Remember the puppet shows you used to put on in your backyard? Popsicle sticks with googly eyes, a cardboard stage? Bet you thought you were pretty slick.
Porch puppetry’s got nothing on the troupe at the Mudlark Public Theatre, led by the talented Pandora Gastelum. Tucked into the corner of Port and Marais in the Marigny, the grassroots venue looks like any refurnished post-Katrina house on the outside. But inside, it’s brimming with hand-made creatures constructed by the Mudlark Puppeteers. A huge white bat spreads his wings on the ceiling. A skeletal mermaid hangs in a corner, curling her tail. Gigantic cardboard trees grow floor-to-ceiling behind the bar.
You may have caught some Mudlark work before: they co-sponsored the Giant Puppet Festival at the Piety Ironworks with the Marigny Opera House at the end of March. The show was a sold-out hit, and since then, Gastelum’s been hearing from artists across the country who want to get involved.
But the Mudlark isn’t just for marionettes. It has hosted a wide spectrum of weird, beautiful, and/or creepy events: a traveling circus troupe, a DIY striptease show, foreign film screenings and secret creeperies and spooky shadow puppet folk tales. Today, Gastelum’s cutting out paper silhouettes for a weekend cabaret. In addition to puppetry, it will feature “monster burlesque” by Mudlark’s resident dance troupe, Vixen Section Trauma Team.
It seems like a long way from her old studies. Gastelum spent a year training as an embalmer in New York. She says that that year studying anatomy and physiology actually helps her art now. “My main goal is to always be telling stories,” she says. “Studying anatomy, this physical form that we take is another approach to story. Just an external one.”
The Mudlark Public Theatre was founded in the fall of 2009 by Gastelum and friend Amanda Stone. Gastelum bought the building and hired local friends to renovate it after the kind of hardship that could’ve made a weaker woman give up.
“In 2007, I was orphaned,” she says. “It was a really difficult time in my life. I had been, up to that point, living all over the world, pursuing work in puppetry in Southeast Asia”—Gastelum was awarded an artist’s residency in 2006 at the Patravadi Theatre in Bangkok, Thailand—“I didn’t really have a home. I had to come back to deal with my family issues, and I tried to take advantage of that as an opportunity to create a new home for myself.” These roots are reflected in the theater’s name; “mudlark” is an old-fashioned term for orphan.
Since leaving her hometown of Austin, Gastelum studied or worked in Taiwan, Thailand, Italy, and the Czech Republic, to name a few landing places. What led her to call New Orleans home?
“The first time I participated in a parade here, I was hooked forever,” she says. You can hear the Louisiana love shining in her voice. “It’s a really dynamic place, as much as it’s rooted in this really dense and difficult history. I feel that it’s always in flux, reinventing itself, little communities are bubbling up and breaking apart and reforming. It’s primordial.”
The Mudlark has captured some hearts itself. While Gastelum says she doesn’t actively seek out musical acts, musicians who have performed there spread the word and recommend the Mudlark to others. “It’s a music city, so as soon as I opened the door the requests started coming in,” she says. Some of Gastelum’s favorite musical acts included Dark Dark Dark and Lonesome Leash. “Aurora Nealand curates an event here called Accordion Accordion Accordion!!!, typically herself and another group of accordion players. They’ll do a combo of solo acts and then all get together and play in an accordion chorus.”
For now, Gastelum says she’s happy to be back in the Mudlark after the madness of the Giant Puppet Festival. But the show was such a success that the folks from Marigny Opera House that produced the first one “committed to producing it again and making it an annual event. I’ve been getting a lot of emails from puppeteers around the country who are really excited to come here and perform at
the next one, which will take place in the spring. We put this one together in two-and-a-half months, so having the luxury of time will be amazing.”
The Mudlark has a bright future these days. The Jim Henson Foundation, founded by the Muppets creator to promote the art of puppetry, has talked about sponsoring the Mudlark. Gastelum says they’ve discussed putting the place on “an annual grant for presentation of puppetry.”
Sponsored or not, Gastelum will keep bringing the puppet love to New Orleans every chance she gets. She can’t help herself. “I feel inspired being here,” she says. “Sometimes it’s frustrating; sometimes it’s heartbreaking. The threat of disaster is always imminent.
“This place just has my heart,” she says cheerfully.