pilgrimage to Konya, Turkey. The couple married in 2017 and moved to Ithaca, New York, to be closer to their teacher at the Ithaca Zen Center.

Wingerter considers puppetry and her meditation practices linked. “Both cultivate physical and mental training, calmness of mind and body, and focus,” she explains.

Besides meditation and marriage, the other benefit of moving to Ithaca was being part of a community that embraces and supports all types of art-making, including puppetry. Since the move, Wingerter has mostly focused on marionettes, but recently on shadow puppetry as well. Shadow puppets are flat figures made from cardboard or other materials that are placed between a light and a screen. Moving them projects illusions such as walking, talking, fighting or dancing. Wingerter makes short films of her shadow puppet shows (see sidebar). This past July, she conducted live online shadow puppetry workshops during the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival.

Wingerter’s Ithaca studio is located in Artist Alley across from artist Alice Muhlback. “I’m a huge fan, so enthralled with her creations,” says Muhlback. “Linda is a masterful puppeteer, artist, sculptor, animator and cardboard artist. We both love cardboard, but she has an amazing stash!”

That cardboard will no doubt be put to good use for Wingerter’s new shadow film project, a 2021 micro-commission for Heather Henson’s Handmade Puppet Dreams (HPD). Henson is the daughter of master puppeteer Jim Henson, best known as the beloved creator of the Muppets. HPD is a film series of collected or commissioned real-time-performed puppetry films.

Wingerter was one of eight puppetry artists selected for the micro-commission. All will receive grants to produce a short film, as well as ongoing educational resources including a puppet film-making workshop to help to refine their films. The films will premiere online in November 2021.

Her grandparents would be incredibly proud.

The Artist’s Process
Making Shadow Puppet Films

Wingerter creates a rough storyboard to work out composition, scene cuts and what action each puppet will do. She will draw three to four iterations, refining them each time. Once she’s set on what the film will look like, she researches and sketches to solidify the settings and characters.

Because shadow puppet films are backlit, Wingerter builds backgrounds by hand-cutting and layering translucent materials into collages that allow light to come through, like a stained-glass window.

She designs simple mechanics for the puppets to keep her hands hidden and to create more movements than two hands alone could achieve. These are typically designed with cardboard levers, string and rubber bands for features like blinking eyes or the raising of an arm. Hand-coiled thin copper wire is used for each joint. Wingerter modifies puppet designs many times before she hand cuts final figures from thick black cardstock.

When she films, Wingerter arranges the sets and puppets on horizontal glass with a light box underneath and a camera above. She performs the puppets flat against the glass, using all of her fingers to operate the mechanisms. She edits the film using Adobe Premiere Pro, adding music, sound effects and dialogue.

Learn more about Linda Wingerter and puppetry at stringpullers.com.

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