Puppet Theater for Adults: Lisa Sturz Brings Dimension to Her Grandfather's Story

Aug 27, 2018


Puppetry doesn’t quite contain everything Lisa Sturz puts into her art. She builds elaborate sets, writes detailed narratives and, for the biography of her grandfather, she spent a year painting a 25-foot backdrop that unfolds from the scrolls of an oversized Hebrew Torah.

“As a puppeteer, I could write the scripts, I could write the music, I could sing and build the costumes and characters and perform them,” Sturz said. “It was a way of combining all those interests rather than choose between them.”

Lisa Sturz (right) rehearsing with puppets and sets she created for "My Grandfather's Prayers"
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

Sturz grew up in Bayonne, N.J., and came of age in the spirit of protest during the Vietnam War. She double-majored in puppetry and religious studies, with an eye on merging the two.

“In indonesia, for example, the priest is the puppeteer and they’re the ones who tell the story of the culture,” she said. “So for me, puppets really live in that world, that metaphor of between man and god.”

But from early on, Sturz learned carving a career as a puppeteer meant working in productions meant for children. During her 20 years in the Los Angeles, her bread and butter were several projects for Jim Henson Productions, including a couple of Muppet movies.

“In the United States, it’s really seen as a children’s art form, and that’s really limiting as a performer,” she said. “Some of the stories I want to tell are for adults and it’s very hard to get that across, because when people see the word puppet, they think ‘Oh, I’ll bring my granddaughter.’ They don’t see puppetry can be relevant for people of all ages.”

Sturz has spent 20 years in Fairview, where she’s converted her garage into a studio and stage to create and rehearse. There, she finetunes the show that, to this point, she regards her greatest challenge and artistic achievement.

“My Grandfather’s Prayers” is a biography of Izso Glickstein, who sang with the Budapest Opera, toured Europe, was injured in the First World War and became a revered cantor.
The story also unfolds his family’s immigration and assimilation into America. Performances are Sept. 1 and 2 at White Horse Black Mountain.

“It’s that connection that maybe isn’t linear that brings richness and meaning to our lives and, to me, puppets help to initiate that kind of connecting with people, even more than live actors,” Sturz said. “Sometimes the actor is more distant, becomes an other, and I think puppetry is more immediate. It talks to a deeper place.”

Sturz and her daughter uncovered vast details of Glickstein’s life through articles, photos and concert posters archived at a synagogue in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he served as cantor.

One fascinating episode: Sturz learned Glickstein was kidnapped by a rival synagogue when he was just seven years old. There was no ransom. The sole motive? They wanted the young singer to perform there during the High Holy Days. Afterward, the kidnappers returned him, safe and sound, to his family and home synagogue.

“In 1933, Izso wrote an 18-page letter and, on his way back to America, he beautifully expresses his gratitude to the American people for the self-confidence and freedom he experienced in America that he never experienced in the old world,” Sturz said.

“My Grandfather’s Prayers” is laden with visual metaphors—such as oversized books that in one context represent the value of schooling and learning, and in another, when stacked on their sides, denote the family’s movement up in the world.

“When I was younger, I was a competitive diver, and I used to do my dives in my head so I wouldn’t hurt myself, and I’ll sometimes do that with the shows,” she said. “How can I solve this problem? How do you visualize immigration? What has power?”

Sturz debuted “My Grandfather’s Prayers” a year ago in Los Angeles for a taping for Jewish Life Television. But she said wrote to every Jewish community center in the country looking for more performances, all for naught.

“I think people see the word puppet and they’re not interested, and it’s also a hard sell for them, to get their audiences to come,” she said.

Still, a number of local progressive Jewish organizations have stepped up to help promote her debut performances in the mountains, and Sturz wants to create more work speaking to the political and social unrest in this country.

“You know, when I look at who we’ve become and how we treat each other, I just feel like something needs to happen,” she said. “This is something I can do.”