All Vows is a puppet memory play about the collision of history and imagination, centered on the possibly true life of my grandfather, Poppy, a Russian Jewish refugee raised in China.
The show features five hand-carved, wooden puppets, each modeled after Poppy at a different age in his life. Standing 18” tall, these puppets combine Czech-style construction with a central rod inspired by Indonesian Wayang Golek, allowing for life-like movement of figural characters with a single puppeteer. In the show, these puppets perform in non-verbal vignettes inspired by stories from Poppy’s life, juxtaposed by audio and video interviews of Poppy and other members of my family - often telling conflicting stories. I serve as the show’s lead puppeteer, while two additional performers alternate between performing in puppet sequences and speaking directly to the audience as though they were me.
We didn’t talk much about my grandfather growing up, but I was proud of what I knew about his life: how he grew up in China after his family fled the Russian Revolution, how he taught himself Italian while in medical school in Bologna, how he became a surgeon in a Jewish ghetto in Shanghai before fleeing again, this time for America at the dawn of the Cultural Revolution. His was a story of resilience, worldliness, drive. And since he died when I was three, I was content with its broad strokes - until an old photo re-surfaced last year, leading me to question every story and memory I had of the man.
All Vows explores what it means to suddenly realize you’re both an inheritor and active participant in your family history - and that this history is a mess. The show interrogates the powerful, fragile truths we turn into the stories of our lives, while examining the overlapping space between where an immigrant's history ends and American identity begins.
It is a piece of puppet theater because the Poppy of my memory will always be at odds with the Poppy of history. To embody both, the show requires tangible vessels in real space, unburdened by any particular identity. By endeavoring to foster a connection between audience and puppet, All Vows challenges the viewer to balance their own inclinations for empathic connection and storytelling - reminding them that even real people can become malleable characters in our personal histories.
All Vows began development in Puppet Lab at St. Ann’s Warehouse. A work-in-progress performance was featured at LABAPALOOZA 2019.
The show currently in Phase 2 development.