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Puppeteering in a Pandemic: How the Bob Baker Marionette Theater Continues to Spread Joy

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Back in March, the staff at Bob Baker Marionette Theater expected the coronavirus to change things — but like many other Los Angeles institutions, they didn’t expect the changes to happen so quickly or to last for so long. Missy Steele, the theater’s director of operations, was inundated with phone calls and emails from teachers who had field trips on the schedule. For the first week or so, she was saying, “We’re still open. Here’s our protocol,” and offering to reschedule their visit for a month out. “Then suddenly, it was like, ‘Oh, wait, I take all of that back. I’m so sorry. We absolutely cannot do anything.’”

Pre-pandemic, Steele was involved with everything from helping with scenery to running the spotlight to developing educational content. After the theater shut down, she continued to go to work. She says, “I’d be the only person in the building, but I had to be in the office to field all of these calls asking, ‘What’s going on? Can we get a refund for our field trip that isn’t going to happen?’”

For the first few weeks, Steele didn’t have much time to worry about whether her health was endangered because of the virus; she was too busy asking herself questions like, “How is [the theater] going to stay afloat?” and “How can we refund all of these people when we don’t have that much money in our bank account?”

A puppet from Bob Baker Marionette Theater performs for a crowd of children. | Courtesy of Missy Steele
A puppet from Bob Baker Marionette Theater performs for a crowd of children. | Courtesy of Missy Steele

Once the Bob Baker team realized that they were going to be closed for more than a few weeks, they switched gears. They knew that everyone was losing their minds at home because they weren’t used to the restrictions. At that point, Steele says they realized, "Hey if we're closed, we should still be relevant. We should still be instilling joy in any ways that we can." 

In late March, the marionette theater launched its “At Home Happiness” campaign, a collection of digital resources. They shared puppet videos and puppet-making tutorials, released Bob Baker’s Marionette Coloring Book as a free download, and posted excerpts from Baker’s 1970s puppet-making activity book on social media. Steele says, “It was really just trying to keep everything joyful in a time that is weird and potentially scary and brand new to everyone.”

The day before the theater shut down, they recorded a bunch of videos so they’d have a backlog of content. Since then, executive director and head puppeteer Alex Evans has been coming in occasionally, setting up his own camera and filming himself doing puppet routines. By sharing content on their website and through social media, Steele says, they’re showing their audience, “We're still trying to make you guys happy and do what we can to support general happiness through our social distancing protocol that we have here at the theater.”

Before the pandemic, there were clips of Bob Baker marionette shows on YouTube, but they were mostly home videos recorded and shared by audience members. Now, the theater has an official channel full of solo puppet shows shot on the theater’s bright red stage, puppet-related craft projects, and a few videos recorded at home by puppeteers who have puppets with them in quarantine.

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Steele has been working with Bob Baker Marionette Theater for just shy of three years, and even with the theater closed, the job keeps her busy. The marionettes have always been popular birthday guests, and now, they attend parties through Zoom. She says, “When we're able to go out in person, we have what's called a one-person show. It's one puppeteer who performs about twelve different puppet routines that they can do with just one to two puppets at a time, depending on the routine.” 

Click through below to see more photos of puppets and puppet-making with the Bob Baker Marionette Theater.

A puppet from the Bob Baker Marionette Theater. | Courtesy of Missy Steele
A puppet from the Bob Baker Marionette Theater. | Courtesy of Missy Steele
Missy Steele helps a child make a puppet at the OxyArts and Kidspace Summer Camp in 2019. | Courtesy of Missy Steele
Missy Steele helps a child make a puppet at the OxyArts and Kidspace Summer Camp in 2019. | Courtesy of Missy Steele
A child holds up a puppet made at the OxyArts and Kidspace Summer Camp in 2019. | Courtesy of Missy Steele
A child holds up a puppet made at the OxyArts and Kidspace Summer Camp in 2019. | Courtesy of Missy Steele
A child makes a puppet at the OxyArts and Kidspace Summer Camp in 2019. | Courtesy of Missy Steele
A child makes a puppet at the OxyArts and Kidspace Summer Camp in 2019. | Courtesy of Missy Steele
An in-progress shot of a commissioned paper-art piece Missy Steele has been working on during quarantine. | Courtesy of Missy Steele
An in-progress shot of a commissioned paper-art piece Missy Steele has been working on during quarantine. | Courtesy of Missy Steele
A puppet from the Bob Baker Marionette Theater. | Courtesy of Missy Steele
A puppet from the Bob Baker Marionette Theater. | Courtesy of Missy Steele

It works much the same way for a Zoom birthday party, with one puppeteer performing live from the theater. Steele explains, “It'll be the puppeteer on stage, and then me behind the scenes running the Zoom webinar and making sure the camera angles are all right. It's really fun, actually, because the puppets will perform to the camera, so you get up close and personal with the puppets. During a normal show, our puppets sit on your lap, but for this, they’re just kind of face first in the camera. It’s really cute and really quirky.” 

Steele had never heard of Zoom before the theater was forced to shut down, and she says, “It’s been a bit of trial and error to get things just right, but I think at this point, we’ve got it pretty smooth.” The online parties and expanded social media content have enabled the theater to reach a larger audience than ever before. Steele says, “We're getting people tuning in from like Georgia and Australia and New York City.”

During the pandemic, the theater has been looking for ways to expand its education initiatives. They launched a new YouTube series, The Adventures of Bobo: Learning Puppetry in conjunction with LAUSD’s Summer of Learning program. The videos feature Steele, aka “Miss Missy,” and a clown puppet named Bobo. Steele created the lesson plans about making puppets and puppeteering, and she works with Evans to record and edit the videos. 

She says, “So far, we've completed four or five, and there are more to come. We're talking about doing this as kind of an ongoing thing, so it will live beyond summer school. It's fulfilling for us, it’s fun, and it’s a way to engage a little bit more with our audiences, especially since we can't see them in person.”

See the first episode of Bob Baker Marionette Theater’s “Adventures of Bobo.”

All of the craft projects the theater is featuring use common materials that people may already have around the house. Steele says, “I'm not going to tell people, ‘Hey, it's a pandemic, go to Joann's and find all these special items.’ It's, ‘Hey, you can make this out of Xerox paper. You can make this out of an old cereal box. You can use bottle caps to achieve certain things.’”

While the theater is closed, Steele and others on the Bob Baker team have also been working on their own creative projects. She makes cut-paper illustrations that she sells through an Etsy shop and laser-cut, puppet-inspired jewelry that’s available through the Bob Baker web store. One of the theater’s volunteers, Natalia Gaydos, is studying printmaking at ArtCenter College of Design and putting together a zine focused on the Bob Baker puppets. Many of the puppeteers are also artists, and they’re each contributing a piece of art based on a particular puppet.

As for reopening the actual theater in Highland Park, Steele says they can’t make any definite plans until they know what protocols the city recommends. “Right now, there's not even talk of opening places that have one hundred plus people in such a tight space.” The Bob Baker team has discussed the possibility of reopening anywhere between October and January, but Steele adds, “At this point, we're just kind of waiting it out, seeing what the rest of the world is doing and how that goes.” For now, they’ll continue to offer puppetry fans a regular supply of At Home Happiness.

Top Image: Missy Steele makes puppets on a puppet making video for OxyArts. | Courtesy of Missy Steele

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