Viva La Puppet is a puppet shop in Los Angeles that continues to find new ways to innovate in the world of traditional puppetry. The company’s clients range from Super Deluxe, JC Penny, to Comedy Bang! Bang!. They’ve made characters for the Nickelodeon’s Sanjay and Craig, constructed a massive land-bound fish for a Caribou video, and helped create the shadow puppets in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse when he brought the show to Broadway in 2010.
I spoke with puppeteer Michelle Zamora, who co-owns Viva La Puppet with Matias Farias, about how she started the company and finding new forms of expression in an ancient medium.
How did your love for puppetry start?
I grew up Brownsville, Texas, which is the southernmost tip of Texas. I always made things as a kid. I sculpted with my Play-Doh, I took apart my Cabbage Patch Dolls and made puppets out of them. I always made puppets as a kid, but I never connected it to something that you can become when you grow up. When they ask you, “Hey, what do you want to be when you grow up?” because of where I grew up, [puppeteer] wasn’t a profession, it wasn’t something that you can make a living doing.
When I got older, I came to college out here in Los Angeles, I kind of fell into [puppetry]. I was doing my theater training at Cal State LA, then I just woke up one day in the summer, there was nothing going on, and I said, “I want to make a puppet.” Out of the blue. So I went into the shop in the theater department and told the guy working there and he was like, “Okay.” I was so excited, I just had this huge revelation in my life, and he just handed me a block of foam and told me to make it. I taught myself in the beginning, and then I started meeting more and more people that became my mentors in LA, just different amazing puppet legends. From there, it’s been 15 years now.
What inspires your work as a puppeteer?
I grew up in the ’80s, so puppets were everywhere on TV. Clearly, it’s The Muppets, Jim Henson specifically, then there is Wayne White of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Right now, one of my biggest inspirations is Jay Howell, he’s an amazing artist here in LA. I had the pleasure of working with him, and I love his characters, they are so charming. Every time I see them, I’m like, “Oh my god, I want to make that.” Sometimes I just respond to weird things, like I love Gudetama, the Sanrio character. I can’t get enough of that lazy egg.
I’ve been inspired by all forms of puppets that I’ve seen growing up. Also, I’ve been inspired by nature, going to the hardware store and walking around and seeing things in a different way, going to the toy stores and seeing how [a toy] moves and taking it home and taking it apart. For puppets, you can find inspiration anywhere, it’s just the matter of keeping your eyes open in a way that’s different, and just seeing what you can use to bring your puppets to life.
How do you create the puppets?
We try to do everything practically. So if the puppet needs to blink, needs to pick up a glass, needs to throw up confetti, or anything like that, we try to do it practically. The most effective mechanisms or rigs that we do on the puppets are really simple with just string, or there are a lot of really simple ways to approach puppetry that is very practical and functional. We try to do more work that is simple in that sense, but effective. We have worked with technology, like robotics, and there is a lot of different applications with the work that we do. Essentially we’re creating characters that weren’t here before, so a lot of times we’ll collaborate on different projects with all different types of people.
It’s a mix of old and new.
That’s kind of what we are because I don’t try to duplicate what’s been done. Sometimes, like on the Super Deluxe project, I drew from the past, like the Lil Penny commercials. Every puppet that we do is clearly inspired by something, but to do what has already been done is not as exciting as doing something different and having that little nostalgic undertone as a thank you.
Why do you think humor and puppetry make such a good combination?
Humor and puppetry go hand-in-hand, but you can go really dark with puppetry, you can push the boundaries. With puppets, you can pretty much get away with anything. They can say anything, they can do anything. Where our puppets are utilized the best is when they don’t try to be just like us, like how Pinocchio can never truly be a real boy. If they almost try to be too much like us, it’s almost like the uncanny valley where we’re creeped out by them. With puppets, there’s the balance you need to strike between creepy and charming.