Igor Gozman

Title

Igor Gozman

Description

In this interview, Gozman discusses the history of PuppetART the Detroit Puppet Theatre from its beginnings as an idea between collaborators in 1990 through its nineteen years of providing family-friendly and culturally diverse puppetry entertainment at its location in downtown Detroit from August 1998-2017, to the direction they are taking after their move to their new location in Southfield, Michigan in 2017. At the time of this interview, PuppetART had been in operation for exactly twenty years. He also talks about puppet theatre in Russia and how it compares to puppetry in the United States, the significant history of puppetry in Detroit, his career as a puppeteer, and his philosophy about the way puppetry can enrich and strengthen the life of a community and celebrate human diversity.

Publisher

Detroit Historical Society

Date

8/8/2018

Rights

Detroit Historical Society

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Igor Gozman

Brief Biography

Igor Gozman was born in the 1950s in Moscow and studied puppetry through apprenticeship and formal study at the Leningrad Theatre Institute. He immigrated to Detroit and in 1990 met his future puppetry collaborators Luda Mikheyenko and Irina Baranovskaya. Together they founded PuppetART the Detroit Puppet Theatre in 1995 in downtown Detroit and established a teaching studio, puppet museum, and performance space presenting a repertoire of multi-cultural stories through a variety of puppetry forms, as well shows for families which they presented every Saturday from 1998 to 2017. In 2017, the company moved out of downtown to their new location in Southfield, Michigan.

Interviewer's Name

Nicole Graziano

Interview Place

Southfield, Michigan

Date

8/8/2018

Transcriptionist

Nicole Graziano

Transcription

[Interviewee: IG]
[Interviewer: NG]
NG: Hello, my name is Nicole Graziano. Today is August 8th, 2018 and this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s “Detroit Puppetry Oral History Project.” I’m here today with Igor Gozman. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
IG: My pleasure.
NG: So Igor, where and when were you born?
IG: Long ago in Moscow. [indiscernible] Sixty almost five years ago.
NG: How did you get into puppetry in the first place?
IG: Unpredictable sequence of events. At some point I got involved with the drama theatre, with pantomime, one project after another, got involved with a puppet theatre project and kind of stuck with puppetry. So I…evolved from a hobbyist – puppet drama theatre hobbyist – to professional puppetry over the years.
NG: Did you see many puppet show growing up?
IG: Compared to what kids here see here, a lot. But it was always normal, it was as I recall, visiting puppet theatre was a routine. It’s just part of the educational process. Go to museum, go to drama theatre, and puppet theatre as well.
NG: How did you acquire your puppetry skills?
IG: Mostly through – by working. But I do have formal educational study – education in puppetry, education in Leningrad Institute, Theatre Institute. But of course, mostly it is onstage, in rehearsal, in rehearsal room. That’s where we got it. Not just from – during rehearsal and training. In puppetry, I think, at least when I got into that, was always almost like medieval time trade. Apprentice would learn from master. So you hang out around the masters and you learn. So that was kind of the essence of my education. At some point I had a formal in institute.
NG: When did you arrive in Detroit?
IG: Well, the story of my arrival – our arrival – to the United States is pretty much similar to all others – Russian, Jewish, immigrants. We came here before the wall fell down, so our move was through Austria and Italy where we were waiting for asylum for six months. We finally got here and then, again – accidental, it depends who believes in what: somebody believes there is somebody’s destiny is written already, and some would say just accidental. One way or another, I ended up here in Detroit with no plans to continue my work in puppetry, or in art in general at all, and that’s what was from the beginning when we left Russia. It was known, that was the decision. Well, that’s the sacrifice we have to make. But then we discovered that we met our friend and co-founder, co-founder of the theatre, Luda Mikheyenko. She’s a drama director and she already had a little group of teenagers she was working with, and we started working together for this first show, [indiscernible] show. We met in 1990 and in ’95 we finally formed PuppetART as nonprofit organization. In ’98 we leased place in downtown right across Hudson’s building, and that’s when our Detroit history, or [indiscernible] began. And well at that point, Detroit was quite special place where everybody was trying to avoid by all means, unlessa it is really a necessity to go to Music Hall, for example. The place was across Hudson’s and it was abandoned building with a blocked kind of fence. What we all remember, [indiscernible], association we have with this, it was that smell from the basement – awful smell from the basement [laughter]. Well, we started and we decided to go with a model we know from Russia, which is repertory theatre where we build up a repertoire and keep shows, our productions, in repertoire and bring it back. That’s one thing, and the other thing – aspect of that would be regular performances. So from the beginning, actually this month, will be twenty years of PuppetArt. Around this 8th, 10th, or 15th of August in ’98, we had our first public performance in downtown. We decided that we would have performances every Saturday at 2:00, and since ’98, August of ’98 whatever Saturday it was until August of 2017 last Saturday, we had – every Saturday – we had performances at 2:00. And this is the model we worked it and we went through all these years. It has its benefits and it has its difficulties – its challenges. So, from ’98 this PuppetArt Detroit Puppet Theatre begins, because from ’95 it was PuppetART, and “A. R. T.” stands for American Russian Theatre. But from ’98 it is the Detroit Puppet Theatre, PuppetART studio and museum. So again, from our experience, from our life in puppet theatre, everywhere we were working [indiscernible] Russia, in different theatres, puppet theatre, unlike other theatres – drama, was good. It never existed by itself. Every puppet theatre I was working in would have some form of museum, a display of puppets, some rare, some just old productions, so forth, and some form of school, a studio where – usually it was some form of affiliation with the local art college, drama or sometimes specially designed course for puppet theatre, directors and designers. In every theatre. I was working – there is always a group of young students kind of running around [laughter], and again it kind of proved this apprenticeship way of learning. So, theatre, museum, studio – that kind of triangle we were [inaudible due to laughter in background] in puppet theatre, and we decided to go the same way. That’s why we opened up – as we opened theatre at the same time we opened up the museum. By that time we had many few puppets – we collected them in markets, nothing really valuable because at that time our goal was to show diversity of puppets, the different kinds of puppets, and kind of reflection from different cultural traditions [indiscernible] of the world. And we didn’t pursue any, you know, special value in the puppets. And of course studio – we started developing different workshops and classes and student for us because we had to bring in, [indiscernible], local artists and we discovered that nobody have any idea what puppetry is. The farthest would be Muppets or this kind of thing, or glove puppet stuff. [laughter] Back in Russia we call it “kiki miki.” [laughter] Well, that’s what it was – at least, we didn’t have luck to meet anyone. Then later, there were a few local professional puppeteers who would perform around the area. But again, it is as much as I come to (laugh?), is this American genre, this one man puppet show, for obvious reasons – economical, and everything else. But it’s still on a very specific level always one way or another connected to educational… The proper theatre we knew, we were grown up in – we didn’t find it here at all. Then a few years later, I discovered it at UConn, I discovered it on the west coast a couple of stationary theatres, Atlanta center… It started all of a sudden, it’s like a mushroom started growing – or I discovered, I wouldn’t say they appeared, I would say the [indiscernible] has been but I started discovering these places. And of course it kind of lifted up the spirit, because [indiscernible]. That’s how we started to work it. Since then, a bunch of projects… Actually kind of three directions that we went. Of course studio is – we’re always teaching, learning from each other on a professional level, but we have a program (journey with puppets for knowledge. So journey with puppets?) is our art education program. [Indiscernible] it developed over the first several years and then now we [indiscernible] – I can talk about it later. The repertoire of performances we need to develop. When we tried to conceptualize, kind of figure out why we’re doing that and what it’s for – in other words, started working on our mission as a nonprofit organization. And the closest(?) – naturally, it just became obvious at some moment very quickly that diversity of puppetry is a reflection of peoples’ diversity. And when we start, when we moved to Detroit and got to know, you know already the tapestry – different communities, different places, places(?) downtown from Dearborn to Hamtramck, so all the corridors. It’s kind of – that’s what it is. That’s what we’re going for. And that’s how we started developing materials. So we began with Russian and Jewish because, well, it’s the Jews from Russia, two traditions, we have two roots in that sense. And then we had… what were there? I think it was an African next show –two shows – African tradition, Native American, Japanese, and Arabian. So that’s how we build up. Then, at the same time, also we discovered that there is a special history about puppetry in Detroit which is related to national puppetry movement. You know about that – do you?
NG: Tell me!
IG: [laughter] Well, I have this good feeling when I was telling Detroiters about place Detroit has in the national puppetry movement. So in 1936 there was no organization, although puppetry union is oldest of all in the world. In the United States there was not any organization, any collective. Puppeteers [indiscernible]. Puppeteers were working very kind of medieval time, keeping the secrets of their craft – trade – to themselves. So the guy by the name of Paul McPharlin – puppeteer and writer and historian, lover of puppetry, puppets, and puppeteers themselves – he had a McPharlin Marionettes company. He called up(?) all the puppeteers in the United States and in Canada and in the summer of that year they had the first conference in Detroit in Midtown around DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts] of all the puppeteers. If I’m not mistaken, about 300 people came in and there was a whole week of exciting events – performances, workshops, pretty much as we have today, lectures, discussions, hang-outs, all that. It was for the first time puppeteers got together. And two things happened: First of all they had to like – love each other, love this kind of gathering, and second, they decided to do it again. And they said, “A time next year, we’ll meet in Cincinnati.” And when they met next time in Cincinnati, the Puppeteers of America was established. So when we have adult audience I’m saying, “The love-making was in Detroit. Puppeteers of America was born years later in Cincinnati.” [laughter] It’s funny. But well, that’s the little story, but the point is, when we moved into Detroit, the downtown, and discovered that there’s a whole thing, a whole history of puppetry in Detroit with this [indiscernible] fact, we decided, we thought, we felt that we’re not outsiders, not accidental, we are a link in the chain which is, kind of, puppetry in United States. And from very beginning when we formed this mission to explore traditions and values of different cultures through puppet performances, exhibits, and classes, when we formed that mission, we kind of settled down. We knew from that moment what we’re doing, why, and the only thing we must know how and do it kind of thing. That’s what we’re doing next 19 years, and now a change, we’ll do it again – continue. That’s a little bit about that history – overview. [laughter]
NG: Where exactly was your old theatre?
IG: It was right in the downtown. Now it is place across [indiscernible] where is new construction goes on the Hudson’s building site. Grand River and Farmer. A lot of change, has changed since then. But we were right in downtown. It was good, it was great, it sounds good, sounds very kind of presentable, but – oh gosh, how many difficulties! Just begin with the parking. Get people who don’t to go to downtown in the first place and then have them find, pay the parking, and pay parking fees [laughter] because that whole time the meter wouldn’t work. What I’m saying is it wasn’t – it was exciting but not simple. Now we can recall that with smile and pride, and… ugh, ugh, how many different things happened! Anyway.
NG: What were your audiences like? Who came to your theatre?
IG: Well, what we knew from the beginning it would be the families. The main audience would be families. But there is a kind of strive to have something special, experimental, and we had couple of productions specifically for adults, or evening productions. As far as the family, here is the thing: I asked quite often, “What age appropriate this?” And it’s not that easy to explain. The thing is that any puppetry performance we have here, although we designed every show with a certain age in mind – [NG picks up water bottle cap and hands it to IG] oh, thank you – produced in such a way that it would fit from four-five years old to retirement age – fifty-five, sixty-five. And again, it is the puppetry itself. Because when puppeteers would be on the town square performing, puppeteer wouldn’t choose the audience. There were kids around, and adults, and soldiers, and everybody else. So it was all demographics. And it is with puppetry, always that’s what puppetry is, and that’s what puppetry is for – for whom. That’s what families [indiscernible] although it is definitely for children and very useful for educational purposes. We had a couple of productions specifically were run for adults like one on Japanese and Native American stories [indiscernible], and it worked. Although we had this Sleeping Beauty production, marionette show, no dialogues, just – we call it marionette ballet. And it’s fifty-five minutes of wonderful, beautiful, classical music and puppet designs dancing around. Everybody would think that it’s too sophisticated for kids and no kid would sit fifty-five minutes listening to music and all that, so there was the concerns and, kind of, “Think what you’re doing.” But it’s [indiscernible] now that four years old would – even three years old – would be captivated, seeing that(?) the stage is all, like, eight by six size, and they just would crying on the laps – parents’ laps – and the music begins and it’s quiet fifty minutes [indiscernible]. I would love to take credit, but I think it is the puppetry as a genre the credit belong to. So that’s how we built the repertoire, that’s what it is. And we continue – we try to continue this way of course.
NG: From your perspective, what role has puppetry played in the community where you worked?
IG: For once, in terms of community members, adult and of course children – many adults and children – had their first experience of live theatre – not puppet theatre – live theatre in general for the first time. It’s hard to imagine for us, you know, think about how can it be that a mother thirty-some years old with a kid ten years old and neither kid nor mother ever been in a live theatre. The theatre associated with popcorn, Coke, screen, and lying back without work needs to be done. By the mere practice of watching a live show, you have to work on it. That’s the, kind of, [indiscernible] between artist and audience. We will [indiscernible] for you and you must understand what we’re doing. And they didn’t have this experience. So in terms of what kind of contribution we made to the community, I think, not in terms of the scale, but in essence I think it’s a big – at least it’s most rewarding that we were opening the door to completely new experience in terms of social life and connection with the – exposure to art and cultural traditions because of the content – not just the form but content as well. So you were asking about audience, community, role in community. That’s what it is. It then goes on that [indiscernible] kind of aspect, such as we really were a reason for many families to get over many years of being hesitant to go to downtown and finally visit us. We would have grandparents who would go to Hudson’s building many years ago and they remembered that experience and afterward there were the ‘60s they never even put a foot in Detroit in downtown. And we were the first reason after many many years for them to leave suburb and come to see downtown. And it kind of was growing and growing, so that will be other aspect of our contribution because we really were the reason that many rediscovered – discovered or rediscovered – downtown at that time. The other thing, again, I think – I’d like to think – that the repertoire, the concept of [indiscernible] cultures and variety of puppets because it’s all interrelated. Everything is kind of tied together, interconnected. It’s not just the diversity of cultures, traditions, stories, we work with a variety of different puppets, puppetry kinds – rod puppet, hand puppet. And every performance basically designs its own style, and many different styles of stage set. A different solution for every show. So all these things are – another form, another way to tell, it’s not just the content of the performance, of this experience, what they came to see, what they learn from the production, it’s a whole form in which that event happened. Everything from coming to downtown with all this great experience of finding parking to this completely discovery. “Oh, we didn’t know! I never saw anything like that. I never been.” “Oh, I remember when I was nine years old my mom took me somewhere.” This kind of conversation we had every time after shows or workshops. I’d like to think that will be, that is, our contribution. I’d like to think that way.
NG: Were there other puppeteers working in Detroit at the time?
IG: Oh yes. Oh yes. We have one of the biggest guild in the country and we are of course members and try to be as participating as many as we can, and we have a group of puppeteers working in that style as a like, one man show. But also, especially later years, there were individual projects here and there kind of exploring of puppetry and directions where puppetry goes now, because puppetry became such an invasive art form. It’s everywhere. So [laughter] – “Here’s a movie. Let’s use puppets!” “There is a musical. Let’s use puppets!” [laughter] You know what I mean? So everybody wants to use puppets. Well, I must say that I began in ‘70s but in Russia and Soviet Union, this influence began in ‘60s, so of course Russian drama theatre is unique and special and very [fan in background] big part of the culture, but in ‘60s the puppet theatre started influencing other theatres and drama as well, [pause in audio] influencing other form, other art form. [coughing] Because it’s not only the theatre, drama theatre, it’s also in the visual art, because all of a sudden, you can see the artists – visual artists – sculptors, and painters, kind of bring this image, this idea of puppetry because it’s, you know, the complexity, as we say. Here’s a puppet of something, of somebody who [indiscernible], and it’s once I don’t understand is that the puppet itself is an idea. It’s not just a character. It is an idea which this character represents in this particular case. So unlike in drama, we follow the character. In puppet theatre, in puppet – stories through puppetry, we’re following an idea, how – what conflict this idea goes through [indiscernible] in its development. So this thing, those kind of views, began infiltrating other forms – art forms. And like I said this began in ‘60s and I got involved in these things. But I must say, it didn’t begin in ‘60s. Right before that, in the revolution time, around before and right after, these were the, kind of, another renaissance of puppetry in Russia and Europe with the development of the productions for the propaganda purposes, state-funded, but at the same time there was so many outlets where the artists would experiment. Poets would write for puppets. Composers would write for puppets. It was early twentieth century. Before, in 18 - [laughter in background] [indiscernible], there was another kind of renaissance of puppetry. And before in medieval time, it was [indiscernible] all those puppeteers who performed in the town squares. So, it’s always there, it just – coming up, take the first row, first seat, and then kind of fading out, getting old, and then reincarnated in new form. So, same thing I found here because, for example, in DIA many years ago, there was a exhibit of – collection of – [indiscernible] puppet collection, and there was a set from – Oedipus Rex puppets, like nine feet tall. When I look at those puppets, I thought it was produced – created maybe ’75, more recently, but it turned out it was way way way back, in the ‘20s, I don’t know when. It might be later. So anyway, it was so modern and, oh yes, I was kind of arrogant, “Oh, American puppetry [indiscernible].” No, it’s all here. It’s been here all the time, we just wouldn’t notice it. It was pushed away out of commercial stuff quite often, but it never died. And I think it still is and was and will be there all the time. It’s a nice thing. So, one must remind himself never take credit for puppetry. That’s puppetry supposed to take credit for everything came out good. Just because you didn’t betray the puppetry itself – that’s why it’s good. [laughter] If it’s not good, something wrong with – in your relationship with puppetry.
NG: Tell me what was going on when you ended up moving your theatre to this location in Southfield?
IG: It is – it was a expected natural way of life, and sad of course. Very difficult and by all means natural because I know that theatres kind of live twenty years, fifteen-twenty years, and then it kind of dies. It may die completely, or it will transform, reincarnate, with new leadership, new director, new composers. So it’s always – we kind of reached this maturity when new PuppetART should get started, because the existing is supposed to die anyway. But the way it happened was kind of, of course, very sad, mostly because – well, in my view, because of the hypocrisy of what’s going on in downtown. There was so much talking about how diverse downtown is supposed to be - it will be – it almost already is. But when I check it out even a year after the – everything, I mean, of course, sport bars, some art events once in a while, and as far as the family, regularly available family events would be the Campus Martius, I think. When we began twenty years ago, we decided that would be the place where family, no matter what – they don’t even need to look at calendar or advertisement: “Today is Saturday, 2:00, let’s go to PuppetART. There will be something. Some performance will be there.” So, all these years it was only on a regular basis venue for families. There was nothing – A lot of events: music hall, opera house, city scheduled, Hart Plaza, I mean always, of course there are events. But the point is that it must be placed in more than one so the family can make a choice. Not between historical and sport event, but choice in terms of this art exposure. Would be good if it would be youth theatre – professional youth theatre which perform every Sunday, no matter what. So at least we were able to pull up these puppet performances. But in downtown as it started changing, which we met with great excitement because we thought, well finally, because it’s so obvious that this is only venue, family venue, and if you want to bring in downtown families, especially new families… Yeah, of course now it’s just childless couple, boyfriend girlfriend, professionals they don’t have children but in five years they will have each kids. If they moved here, what are they going to do in five-ten years with a kid, and here we are. So that’s how I view that. Because we always struggle with funding. It is the main, most devastating part of our work. Instead of doing the art we’re doing fundraising. So our excitement was based on this preconception wrong that finally this surrounding community that I just recognize – because everybody recognize how great it is. But [indiscernible] just not an accidental, you know, but in real way take cares so artist can do art and to not be concerned with the way of life. But it turned out that the other things took it over. And I did not meet, with all the resume or portfolio and achievements we had, I didn’t meet enough support to remain in downtown. Yeah, there were a couple of articles: “Oh, so sad. PuppetART for many years have to move.” It’s like some other businesses who were pushed out because of the raising rent. But there is a principal difference between business and, not just nonprofit, but the venue for families, which is essential for development of the family – and it’s not just the child, but for the family, for the community, with all the aspects of that experience. So the program itself is the event, but knowing that there is a place where I can go. And when I have visitor, visiting cousins, I know where to take them: zoo, Belle Isle, PuppetART, it’s part. It’s all part of the surrounding family would [indiscernible]. Well, and we ended up with that there’s no way. And we’re supposed to drop everything and do basically fundraising only in order to sustain, and it was going on for last several years, and we couldn’t get into actual work. Our concern was only to sustain, keep the doors open as much as possible. And the constant delay of new work because there is no way, no funds, no time, because we’re either busy or don’t have funds to work on it. It was difficult time. So, the decision to move out was kind of relief – sad, kind of painful, but at same time, kind of really, we accepted the fact that there is no puppet theatre as it used to be. We found this place – and we were looking for places with a minimum adjustment – and we found this place where we kind of recreate all the programs with only one exception: instead of regular family performances, we may have instead of public performance, we may have occasional private event for small group of people. It is a sacrifice. But at the same time, we need to increase our touring, to be more on the road. We do have a dream – I don’t know, it’s hard to say, because we’re just one year here, but – we will be able in a few years to stand up again and find another place, similar place, and kind of, another move, so it will be, again, venue. We will dream about it, we’ll see. It’s not likely now, but who knows? That was our move out.
NG: Is there any particular moment in your time as a puppeteer here that stands out to you in particular? One or two things?
IG: [laughter] When you ask this way – the life was so routine. You just do your work. [laughter] That’s it. [indiscernible] Yes, excitement for new production premiere, but, well, it’s always like – you’ve completed one project, one work, you jump into another. Although, I must say that I was trying to keep project based process more in, kind of in [indiscernible], because project based, you jump in, you create it, and then it’s lost. I mean, perform couple times, not lost. To me it’s a very painful thing, especially with puppet productions because when the performance is – when you have puppet performance and it has run couple weeks or so, a period of time, let’s say it will never run again. But what to do with the puppets? It is not the stage set which could be, kind of, disassembled and rebuilt for another. But with puppets, which will not go – I cannot imagine puppet used in any other accidental production. Unless it is a sequel, you know, for the character, directly connected. So, what it is – and besides, puppetry, not just the performing, it’s a visual art, so the puppet is a sculpture, it’s a visual artifact. And for this artifact, the place – most appropriate place, if not onstage, is a museum. So that’s why every puppet theatre would have a museum. And you know, I was telling kids in [indiscernible] about puppetry that we have a museum, and they’d say, Indonesian puppets, that’s almost a hundred years ago. If you would put little effort and find out, Google what is the character the story is about, where it was performed, what province, and what is the role about, what the story was teaching. So basically, we would have a reflection of what was interesting, relevant, to the audience, but through this reflection we would understand the audience. We just travel through time and space to be with them, to understand them, so that’s the time travel, kind of, portal thing. That’s what puppet… yeah.
NG: Are there any other stories you’d like to share about your time?
IG: There was… I can’t come up with any – If you point out certain thing, specific thing, I’m sure I’d come up with some story. But that’s the general way, there was no one particular event which would change direction or had such a great impact. The event that I can definitely tell when we met with Luda and we got involved, started working together, and then we finally got to the point when we were like a couple of productions and we – Ok, let’s do formal. Let’s get married, kind of thing. [laughter] That’s enough dating, and we formed puppet theatre. Nonprofit organization. And we grew, and as the next point, we moved into downtown. And nineteen years like the blink of an eye, and now twenty years later, we’re here in our new place. So that’s the events. So the most recent event, we moved and changed our life dramatically, of course. And all the aspects of course. How we work, what we need to do, I mean, how we view life, everything. Because when we were there, everyone – it’s just forever. It will last. [laughter] Yeah.
NG: Thank you so much for talking with me.
IG: Oh, it’s my pleasure.
[46:47]
[End of Track 1]

Search Terms

Detroit, Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit Puppeteers Guild, Hudson's building, Puppeteers of America, Russian puppet theatre

Citation

“Igor Gozman,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed December 2, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/749.

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