Note: this interview with Han of Handsome Devils Puppets was a collaboration between Maika and I for Haute Macabre, a few years back. I love writing with Maika, they are the most thoughtful and imaginative partner-in-crime to work alongside, and I know this interview was a dream come true for both of us. Unfortunately, the Haute Macabre blog is gone and it broke our hearts to think that no one would read Han’s marvelous insights or get to peer inside her big, weird, beautiful heart again. So, we fixed that. And so now you can find it here, at Unquiet Things, eternally. We love you, Han.
Speaking from a writer’s perspective, interviews are funny things. Although this introduction is what you’re reading first, it was the very last thing written. It was also, somehow, the hardest part for me to write. Sarah and I had a wonderful time composing questions for Han. The hard work, as far as I’m concerned, was for Han herself, answering all our queries, which she did so thoroughly and thoughtfully, with grace and humor, with beautiful frankness and vulnerability. Sarah and I were both a mess of tears while reading her answers. (Consider yourself forewarned: have the tissues handy.) All I’m supposed to do here is get you from the top of the screen to those Qs and As. But I have such deep, intense feelings about the work of Handsome Devils Puppets. I’m so ensorcelled by Han’s every creation and performance, and I’ve been fortunate to grow to count her as a dear friend, that I don’t know how to verbalize any of those things.
Thank goodness you’re not here to listen to me rhapsodize about how much I love Han and everything she does. You don’t actually need to know that I first began interacting with Han when I contacted her in hopes of commissioning Eve and Adam from Only Lovers Left Alive.
Or about how last year I sat down and lost myself in the process of describing a piece of my heart to her and how she has since created an exquisite vessel for it.
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You also don’t need to know that I finally got to see Han perform here in Portland during her 2018 West Coast tour. Or how my cats met Pips. Okay, maybe you do need to know that. My cats met Pips! Mutual nose sniffing took place. Who am I kidding? I met Pips! And I got to give Han hugs, which I want to do pretty much every time I exchange messages with her.
I hope you enjoy reading Han’s interview as much as I did. It might seem straightforward and simple, but I find there’s something magical about coming up with questions for another person – someone you consider extraordinary – and having them answer those questions and trust you with their answers. Sarah and I so enjoyed this co-interviewing process that we’re hoping Handsome Devils Puppets marks the first in an ongoing series of cooperative interviews with singular people who endlessly inspire us.
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S. Elizabeth: Do you recall your first knowledge of the existence of puppets? I sure do. It was lady Elaine, the eccentric and (to my three-year-old brain) oddly glamorous old broad who ran the Museum Go Round in Mister Roger’s neighborhood. I was both captivated and vaguely disturbed by the stillness of her ruddy wooden features and unblinking blue eyes fixed in an eternal semi-squint, as contrasted by the scratchy, but lively, and very human voice asking the silly questions and posing ridiculous solutions that came out of her inanimate scarlet smirk.
This initial awareness of these uncanny vessels that we can bring to life by manipulation and mastery of their tiny movements has led to a life-long…not quite fascination…but a sort of hushed reverence, stupefied awe, really, for puppets, and puppetry, and the artists who create and control them. The idea that we can give voice to our thoughts through the mouth of a completely separate entity, even and especially when our thoughts aren’t actually very nice, seems to me like a fantastical catharsis, and is partially what brought about the idea to commission Han, whose Handsome Devils Puppet work I had quietly admired for ever so long, for a mini marionette version of Sei Shonagon.
Shonagon was a brilliant diarist, poet, and courtier, but also a bit of a Heian-era mean girl and guru of gossip, rumor, and scandal. I have long loved her writings: her elegant lists, her acerbic observations, her beautifully intimate and wonderfully catty diaries; these strangely random and tangential stories have informed and inspired my own writings for many, many years now, but if I am being honest, it is this mean streak that appears throughout her beautiful, clever writings that fascinates me endlessly.
Now, though, this marvelous vessel that Han created from the wisp of an idea and from what beautiful bones and scraps I could scarcely guess, I have an exorcist for my unkind scrutinies, my snarky opinions and observations, and my highly critical notions. Little Sei Shonagon with her clever brush and invisible ink coaxes my ugliness into the ether and leaves no trace of its unflattering existence. From her perpetually suppressed smile, I almost believe that she derives no small amusement from the expulsion of my cranky demons, and, while indulging myself in daydreams, I often recall the long-ago Lady Elaine’s tiny sneer and I am quite certain these two would either be great friends, or great rivals, or both!
But back to the business at hand. As Maika mentions above, we had such great fun in our back and forth brainstorming and bouncing ideas off of each other for this Handsome Devils Puppets interview. It was terribly daunting but so massively thrilling to put together these questions for Han about her inspirations and processes and great loves and wonderments– and for me, who has not yet had the opportunity to meet this incredible artist in person yet, it was an extraordinary look into a dazzling mind and a heart so big, there seems no end to the pieces of it you’ll find in her remarkable creations.
Prepare to be thoroughly enchanted and to have your heart broken and humbled and reformed anew as we take an intimate, emotional, and powerfully human peek at the lives of Han of Handsome Devil Puppets and her sentiment of spirits. I hope you will take as much pleasure in reading the following interview as we have in dreaming it, creating it, and sharing it with you.
M+S: Why puppets? You’ve spoken about how making and performing with puppets came to you during a particularly dark period of your life. Without prying into what was going on in your life at the time, why do you think it was through puppetry that you found your voice, as opposed to another creative outlet or form of performance?
HDP: I actually fell upon puppets quite by accident while accompanying a friend to a craigslist audition to be her ‘muscle’ (because what screams ‘murder’ louder than a puppet show audition in a warehouse?). I was recovering, floundering, alone, reclusive and without a voice in a city that was far bigger than anything I’d ever experienced. Life seemed a fanged, gaping mouth and I a mere scrap in its teeth. The audition ended not with murder but with an offer to help build the upcoming show. I wasn’t an actor, I had previously wept my way through a failed semester of 2D art, quit ballet after 6 years, piano after 10. I had so much to say, so much to feel and suddenly there was clay in my hands aching to sing and dance, to do everything and say everything I thought I couldn’t. There were no rules here. It was salvaged components and salvaged people weaving the silliest, saddest stories. It was all so heavy and so light.
Do you find yourself expressing things through your puppets that you’d never say otherwise? Not even necessarily things you’d dare not say, but simply things that wouldn’t have occurred to you until the puppet brought them forth. Conversely, do you ever find yourself saying things to puppets that you wouldn’t say to a human?
This is one of my first and favorite things I learned about puppets. Being a ragtag group of starving, drinking artists, how we were going to get people to listen to us? The city was full of us, how do you make them listen? One beautiful example of our solution came when we performed a piece based on the Tom Waits song “Georgia Lee.” It tells the true story of 12-year-old Georgia Lee Moses who disappeared in ’97. She had a troubled home life, she was poor, she was African American, she was not reported missing, there was no front-page news story and no rallying cry. Georgia’s body was found under a tree next to the highway far too late and her killer has yet to be found. How do you address that? How do you bring people together and force them to care, force them to listen to this sickening, heartbreaking example of a much greater problem? Our solution was puppets, a little girl made of sticks, buried in the earth who emerged to dance with the moon before her twigs shattered and she returned to the earth. How could we have accomplished that ourselves? How else would we have made people face this darkness?
(And now a shorter answer if you prefer! I often will not address certain darkness in me until suddenly it’s coming to life in my hands, or until it’s being written in song. You become so accustomed to your own particular melancholy that you sometimes fail to feel its subtle shifts. I trust no one, connect with few, but I have poured forth every shadowed corner of my Self to a puppet on many a night.)
Why do you think it is that puppets appear to connect with people differently than humans connect with each other?
Puppets cannot lie! What you say, they say. What you do, they do. They are honest little vessels. They look like us, but stranger. They are us, but innocent. They are both cosmic and primitive. We want to believe in their magic. It may not make any sense right now, but I spent most of my life screaming into an abyss of faces and never truly felt heard until those screams were screamed by a puppet.
I had so much to say, so much to feel, and suddenly there was clay in my hands aching to sing and dance, to do everything and say everything I thought I couldn’t. There were no rules here. It was salvaged components and salvaged people weaving the silliest, saddest stories. It was all so heavy and so light.
Have you ever found a puppet? Something you didn’t make with your own two hands, perhaps something that one wouldn’t necessarily even recognize as a puppet, but you knew it for what it truly was when you saw it.
Are we counting Pedro, The Man Stuck in a Coffee bag? (….it was my child-hand…in a coffee bag…a riveting living room dramatic performance). Every single day. Everything is a puppet, I say this at all of my shows. If you feel powerless, pick up the nearest thing to you and literally have power over it. Make it fly, make it scream, make it dance. There is actually a form of performance very similar to puppetry call Object Theatre in which everyday, found objects are manipulated to tell the story. In a way it’s very therapeutic, to imagine how this plastic bottle would ‘breathe,’ watching the rise and fall of your own chest to and mirroring it in your little plastic pantomimist. In a different way, I also have a crippling need to puppet when I people-watch. There are some people who would make the most incredible puppets! (I was reprimanded at a job long ago for telling a woman that her “baby has good shapes.” …In my defense that baby was round and adorable and cartoonish and was just begging to be a puppet. Y’all, I haven’t an ounce of social grace…)
You have previously observed that, “The power of the puppet is vast, but it is little without the power of your person.” What, in your opinion, is the role of the puppeteer?
Just be honest. Above all things be honest, be human. You are bringing something to life, there cannot be any insincerity, there cannot be any pretense. I am just up there crying and sweating and manically jiggling a puppet around and there is truth in that, there is vulnerability despite me being in ‘control’ of them. It’s not about power in terms of skill, it’s about your willingness to pour your soul into this little vessel.
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In your experience, do you find that puppets have a will of their own? Do your puppets develop opinions about each other? Do some prefer each other’s company or need to be kept apart?
Ooooh this is such a shameful bit of me. Maybe it’s a symptom of being a recluse, maybe I’m just unhinged but yes, yes and yes. With the increase in film and book characters in my work the strangest friendships are forged between puppets who share time on my table. Frida Kahlo mingled with Vincent Price. Tom Hiddleston chatted with a conjoined sheep.
If you feel powerless, pick up the nearest thing to you and literally have power over it. Make it fly, make it scream, make it dance.
In a 2017 interview, you shared that you started making puppets when you felt you didn’t have a voice, and that you “…sculpted powerful, magical women to dance and sing and cry and give me that voice.” This lends to a curious question on our part regarding that voice and how it factors into the genesis of each new creation. Do you start with that small soul’s voice, and give it form? Or create a vessel for it to take root? Further to that question (or perhaps to ask it another way?) at what point in the creation of a puppet do they come to life/wake up for you? Or are they alive from the moment you conceive of them?
It honestly happens in each of these ways, depending on the puppet. Sometimes while idly fiddling with clay it will take form and begin telling its own stories. Sometimes I sculpt from dreams. Sometimes I will experience something unbearable and the only way I can process it is by creating a puppet capable of doing so. In those instances the intention and the emotion are so potent it feels the puppet is crying out from the moment the mouth is carved. Now that I’m working with original songs more it has happened that a melody came first, the melody searches for the right voice to embrace it, and a character takes shape. It honestly can take some time for that spark of life, sometimes longer than I’d like. But oh when that spark catches tinder, I just cradle that little soul and let forth a litany of coos, cries, praises, affirmations, and REALLY embarrassing giggles.
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Tell us about Grannie Good-Witch’s jewelry box! I believe this is a box of heirlooms that you incorporate into your various creations as are working on them, even to the point that you travel with it and it accompanies you on the road. We’d love to hear more about these precious pieces of your family history and are interested to know how/where/why you decide to parcel them out.
(I am coincidentally typing this on Granny’s birthday!) My Granny was an absolute bat. She had her faults, she had her lows, she was forgiven, she was accepted, a pattern for our gene pool. She would take my sister and I on adventures across the state in her car, “Pokey,” made of cigarette smoke and dog hair (or so it seemed to be to me) and tell us stories of her childhood adventures in China. Fortunately for me, grannie was a hoarder and I inherited many a box of her trinkets from jewelry to small toys. I, on the other hand, move around far too much to amass very much, so when I first needed puppet accessories I pulled from this magical tiny wooden chest. Since then my collection has grown to include other boxes of the baubles of a few other powerful, magical, misunderstood women who have left this plane. Some pieces I can’t bear to part with (great-grandma’s itty-bitty miniature pink hand-fan) but others are so special they beg to be shared. A fingernail-sized bird to perch on the edge of a victorian infant’s coffin, a tiny silver cross on a commissioned memorial piece, a snippet of her hospital bracelet in a Plague Doctor’s pouch, an onyx earring post becomes a brooch. The possibilities are as vast as the depths of her strangeness.
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Most of your work is individually commission-based, but every once in a while we’re delighted to see a HDP small collection of roses, skellingtons, animals, or wee babies. What sparks the ideas/motivations for a limited release of these coteries of clay creatures?
There’s a technical, business reason behind them as well as emotional. I try to have a few releases a year to give people who cannot afford a marionette a chance to welcome a puppet into their home. It is so important to me to drown the world in puppets and I don’t want anyone to feel excluded due to finances. Once I feel it has come time for a release I keep a little portion of my brain open to receiving little whispers of what it should be, but you can’t rush it. They have to be simple but effective. They have to be puppetable. They have to tell a story. I think of themes or visuals that are accessible to people who are taking baby steps into strangeness but that are also of meaning to me. Often times you can catch a glimpse at where my life was by the collections i was releasing at the time. Conjoined animals when I longed for closeness. Post mortem victorian infants when I was coming to terms with my unpromising body. Little Roses that blow kisses when I decided to scoot the gloom aside for a moment.
What is your favorite thing about making and/or working with puppets? Between painstakingly creating these creatures, vs. animating, storytelling, performing with the pieces–which do you prefer? What do you get out of performing for an audience that you can’t from creating your puppets and working with them solo?
I know it’s cheating but I could never choose! They are such different beasts. When sculpting I get to be alone, crawl into myself and create and it is heaven, soothing. I learn so much about myself while creating. I learn so much about the world while researching for them. By all accounts I should hate performing. People everywhere, looking at me. Me making an absolute dingus of myself, spilling my guts, singing through stage-fright tremors, the opposite of the solitude of creating. But despite all of the terror, stress, anxiety, and vulnerability that comes with a show, I am addicted to it. The shows are a humbling chance to keep sacred the sorrows and needs of strangers. Yes, it is wonderful to get to sink into my own world, but there is a whole world of people out there just as human as me. And if just one of them leaves my show feeling heard, feeling healed, feeling something, then it is worth it and I will never stop. I will always come out of hiding for it.
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Some puppeteers are actors more than puppeteers – their puppets serving as props more than anything else – but the puppets of other performers seem to either be living individuals or extensions of their puppeteers. How do you view your own method of performing?
I have seen some incredibly effective shows where the puppeteer is fully shrouded and the illusion of a sentient being is achieved, or where the puppeteer acts as their own character opposite the puppet. Both are effective and respected by me, but I make it no secret that I prefer to treat them as an extension. I believe in the magic of the illusion, but I don’t want that to become a distraction. You know it’s a puppet, you know I’m back here moving it, let’s focus on the story as opposed to the trick. These puppets are small and they can only emote so much so I make sure I’ve got a big ol’ face chock full of feelings. I feel their pain because it is my own, I celebrate their joys because they are my own, if I make a mistake, they make a mistake. It’s a far far cry from performing, it’s really just a conversation. That being said I (being the consummate professional) sometimes catch myself congratulating a puppet during a song for completing a move well, or console them if they look especially sad. It’s accidental (and embarrassing) but it helps me be easier on myself. If I can have empathy and love for these little creatures while they tell my story, shouldn’t I be able to love myself? Basically shows are my therapy and I am the most undeserving dirt-person to be able to do them for a living.
It’s not about power in terms of skill, it’s about your willingness to pour your soul into this little vessel.
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During your live performances, you don’t use particular voices for your puppets, rather you serve as their respective voices. It’s as though you’re a puppet medium, a channeler. That represents a great deal of trust between you and the puppets. And there is clearly a great deal of affection between you and most of your puppets. But you also speak directly to them during your shows – do they speak back? We won’t ask you to divulge any of their secrets, but is there a language we cannot hear, that only you can?
The puppets are true professionals, I’m up there drinking and crying and talking, but I’ve never seen one break character. Even though I perform the same songs on each show of a tour, every show is different. Audiences respond differently to different songs, to different puppets. If I see certain faces reacting more I feed off of it and in turn the puppet does. The puppet becomes tasked with gaining that person’s trust, carrying them through to the end. I often find myself comforting a puppet when a piece is over or congratulating them. They pick up pieces of every person who connects with them. It’s a blessing and a burden and their little clay shoulders must carry it with grace night after night. Yikes, I’ve never sounded crazier than I do when I talk about puppets. With friends like these who needs hallucinogens?
Have you always performed solo? Or perhaps you’ve previously performed as part of a troupe/ensemble? Have you done other sorts of performances besides puppetry?
I never performed with that troupe I started out with, I only built. Used to having absolutely no organized idea of what I’m doing, I stuck to solo performing once I made my own company. I attempted theatre in high school (we don’t talk about it) and spent a good deal of time on stage during my ballet years (we can talk about half of those) but really my shows the past couple of years are my first attempts at singing/puppeting in public.
I spent most of my life screaming into an abyss of faces and never truly felt heard until those screams were screamed by a puppet.
Your live performances are very small and intimate. Do you see yourself ever performing in larger venues or is small and intimate your preference for the foreseeable future?
Every once and I while there will be a flash of that fantasy, a vague little pipe-dream of something bigger. But I really don’t think it suits me right now. The puppets would have to be larger and in turn I would likely have to recruit company members, something I am strongly opposed to doing. I’m too stubborn and horrible and intimately attached to this to subject innocent humans to the complete disaster that is my methods/life.
What do you hope your audience members get out of your performances?
HDP: Anything, any little thing. A glimmer of hope, a moment of levity, an assurance of their power. Hell even if it just brings them joy to see me making an ass of myself, I’ll take it. I’m genuinely floored each time anybody chooses to leave their house for what, on paper, sounds like an evening of watching that crazy old man on the street corner rave at you except he’s holding puppets and you have to sit on the floor. I open each show with a song I heard at a time in my life when I needed it most. It seemed to be written just for me, it calmed me, it gave me strength, I held it close until I didn’t need it anymore and now I have to believe that somewhere in some city is somebody who needs it as I did. I am humbled by the stories people bring to me after shows, completely reduced to rubble by their ability to so beautifully and purely be a part of this bizarre little journey.
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If it’s alright with you, Han, we’d like to switch things up for a moment and ask a few questions of Pips and any other members of your menagerie who’d like to participate in the conversation.
How did you feel the moment you first opened your eyes, and what was the first thing you saw?
P: “Familiar. They say I had closed them for such a long time, but this same familiar face pressed close to mine. There was that same familiar feeling of being the only two creatures in the world. I saw my legs in a pile, my patient body waiting, I saw tears in two familiar eyes, two unfamiliar cats, curtains of lace. I felt real.”
Do you consider yourself a puppet?
P: “I do but it isn’t a bad thing. I’ve spent a longer time on this earth as a puppet than I did as a deer so, in a way, to be a puppet is to be more alive than ever before.”
In your opinion, what is the role of the puppet?
HDP: From a box in a corner comes a chorus of dusty voices, “Yes, tell us, Han! When comes our role?!” From atop a makeshift stage a wearied woman cries, “To mourn when the human heart can no longer bear to.” A ball of clay with the suggestion of a face mumbles through carved lips, “She had a recurring dream that plagued her, I’m here to understand it.” Pips glares, irritated at being interrupted, but softens to say “To tell a story, whatever that story may be”.
What have you learned from Han?
P: “I helped her survive. And my story could help others do the same. It seems like quite a task for a wee fawn that creaks and crumbles but I am powerful. Oh also, you can get out of a traffic ticket if I’m riding shotgun.”
What’s your favorite thing about working with Han/performing?
P: “The post-show chin-scratches from the audience! But mostly the post-show nighttime campsite/stranger’s house/cheap motel/truck stop cuddle times. I don’t want to embarrass Han but…she might have more successful relationships if we didn’t spoon so much…”
Now back to you, Han, what have you learned from your puppets?
I am powerful. I am incapable of sculpting ears but I am powerful. I am a great writhing, unstable mass of flesh and boiling blood who really didn’t need another excuse to stay inside and talk to herself but I found one and it made me powerful.
HM: Can you share any puppetry-specific influences? For those who don’t know much about puppetry, who else should we check out?
So many! Kevin McTurk and his company The Spirit Cabinet are creating the most truly breathtaking puppet films. I learned of them when I was just starting out on this journey and I remember thinking “Welp, I’d better just give up now cause I’ll never be this good and the real world will never be as perfect as the one he’s created.” Bruce Schwartz created and manipulated some of the most achingly beautiful puppets in the most poignant pieces. When I first learned of him my heart leapt to see a puppeteer whose methods were so similar to my own, from his decision to show his hands to his desire to force folks to feel. Watch his performance in The Double Life of Veronique and his bunraku feature on The Muppet Show and get ready to see what makes me cry. Ilka Schonbein will show you her viscera and make you like it. Handspring Puppet Company will make you question reality. Ugh, puppets are great.
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Knowing that you’re a self-taught puppet-maker and puppeteer, do you have any advice for someone looking to get into puppetry themselves?
There is no wrong way to puppet. That’s the whole point of puppetry, it’s limitlessness. Learn from those who came before you, those you admire, but always count yourself among your muses. If what they did doesn’t work for you, do it your own way. Keep your eyes more open than ever before to the world around you, to muscles, to movements, to faces, to moments; you will then become your greatest resource.
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Any tours or other big projects planned at this point?
A million things planned but nothing on paper! A North/Northeast tour or two for sure. A west coast return for sure. Writing more music, some longer pieces. Hoping to gather up the courage/abandon my stubbornness and record audio of some of my songs (but no promises). Hopefully some music video work (fingers crossed). Other than that, everything in the world. I want to do everything.