Ten questions: an interview with the set and costume designer Denise S. Puri.

by | Feb 11, 2022 | Interviews

Denise Puri at the opening of the special exhibition ‘Asian Travels’

Denise S. Puri was born in the United States of America in 1966, moving to Berlin in 1972 where she has lived and worked ever since.  Many of the Kobalt Puppet Theatre productions based in Luebeck owe not only their stage design and construction to her but also the puppets themselves which she designed and carved!  This essential work like the person herself remain largely unseen by the general public.  It is therefore high time to give Denise her place in the limelight, centerstage if you will in our Blog.

Kolk 17: Denise, we are thrilled that you could make time for us in this interview.  Please tell us, how did you become a stage and costume designer?

Denise Puri: As a child I was very interested in arts and crafts, indeed at the age of 11 I could be found making my own clothing on the sewing machine since the clothes in the shops were not of the style I wished to wear – so I made my own clothes and later also for my friends.  It was at this point that I had the idea to become a seamstress. I had the good fortune to be offered an apprenticeship to make men’s tailored clothes however, after a short time I realised that fashion was not really what interested me – rather to dress well, but fashion for it’s own sake was just not my thing.

Directly after my apprenticeship ended I undertook work experience at the Schlosspark Theater in Berlin and after half a year took over the leadership of the inventory.  I created costumes and stage designs for productions.  Some time later I discovered Puppet Theatre but that was in a nutshell how it all began.

Coole Typen in Linie 1 ©KOLK17

KOLK 17: For the Puppet Theatre production “Line 1” which also played in Berlin you dressed the ‘Rocker’ character “Bambi” in a discarded and well worn leather jacket.  My question is a practical one – what do you consider important when making a garment for a character?

Denise Puri: A costume, whether designed to be worn by a puppet or a human should always support the role played by the character.  The audience should always be able to easily recognise the character of the actor.  The costume helps the audience to put the character into perspective; where and when their story occurs, in Berlin, today or in Cologne 300 years ago.
In relation the puppet theatre costumes, it is important that the joints and limbs of the puppet are able to move freely.  That is a somewhat tedious part of the process.
I prepare also the costumes for the puppeteers!  Here it is also very important that they feel comfortable in their costume and not constrained by it so that they can move freely to animate their puppet.
The third point which I find very important is the profile, the silhouette of a character be it a puppet or a human actor.  Is it rotund? Has it a disproportionately large head in combination with a a relatively small body?  This is also an important aspect of the costume design because as I said above, the costume should support the character not constrain it, so when designing a costume I take all these aspects into consideration.

Kolk 17: You are a woman who not only moves mountains but also builds them.  For the Production “Captain Eberhard and the secret Island”, you built the mountain ranges of the Island out of bed sheets.  I find your recycling of discarded clothing and other materials super.  Do you collect such items and store them in case they might be of use at some time in the future for an as yet unknown production?  How important is it for your to recycle, to re-use?

Denise Puri: I believe sustainability is one of the most important issues for us all.  Regardless of whether it be clothing, food or furniture.  Our throwaway culture is an out of date concept which thankfully appears to be on the way out.
When I began in the theatre, I built a costume requisite department here all sorts of thing including items of my own were stored for the future.  Over the years however, it became apparent how little  I actually drew from it.
In any case, used clothing always looks good for costume as it has a certain look, a patina. Sometimes I’ve had to visit second hand shops because a particular T-shirt for example which I had in my store, was not in the right colour.  But wherever possible I I re-use the items in the store, dyed or painted if necessary or newly discarded items.
The puppet theatre of Lübeck strenuously tries to re-use items.  They have bought puppets and stage-sets from colleagues in the profession which I have then restored and shown anew as well as stage-sets of productions which were able to be used in different ways.  I consider this a very modern, sustainable approach.

Kolk 17: You designed the costumes, the stage-sets and the puppets themselves for productions including “Line1”, “Emil the Elk, seeks a friend”  “Troll alarm in the Elk Wood”, “Rungholt’s honour”, “Troll Christmas”, “Pirate Captain Eberhard and the Secret Island” and “Cherrypicking Shakespeare – Pearls for the Queen”.  Which work was for you the most fun?  Which was most tedious? – especially with a view to sustainability?

Denise Puri: Exactly….or Like!
My favourite part of the job is designing stage-sets.  I enjoy painting and love the physicality of the process because the whole body is involved.  Sewing or building puppets is a different matter entirely requiring me to sit at workbench for hours a time focussed with a relatively small perspective which for me is more tiring and stressful.
Designing costumes is however a lot of fun.  The sewing passes relatively quickly as it is the skill at which I am most talented.
Building the puppets…this is the most tedious part for me.  They have to be capable of so much, their body proportions must be correct.  This is the longest part of any project.

I think of the characters in the children’s play “Emil the Elk seeks a friend“: I made the elk and the other animals out of textiles. First I had to design a pattern and think about an internal construction. Some animals were easy and quickly made. But the moose itself, it cost me a bit of nerves. But it turned out beautifully.

Emil Elch Sucht einen Fruend
Emil the Elk and his friend Hugo ©KOLK17

Kolk 17: As curator of the special exhibition “Asian Travel” in 2017 for the Museum of Theatre Puppets in Lübeck what did you enjoy the most?

Denise Puri: There are two aspects to exhibitions which I find especially interesting:  The first is actually the job of the curator; to decide on a theme which can be problematic in an institution like the Puppet Theatre and Museum Lübeck which has a vast collection of fantastic pieces.  It was not necessary to borrow anything from anywhere else as I undertook the project, I was able to dive in and work with all the objects at my disposal.  It was a lot of fun to see the full extent of the collection and to consider a context into which the pieces I chose could be exhibited.

Denise Puri curated the special exhipition “Asian Travels” in 2017 in the Kolk

In the special exhibition “Asian Travels” we presented objects from the collection which were until then never publicly displayed beside those that had in the past been on display.  With this exhibition, the last before the major renovations began, we were able to show the true extent to which the museum’s founder went to in order to secure a hugely varied and complex collection of objects from all over the world.
The second aspect pertains to the objects themselves.  They were once the tools with which a puppeteer made their livelihood, they were a part of everyday life and then suddenly they became museum pieces, sacred, touched only with gloved hands and kept safe.

In the exhibition I tried to let them be more reachable, to bring them once again close to the public who in the past were captivated by them.  I achieved this through different settings and poses in which they might originally have been seen.

Kolk 17: I’d like to quote a passage from your internet site www.suchtkunst.de Art is a part of our life, we live with and through art.  It is like an addiction.  Others take drugs, smoke or drink – we make art.  We think in pictures and not words.  If we could express ourselves in words with that which we try to show through our pictures we would write.”Can you quantify what is so addictive about your work that you enjoy so much in your work as an artist?

This quote relates to our work in free art.  When our productions consist of a single project or theme.  This is quite different to working for a museum or theatre.  In these institutions the work is always directed towards a specific goal, a certain piece or a defined exhibition.  The general framework is much more constrained than in my work as a freelance artist where my ability to express myself knows only the bounds of that which I can personally achieve.
But what is common to both forms of work is the process.  I find it incredibly exciting to see what I can tangibly realise through my imagination and of course finding and deciding upon, the seed idea from which everything can germinate into a fully fledged piece of art.
I personally find the entire work process interesting which is probably part of the reason I became a costume and set designer rather than an actor – declaiming the same lines every night in the same poses trying to achieve perfection through repetition.  I have always a beginning, a middle and an end, at which time the process is completed.  I treasure this structure in my work life.  There is a result and I, like a butterfly can flit to the next creative flower.  Apart from that, I learn something new with every project.

Kolk 17: Stress and addiction tend to go hand in hand.  What is stressful about your work?

Denise Puri: The stress for me is that sometimes I can’t find a way to stop working.  When I have a real creative ‘flow’ I feel like I could work forever which is of course impossible – something which I notice more and more the older I get because my hands become sore.

Real handcraft ©KOLK17

Denise Puri: Financially the life of a freelance artist can also be very stressful and at times can lead to mini catastrophes.  My income from freelance work is rather irregular which puts a burden on me like any other self employed person to constantly find work while I would sometimes wish a little time for myself to do things for my self.  I’m just now coming off the back of a six month scholarship and notice how relaxed it is.  It’s not the case that I work less but rather that through this secure feeling of guaranteed money coming in I can allow myself to experiment more, even to make a mistake.

Kolk 17: How much has the Corona pandemic affected you?

Denise Puri: The last year was pretty stressful alright because much of the public child and youth work where I worked just disappeared.   There were fewer contracts, but then I received the scholarship and other work became possible which also allows me to function well.
At the moment, I am relatively content with my situation because it allows me to spend more time at home which is not normally the case as a freelance artist.  I see the time spent at home as rather positive because it takes some of the pressure away since none of us know when the next performance will be.  This means that the productions I have been involved in had a more relaxed atmosphere.  In such an insecure profession as I have, I find that the pandemic has brought stress to a new unforeseen level, one which leaves me feeling quite tired.  On the other hand the pandemic has freed up quite  a lot of time for other pursuits.

It is always a good idea to first learn a trade

Kolk 17: You also work with children and youth in the “Kindertreff Kiosk e.V. am Reuterplatz, Kiosk e.V. c/o Elele-Nachbarschaftsverein’ (the Children’s meeting Kiosk and the elementary school children’s neighbourhood association), supporting and lecturing children in productions like the Town Theatre project “Entdeckungsreise Planeten” by Scott Jefferies, a musical developed by 280 students of the Gustave-Eiffel-Schule;  Pfefferwerk-Stadtkultur gGmbH.  What advice would you give to the young people of today who dream of becoming Costume designers or Stage designer in the future?

Denise Puri: Today it is very important, just as it was earlier – to have a good, no actually a really good apprenticeship.  Whether the trade learned is in the textile branch or as a carpenter depending on where one’s talent and focus lies.  With an apprenticeship one learns a certain structure and understands the job people working in workshops do.  It really is always a good idea to learn a trade first.
I think also that it is without question important to study.  Depending on the direction in which one goes, whether to film or theatre, it is always beneficial to study with other like minded people together.  One can draw upon the connections made there throughout one’s life.  This art of friendship and contact more commonly thought of as networking is very important.

Denise Puri holds one of the witches from Macbeth ©KOLK17

One should always follow artistic impulses

Society has changed.  I am self-taught.  I made an apprenticeship as a Men’s Tailor, but I didn’t study.  That was fine in the 90’s and for some it probably will work well today, however that is likely to be rather exceptional.  I believe that if one can complete an apprenticeship, followed perhaps by further study one can still learn new things.  This is something I find fantastic.

The last thing which I find really important is that regardless of in which direction one is drawn – be it writing, drawing or sewing one should always follow their passion!  Even if it doesn’t belong to part of their chose profession.  Whether arranging flowers or painting the walls at home, I believe one should always follow their artistic instincts because at the end of the day, one never knows where such artistic expression will lead them.  One shouldn’t put ones-self in a box and focus only on one thing.

Kolk 17: To round things up:  you spoke of your scholarship and your project, would you like to tell us a little of your work?

I’d be more than happy to talk about it!  It is a subject close to my heart, the realisation of one’s own project.  In 2019 we brought out our very first production.  It was an installation by the name of “drop by drop” a musical coloured lighting show.  
Within the framework of the artistic scholarship I worked together with Klaus Bortoluzzi, my husband and partner on a two room sound installation.  It is called “Metamorphosen”. It is broken up into many parts and we have made all preparations to realise it as a project.

Kolk 17: We are very happy to have got this tip from you.  When it is produced will it only be able to be seen in Berlin?

Denise Puri: The world is my oyster!  If the MOMA in New York invited me, I certainly wouldn’t say no!  Nothing is as yet planned.  This Room-Sound-Installation could find itself in Berlin, but just as easily in St. Peter’s church in Lübeck.  It could also take place in places one wouldn’t necceraily expect to find an artistic work.  We have yet to consider the possibilities, where and under which conditions and constraints of the Corona pandemic it can be held.  But we are ready…we only need to be asked.

Thank you very much for this interview.

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