Puppets, Parades and Processions, With Sophia Michahelles and Alex Kahn
You can’t rain on Sophia Michahelles and Alex Kahn’s parade because, well, they are the parade. As the Co-Creative Directors of PAW (Processional Arts Workshop), Alex and Sophia have traveled the world studying processional arts and the profound effect parades and pageant puppetry have on local culture and community spirit. Now, they apply their depth of knowledge and artistic vision to large-scale and site-specific parades like the New York Village Halloween Parade. Listen to this episode of The Cultured Podcast to learn which U.S. president was spotted happily admiring one of their puppets at the White House.
Read the episode transcript below.
Michelle Khouri 0:00
Today we talk to the people who bring enormous otherworldly creatures to life through wood, and paper, and a whole bunch of other materials. That’s right. It’s puppet time. And these aren’t your regular puppets. These are the kinds that tower over you in massive parades. We talked to Processional Arts Workshop on this episode of The Cultured Podcast.
Welcome to The Cultured Podcast. I’m your host, Michelle Khouri. And together we’ll journey into the unknown reaches of the art world.
Bienvenidos mis amigos! Que lindo verlos otra vez. So from now on we’re going to be recording every episode of The Cultured Podcast entirely in Spanish and I feel like you all are totally on board with that? Just kidding. That’s not happening…yet. So today, I’m talking to Sophia Michahelles and Alex Kahn of Processional Arts Workshop. And there are quite a fascinating duo. Their philosophy behind professionals or parades is actually way more deep-rooted than you might imagine. But before we get into that, I’m talking about my inspiration brought to us by our lovely producer, Enna Garkusha. Enna got a beautiful floral arrangement from one of our clients at FRQNCY Media. And it just got me thinking how nice gift giving and receiving can be. And it’s actually something that I work on, somewhat actively. You got me. (laughter) I don’t work on it actively. It’s just not my nature to give actual gifts. I’m the kind of person who will give my time and who loves to spend time with people, but I really admire those people who have that kind of forethought. Because I just don’t. And sometimes I’m like, am I just a really selfish person? I don’t think so. But I would like to be that person who shares those sweet moments of joy in gift giving. But you know, there’s also those people like a good friend of ours, Jessica, who just really enjoys giving. And so in those moments I’ve learned to just receive with joy, and that makes all the difference. Anyway, I’m going to try to be a better gift giver. But I want to hear from you and see if you struggle with the same thing as me or if you happen to be one of those people who finds joy in giving. And without further ado, we talk to Alex and Sophia. Here we go.
Welcome, Sophia and Alex. Thanks for joining The Cultured Podcast.
Sophia Michahelles 2:55
Thanks for having us on.
Alex Kahn 2:56
Great to be here.
Michelle Khouri 2:57
I am so excited to talk you guys and I guess my first question is: your nonprofit is called Processional Arts Workshop, but I want to know why it’s not called Obama Touched Our Puppets Once?
Alex Kahn 3:10
I think that’s the best GIF experience I’ve ever had is seeing a little clip from CNN of him quite candidly, and delightedly, pulling the strings on one of our mechanical Alice in Wonderland white rabbit puppets at the White House. That was…doesn’t get any better than that.
Michelle Khouri 3:30
I mean, it was amazing. And it also, you know, regardless of it being Obama, which you can’t really say, like you can’t say regardless and Obama in the same sentence, but it captured the kind of joy and whimsy your work brings to people. And I mean, I was just watching videos and videos and videos of your work. I was just smiling the whole time watching these videos because what you create with community is something exceptional. And it’s something so joyful even when it’s eerie. Tell us who you are and describe your work.
Sophia Michahelles 4:06
So Alex and I are Co-Artistic Directors of a small nonprofit called Processional Arts Workshop, aka Obama Touched Our Puppets Once. And what we do is we create, you know, processions, parade, sort of site-specific carnivalesque performances in collaboration with the local community–wherever that place is. So really, what we’re interested in is: what is this form that is a procession? Like, the idea of a group of people walking together from one place to another? How can that affect the people that we’re working with?
Michelle Khouri 4:50
Well, and I find it fascinating because the history of a procession really is deeply rooted in humankind. You could say that’s like the oldest form of community gathering we ever had, because we had to nomadically just like go from one place to the next to the next. So what fascinates you about this idea of precession? Why build a career around it?
Alex Kahn 5:12
Well, for us, it sort of takes something that as you point out, everybody has an experience with. You don’t have to explain a parade to an audience. You might have to explain the specific content or the meaning or the iconography, but the idea of a celebratory passage through space, a kind of reclaiming of space in a kind of ritual theatre manner. Everybody gets that. So our starting point is a genre that while it’s not always recognized as a potential genre for contemporary art, it is a genre of performance that everyone has an experience with. And that gives us a pretty firm basis upon which to build our community-based work. Because when you tell a bunch of people coming to the workshop: we’re going to create these visual elements, we’re going to create this narrative and we’re going to tell the story. That’s all well and good, but you tell them it’s in a parade and right away they get what the end point is going to be. And so from that point on, the innovation really sort of flows. We’ve been really influenced by looking at how various global traditions take that idea, take that structure of people moving through a public space, in an artistically intentional way. And specifically, we’ve looked a lot at Carnival traditions. We spent six months living in Trinidad on a Fulbright Grant studying Trinidadian–what they call Mas, which is their costumed performance component of their Carnival. We spent time in Basel in Switzerland looking at Fasnacht and some of the mask work and the work of the small bands that wander through the medieval streets of that city. And in all of these places, it’s so remarkable. If you were to approach these costumes, these performances, these choreographies the way that an art historian or critic might look at a work at the Whitney, you could peel away layer after layer of reference. And it’s these deeply embedded histories that, in sort of the Caribbean, their post-colonial histories or colonial histories that have been embedded as satire, they’ve been used as an affirmation of suppressed cultures. They’ve got political content to them. But they’re all sort of accreted into these repeated masquerades that come back year after year with sort of an evolved shift in their presentations over the years. And for us, as artists, this is incredibly inspiring.
Michelle Khouri 7:39
That is so fascinating, the way that you put that Alex. And it reminds me of what I’ve noticed about your work is that wherever you take these processions, you two dive into so much research about local history, the local figures, and it makes me realize that these are, on the surface, a very fun parade, how cool lantern parade, yay, that’s fun. I mean, on the surface, that’s just fun. But under the surface, what you’ve just described is so much intentionality and so much history and there’s so much meaning there, that it just makes it more flavorful and deep-rooted. Right? It’s really, to me, when I see your work, it celebrates human history, but also human inclination together. So speaking of history, and the need to look at history, let’s talk about your history as individuals and then also as partners. You’ve been at this together for a very long time. So you know, tell us individually. Sophia, let’s start with you–about just briefly your background as an artist. And Alex, same question for you after that.
Sophia Michahelles 8:47
Well, I had this idea I would become an architect. And somewhere along the line in college, where I was not studying architecture, I was studying art history, I got a little bit sidetracked into set design. And from there got involved–there was a sort of major production at the university. And it involved a number of characters as puppets. And for some reason, the theatre director had seen some of my work and decided Sophia is the person who has to do this. And I didn’t want to do that. I sort of fought it a little bit. But anyway, long story short, I ended up doing it. And it was this great experience of having to design these characters within the context of a performance. But it just really made clear to me that: though I was interested in theatre, this was a different way of designing space. I had sort of gotten into set design as a step from architecture. Really what was missing was movement of personality within that.
Alex Kahn 9:54
To me, I mean, in terms of addressing the larger question of where I got into all of this: I was sort of thinking about that while I was studying Studio Arts in college. I was in this very strange program that they called the visual environmental studies that was a direct descendant of Bauhaus teachers who had come from Europe to the US. And their whole approach was a broader idea that all of us should aspire to be practitioners of visual culture, not just necessarily specifically studio artists generating objects to put on a wall. And so as I went through that program, I began doing more installation work, working with some rudimentary puppetry, putting people into what I think today, they would call an immersive environment. And I started to think to myself, well, this kind of immersive art making exists in other parts of the world and has done so for many years. So I apply for a grant to go to Nepal and got the grant to go for a year. And so I went off to the Himalayas and I studied village festivals for a year. So, shortly after I came back from Nepal, I was given this opportunity to help out building the Halloween parade, which, as it turned out, was constructed in a Hamlet in my hometown where I had gone to high school and graduated. So I got hooked on, not only the way in which these artworks interacted with the crowds at the Halloween parade, but also the kind of communal building process that was necessary to create them. And after that, I ended up, sort of, morphing that into a career in theatre in New York doing set design and lighting design. But I kept coming back to the Halloween parade, I kept thinking, you know, there’s something here that really would satisfy a fundamental desire to merge ritual and theater in a way that’s potent. So in 1998, I was given the chance to design the 25th anniversary of the Halloween parade opening theme performance. Every year, the Halloween parade has a theme. And the idea is that that theme ripples throughout the other 50,000 people who are in the parade in costume, and it gives them a shared narrative that if they so choose, they can sort of glom on to that narrative. And it creates this thread of continuity through the whole parade. Well, there, there had been various themes that I have worked on just as a helper or as a technical person. But this was our chance to really design the theme from the get go. So it was the 25th anniversary, and we were noting that the Halloween parade, you know, had come under some criticism in recent years as it had gotten so big, so fast. So there were a lot of people who were nostalgically looking back to the early parades that were run by the founder of the Halloween parade, this wonderful puppeteer Ralph Lee, who really created the whole space and concept of the Halloween parade.
Michelle Khouri 12:48
And to clarify for those who aren’t familiar with the Halloween parade, this is the Village Halloween parade in New York in Greenwich Village that first started in 1974. I mean, when you talked about like the original days, you’re talking about the 70s. This thing has been going on forever.
Alex Kahn 13:06
Yeah. And it was a time that was pretty dark in new york city’s history. You know, there was a pall of kind of crime and danger and the city was almost bankrupt and neighborhoods were undergoing a lot of challenges in terms of the level of poverty in the city. And it was not a time where you would gladly go out at night as a kid on Halloween and wander the streets.
Michelle Khouri 13:29
Alex Kahn 13:29
One of the many things that Ralph Lee wanted to do, aside from just having this love of a vernacular festival in which we all engage in costume and puppetry and masking, he wanted to sort of reclaim the night space of New York by turning it into something that was, yes, dark, because Halloween is invariably our exploration of the darker side of our existence, but also celebratory, to kind of turn that on its head and say we can revel in the darkness. It’s an incredibly powerful carnivalesque position to take. Carnival perennially takes subject matter that is dark, you know specifically death, but also devils and any component of our moral existence that is outcast and suppressed and says we’re going to embrace that and invert it. Often it takes nemeses, like for example, in Haiti, there are these amazing masquerades that make fun of past military dictators and turns them into these sort of fetishistic costume groups that go down through the streets.
Michelle Khouri 14:31
Alex Kahn 14:32
So it’s a way of taking what is most destructive to us, and in a sense, turning it into laughter, celebration, not quite mockery, but a re-engaging of it as a kind of temporary culture that we can be part of. So it’s some more powerful than just carrying a sign saying this thing is bad and we’re opposed to it. It’s more, we’re going to become the oppressors.
Michelle Khouri 14:55
It’s like a community processing moment. It’s processing and reimagining those feelings. It’s taking a sense of ownership and power back.
Alex Kahn 15:03
Yeah. And in some ways, it’s taking that ownership back in a way that, I mean, this is common practice in contemporary art practice where people say, you know, whether we’re talking about queer identity or racial identity, I’m going to take those stereotypes, those tropes, and I’m going to essentially claim them as my own aesthetic identity.
Michelle Khouri 15:24
Alex Kahn 15:25
Anyway, so Halloween parade. The original parade was intimate. I mean, it was 125 people, 150 people meandering through the streets of the village and it touched a nerve and it created this sense and people of that time that this is exactly what we need to be doing. So more and more joined. And I think it took about, I don’t know the exact numbers, but it was about 12-13 years before the parade became something that was so big and I think it passed the million spectator mark sometime in the mid to late 80s.
Michelle Khouri 15:58
Oh my god.
Alex Kahn 15:59
Ralph Lee just didn’t–he didn’t want to be involved in something that police barricades and insurance and permits. And so that’s when Jeanne Fleming, the current director, took over. And it was Jeanne that commissioned Sophia and myself to design the 25th anniversary. And the parade had inevitably had to change because so many people were invested in the practice of nocturnal masking in the streets of New York. It was such a powerful ritual. Cultures in New York that might have felt marginalized found their way into it. It became this open space for everybody to play themselves on one night. A lot of people felt something had been lost with the loss of that childhood of the parade. It’s early intimacy, and we were sort of saying, you know, puppies become dogs, kittens become cats.
Michelle Khouri 15:59
Alex Kahn 16:08
The young Halloween parade has metamorphosed into its adult stage. So what we decided to do that year was use an animal metaphor and so we created a group of five giant caterpillars that then in the midst of the parade, they were 20 feet tall, they shed their skins.
Michelle Khouri 17:08
Alex Kahn 17:08
And they did this sort of leopardatral striptease. And then emerging from those skins came these giant Luna moths. They were about 20 feet tall. And their wingspan was probably equivalent to that about 16 to 20 feet. And so metamorphosis became the title of that 25th anniversary piece. And it became our first foray in 1998, to designing the theme performance of the Halloween parade. And we’ve done it every year since.
Sophia Michahelles 17:39
And after, you know, we continued working on the Halloween parade annually and designing a performance to lead the parade and establish the theme for the rest of the parade. And especially that first year with the lunar models, we had been working really hard for a few months. And at some point we realized we’re not going going make it. We’re just not going to make the deadline. These things are too big. It’s just two of us. And so with the help of the director of the Halloween parade, we’ve kind of set out a call and said, we’re going to host what we started calling puppet raisings. We’re going to invite people to our studio and on these dates, on Saturdays, and we’re just going to have a whole day where we’ve set up a number of jobs, of tasks.
Michelle Khouri 18:26
Sophia Michahelles 18:26
For example, the sewing. And paper machete. And various things that we can delegate, but we’ve already created the molds. We already have the design. Like we have it set, but we just need hands to come and help us.
Michelle Khouri 18:38
But didn’t that take trust on your parts? You know, was there a sense of hesitation with inviting people to participate in bringing your vision to life?
Sophia Michahelles 18:48
Well, it was really out of desperation. We didn’t think we would make our deadline.
Michelle Khouri 18:53
Sophia Michahelles 18:55
You’re right. It really did take a lot of trust, but it really came out of this sense of: this is a wonderful exchange where we are designing at a scale that two people can’t do and therefore we have to invite the community in.
Michelle Khouri 19:12
Is that the only event that you invite community interpretation for? Or has that become a consistent theme across all of your projects.
Alex Kahn 19:22
There’s always a space that we create for community involvement. And sometimes, for example, for the Halloween parade, it may be more of a maker space of: here’s the vision, here are the drawings, this is what we’re making. There’s still going to be some variation because people’s hands are different, but that’s more of a prescribed, kind of, design manifestation. Whereas for things like Morningside Lights, and for other projects we’ve done in different communities, we really do enjoy creating a frame, a structure within which people will bring their own preconceptions, their own imagery, their own voices.
Michelle Khouri 20:00
Well, it becomes a true reflection of the community, right? Rather than these two visionaries, which I mean, I love seeing the work that results from your brains, which are pretty spectacular, but then all of a sudden, you’re bringing in the community. And I wonder, so are these mostly artists who attend your events? Or is it really just a wide swath of people?
Alex Kahn 20:22
A lot of people come in and they say, very specifically, “I’m not an artist. I just needed a job to do.”
Michelle Khouri 20:30
Alex Kahn 20:30
You know, that’s a positive experience of, almost like, working in a collective kitchen and just give me some onions to chop and I’m happy.
Michelle Khouri 20:37
Alex Kahn 20:38
You know? I want to be part of something bigger than myself. But a lot of people along the way, they start chopping those onions and they start realizing, oh, I actually have something to say about this, or you’re working on this particular piece and I have a little bit of history that I can bring to bear. So for me, the building process is as important as the final product–that people are having these conversations intergenerationally, across different, you know, social strata about the subject matter that they are laboring on at that moment on the work tables.
Michelle Khouri 21:11
Yeah, you’re building this, like creators confidence in people is what you’re doing, like this creative confidence. It’s so–even when I talk to people about The Cultured Podcasts, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I have a podcast about arts and culture.” And people often say, “Oh, yeah. I just…it goes over my head. I don’t…I don’t get the arts.” And I’m like, “There’s nothing to get.” You said something on WLRN that I absolutely adore, Alex. I’m going to get it tattooed on my forehead. It’s creativity is hardwired into the human psyche. And you’re reminding me of that ethos as you talk about how you two approach bringing the community in, and everyone finds the artist within themselves even in the smallest way of, you know, chopping onions to continue your metaphor.
Alex Kahn 21:56
Yeah, I mean, I think what people fail to see about imagination is that every aspect of our reality is something that at some level, we have to imagine. Imagination isn’t fantasy and escape. Imagination is how we make our world around us. It’s how we perceive everything. So when you harness that, you’re simply asking them to reflect on the vision as they have imagined it, you know? The everyday reality of their lives. And simply by elevating that in the context of precession, turning that into a performance, the most mundane things you realize, take on, kind of, epic significance. So I mean, again, this brings us back to Carnival, one of the things that Carnival does is it elevates that which is debased or ordinary or mundane, and then it casts down that which would normally be considered elevated and wonderful and powerful. So, you know, you can make a parade of forks, which we’ve actually seen in Carnival in Trinidad and just this ordinary thing that you have a daily encounter with, when made 10 times it’s normal size and carried aloft, takes on this special significance to say: every single moment of your life is worthy of being rendered as a kind of celebration, as a kind of epic artistry in public space.
Michelle Khouri 23:15
Hmm, that is just really powerful. That’s it. We’re done. I’ve been rendered speechless. You know, speaking of this ethos, we’ve talked about some of your work, it’s hard to even describe some of your largest creations like the rabbit, that Obama touched, which is actually one of my favorite pieces that you’ve made, not because Obama touched it, but because I’m absolutely fascinated by the concept of Alice in Wonderland and this idea of like, the Wonderland and these characters, and I know that you recently actually did a Mad Hatter parade as well.
Sophia Michahelles 23:49
Yeah, The Mad Hatter was actually a really great project for us because we’ve been wanting to start something on our own–meaning we go out and seek collaborators. A lot of the projects that we do, an organization approaches us. We live in the Hudson Valley. And we’ve been really interested in the city of Hudson for some time. It’s a divided city in many ways, but also a beautiful city. We thought, well, this would be a perfect place for a carnivalesque experience. And it was this interesting experience of going in and really having no idea until the day was happening, whether anyone would show up. We did not design anything. We worked with people to design their own mad hats. And we were teaching a class at Bard College that semester. So we did have a core group of students who were doing amazing work, so we knew that was going to come out. It was really stretching that trust to another level. But I really it could just be a thing that everyone thinks, “Oh, this is not worth showing up for.” But in fact, a lot of people showed up. And it was pretty miraculous and a really joyful event. And carnivalesque. There was a lot of very weird madhatters. A lot of oddities, but also that event, one of the things that it did that was so moving is that there’s a main street in Hudson called Warren Street. And we purposefully did not go down Warren street, exclusively, which is the route that all of the other parades or almost all of them go down and we kind of did a little bit of crisscross. We went down a little bit of Warren Street, but also hit some of the other side streets. And as I said in the beginning, there’s a division between different groups within Hudson and some feel welcome in some neighborhoods and some don’t. And these neighborhoods are two streets apart. And that intersection and that criss crossing brought together people or groups of people who wouldn’t otherwise feel that this was their thing to participate in. And that to us was a real success. So we’re going to build on that. And I plan to continue our Mad Hatters and see where where it goes.
Well, I would like to formally invite you to Atlanta to make this happen. Because let me tell you, we would go buckwild for a procession like this, and there’s a lot of fodder for weirdness here in Atlanta. So whatever I need to do to help make this happen.
Alex Kahn 26:33
Atlanta has the, I think, the International Center for Puppetry Arts, right?
Michelle Khouri 26:37
Absolutely. Yes. I’ve interviewed Raymond Carr, who works with the Jim Henson Foundation, just to show having you all on the show, and then having Raymond, just how vast the world of puppetry and procession really is. And this is my favorite part of this job, quote, unquote, is I get to explore these microcosms that you don’t even know exists until you know they exist and all of a sudden your world expands. Your horizons expand. And that’s what you all do on a continuous basis for people. You expand people’s horizons and you expand capacities for joy. So I think that’s pretty special. And I want to thank you for adding that color and that joy to the world. Where can people find your work and find you?
Alex Kahn 27:25
Our website is processionalarts.org
Michelle Khouri 27:29
Alex Kahn 27:31
Michelle Khouri 27:34
And then you’re also on YouTube.
Alex Kahn 27:35
Yeah, the YouTube…I mean, for somebody who really wants to understand the backstory, the scaffolding of what we build, as it were. The YouTube selections that we have up are really mini documentaries about the work we did with the architectural league at the Beaux Arts Fall, about this omage to Romare Bearden we did as part of Morningside Lights, about the Highline project. But if you want to understand why we do what we do and how it comes to be and to see footage of the workshops, the YouTube selections are really well curated for that.
Michelle Khouri 28:07
I want to put you on the map for The Cultured Crew because your perspective and your work is astounding. So thank you for being with us today.
Alex Kahn 28:13
Thanks so much.
Sophia Michahelles 28:14
It was really great talking with you.
Michelle Khouri 28:21
I will gladly let Alex and Sophia pull my strings. That sounds weird, but you know what I mean? Anyway, until our next journey into the unknown: Keep it classy. Keep it curious. Keep it Culture. Visit culturedpodcast.com for show notes and subscription links. The Cultured Podcast is a production of my podcasts production company FRQNCY media. I’m the host Michelle Khouri. Enna Garkusha is our fabulous producer Becca Godwin is our wonderful associate producer. Our sound engineers are Cooper Skinner and DonTae Hodge. And we’re recording at ListenUp Audio in Atlanta, Georgia.