Erika Schindele and the Giants in the production of Ella Enchanted: The Musical. Photo by Debora Robinson.
Sean Cawelti was inspired to embark upon a theatre career as a puppeteer and director from a very early age. “I’ve been a puppeteer since I was just 3, after convincing my parents to buy my first puppet at the Golden West College swap meet,” he recalls. “Since then I have always been creating and making my own performances as a puppeteer, puppet maker and director.”
Through his junior high and high school years, Cawelti pursued working with puppets and technology and the use of larger puppets. In high school, under the mentorship of his drama teacher, Cawelti brought to life his own adaptation of Alice in Wonderland with 20 puppets. He then attended the University of California, Irvine (UCI), where he graduated with a BA in drama with honors in directing. Cawelti also studied puppetry at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.
After several years spent working as an art director at the California Science Center in L.A., Cawelti left his day job and became a freelance artist, dividing his time between serving as the artistic director for Rogue Artists Ensemble and working as a director and puppet, mask and video designer. Considered one of the country’s leading large-form puppet designers, Cawelti recently took a break from his hectic schedule to answer a few questions for us.
Ella Enchanted Giants under construction in SCR's Prop Shop.
1. For Ella Enchanted, what kind of puppets (and how many) did you need to create? We created four giants, a menagerie including a puppet bird. I researched a lot of German and European images of Giants and animals.
2. What kind of instruction did you need to provide to Ella Enchanted cast members on puppeteering and how to work with the puppets?
That’s a huge question! There are a ton of guidelines when working with puppets including being considerate of breath, focus, weight, intention, eye focus and lots more.
3. Can you tell us about some of the other events you’ve designed puppets, masks or props for?
I’ve had the pleasure of designing puppets for theatre, opera, film and arena shows. This is the third time I have designed puppets for SCR, with the last show being Mr. Poppers Penguins.
4. What do you enjoy the most about your work in puppetry? And what are some of the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge is always the fact that each puppet is unique and the first time that character has been made, so there are always new hurdles to overcome. However, when it works, it’s one of the most moving and rich ways to articulate a story.
5. What’s next for you as a puppeteer/director?
Right now I have a show I directed (for adults only) called Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin based on several Japanese ghost stories that is not to be missed. There are some incredibly wicked puppets in that production (rogueartists.org).
I am also designing a few other projects including a wonderful show at Cornerstone Theater Company called Magic Fruit and the national tour of The Mountaintop with L.A. Theatre Works.
Erika Schindele, center, rehearses with the Giants in Ella Enchanted.
Learn more about Ella Enchanted and buy tickets.