With puppets and simple objects, Caroline Reck conjures worlds and constructs visual stories that illuminate urgent issues: climate change, immigration, social justice.
Her award-winning Austin-based company Glass Half Full Theatre devises original performances for both children and adults, using physical theatre and puppetry in visually-driven shows that enable people to experience complex ideas. For example, Reck built a futuristic world featuring tiny puppets in miniature landscapes made of beads, cardboard, and plastic for “Once There Were Six Seasons,” a tale about violent climate change.
The intimacy of Glass Half Full’s kind of theater relies on an open give and take between performers and audience. It relies on liveness — liveness that disappeared with the coronavirus pandemic.
The series ‘A Year In’ catches up with artists now that the coronavirus pandemic has passed its one-year mark.
Sightlines: What were you working on and looking forward to when the lockdown began in mid-March 2020?
Caroline Reck: We had to temporarily shelve the “Climate Refugee” project because it was made to be shared in large event/ public spaces. It’s an interactive experience, featuring walkabout puppets representing people from all over the globe whose lives have been impacted by climate migration.
We had been researching events that cause migrations due to climate shifts (crop failures, water shortages, extreme weather events) and building a backstory and a walkabout puppet to represent each character/ location. We then composed a series of potential interactions the character can have with passers-by on the street or at an event — everything from a simple wave, to sharing snacks, to showing off photos of offspring, to sharing news articles about her homeland’s plight or asking for help to make a phone call.
Our plan was to send multiple puppeteers out into events, conferences, and rallies, to create instant, private theatrical moments in order to personalize the audience participant’s understanding of the human impacts of climate change. This feels like something that can only happen once people are able to interact, and until recently, we weren’t really sure when or if that would begin again.
S: What was the first of your work you saw cancelled or lost?
CR: We’ve been working on “The Cucuy Project” for what feels like years now. We had to postpone (twice now) and finally settled on fall of 2022 to debut this piece. It features Gricelda Silva and Jesus Valles as undocumented siblings balancing the real life threat of immigration agents with the spirit world threat of terror characters from their childhood nightmares (el Cucuy, La Llorona, La Lechuza, et al.)
We also had to cancel a national tour of “Cenicienta,” a reimagining of Cinderella featuring a budding young bilingual writer who amuses herself by telling the story of Cinderella using the objects around her in her stepmother’s basement. We had a performance scheduled for a bilingual festival literally the day — March 12 — that everything shut down. I got a phone call at 4:45 a.m.cancelling the event. We had put a lot of funding and resources into getting the show to a presenter’s conference in January 2020 to build that tour. We had bookings in New York, California, and Washington, D.C., and everything got shut down until further notice.
S: What part of the pandemic were you surprised to find being a creative benefit?
CR: Prior to the pandemic, my co-company member Indigo Rael was really interested in pushing into digital media, and we were already working on a virtual reality script to be filmed in April 2020. Our first pandemic meeting, we decided to interpret the live venue closures as a sign and just dove in. We looked at the projects ahead, decided what really needed to be a live event (“Cucuy” and Climate Refugee), and then started brainstorming how other projects could go digital. We knew we did not want to do Zoom readings.
Instead, we made a hilarious and low tech YouTube show called “Trash Talks with Polly Mermaid.” The series approaches global environmental issues with humor, optimism, and puppets made from trash. We made the whole things at distance. Indigo filmed her sections as Polly Mermaid in her studio, and I filmed my parts (I puppeteered Basurana,“Trash Frog”) in mine.
I’d dragged my feet somewhat about shifting to digital media. My biggest strength as a director of theater is in adjusting the rhythm and timing of the action to gently direct the audience’s focus. With film, I resented the way the eye of the camera tells the viewer exactly where to look. I found that selfish, controlling, the way the film’s director has more power than their audience, to demand that we look at what they want us to look at. My background as a performer is in clown, which is all about flirting with the audience’s interest and tempting them to look at what you want them to. It’s more subtle. Film takes away that layer and I thought — well, what do I do now?
Possibly I was afraid I would be lost without the give and take of live performance. But I learned that digital media is about editing, providing options and takes for the editor to piece together a variety of ways for the audience to experience the performance. It’s made me appreciate the opportunity to rethink storytelling through a new lens — literally.
The Kennedy Center also kept their contract with us and transformed what was supposed to be a live performance of “Cenicienta” in April into a streamed video performance, which we filmed at Ground Floor Theatre in January and is streaming until the end of June on the Kennedy Center’s channel.
I was also hired to build and perform puppets for several video projects, masked, on green screen, which kept my mortgage paid and my child fed.
S: What changes do you want to see in theater, how it’s practiced and how it’s presented to an audience? What could/should the so-called ‘new normal’ of theater look like?
CR: Theater was fundamentally flawed before the pandemic. It has been operating on a 19th-century model for too long. The power in American theater still rests on a capitalist system with Broadway as the presumed paramount. Rising to the top means making and presenting placid theater that doesn’t risk upsetting wealthy, status quo viewers.
Restructuring of American theater could and should include plans to flatten hierarchy, decolonize leadership practices, be transparent in our budgeting and power structures, be accountable to our communities (including our non-human communities, like animals, water, air, and land) and divest from fossil fuel interests. I worked with a phenomenal group of people last year on the Green New Theatre plan, which walk through these ideas in detail and I recommend it for anyone interested in thinking about the future of theater.
While we’re at it, I’d jettison the one minute monologue audition, or as I call it, the SATs of theatre. An uninspired actor can passably memorize a short series of words and actions, while a brilliant performer with stunning improvisational and creative skills can be overlooked. I’d also reject the primacy of the script in theater. With all the technology we have now, it’s odd that we continue to pass down our theatrical experience via the words said out loud on stage as a document representative of the experience.
Maybe it took something catastrophic as this pandemic for us to ask if any of these systems serve us. I think taking a break from moving in our prescribed circles has allowed us to reach out in the dark and find the circles we actually belong in.
I’m part of a rogue group of devising theater companies across the nation that meets bi-weekly on Zoom. We haven’t set a specific goal, but we haven’t devolved into complaining. We are talking about how we can collectively create support for our approach to work, which isn’t necessarily served by the “playwright writes a play/ producer presents the play” model, with all the socio-economic barriers to entry. There are delicious, comfortable pauses while we consider what someone had to say.
Chaos helps you find allies in places you didn’t know you needed to look.
S: Artistically, what’s next that you look forward to, and are excited by?
CR: I’m writing a show for youth about Jane Goodall. My interest in her might seem obvious — she is an inspiring figure for anyone who cares about the Earth and animals. But that aspect of Jane has been visited and revisited. What I’m focused on is the way she created something that didn’t exist until she went out and did it. There was no field of primatology until she made it. She noticed chimps using tools because she was patient enough to sit and watch them until they did. She empathized with her “research subjects” in an era when that was scoffed at by scientists. What’s more, she did it with very little support and no formal education. She is representative of the gentle audacity that is required to not follow in someone’s footsteps or quit in frustration when the path is not obvious. This is the aspect of her life that I think is important for youth to learn about, whether they want to apply the skill to biology or to business. And if I get to make a few chimpanzee puppets, then that’s an extra plus. I have a residency at Crosstown Arts in Memphis — postponed, again, until 2022 — to build the puppets and workshop parts of the show.