Colleen Laliberte preserves legacy of Chattanooga puppetry

Colleen Laliberte preserves legacy of Chattanooga puppetry

October 25th, 2011 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Colleen Laliberte plays with one of the puppets for the production of "The Bluebird, " a play based on a 100-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winning novel, inside of the Mountain Arts Community Center in signal Mountain, Tenn. Each puppet requires up to three people to work the arms, body and mouth. Up to six weeks of preparation goes into rehearsal for the upcoming play.

Photo by Jenna Walker /Times Free Press.


• Occupation: Founder of Skwalking Heads

• Age: 54.

• Family: Husband Ray Laliberte; son, Zach Laliberte, 31; and daughter, Jessica Laliberte-Bowman, 34.

• Education: Central Catholic High School in Wheeling, W.Va.; studied at West Liberty University, Centenary College, Louisiana Tech University.

• Hometown: Wheeling, W.Va.

• Pets:

A dog, Dais, and three cats, Sir Edmund Hillary, Sole and Henri; a horse, J.J.; and three donkeys, Snug, Elliot and Pepper.

• Favorite book:

"Improvisation for Storytellers" by Keith Johnstone.

• Favorite movies:

"It's a Wonderful Life," "Toy Story" and "Meet the Robinsons."

• Quote to live by:

"It doesn't matter if it's music. It's the pleasure of doing it with another person." -- Keith Johnstone.

• First car:

A blue 1972 Volkswagen Beetle.

• Place she'd love to visit:

County Galway, Ireland.

• People she'd love to meet:

Mother Teresa, Tony Montanaro and Jim Henson.

In Colleen Laliberte's hands, otherwise lifeless objects, even digital recorders, can become tools for creative expression.

Growing up in Wheeling, W.Va., Laliberte began organizing neighborhood children into impromptu acting troupes at age 9. For these self-styled Yard Show productions, the backdrops were sheets colored with house paint and the costumes, sets and characters were cobbled together from whatever was handy.

That ability to see creative potential in anything has persisted through adulthood, whether Laliberte is encouraging children to use their imaginations at theater camps or teaching improvisation to students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

A lifelong fan of Muppets creator Jim Henson, Laliberte said she feels a special connection with puppet theater. Last year, she purchased the rights to "The Blue Bird," a puppet-based adaptation by local director Fred Arnold of a 1908 play by Maurice Maeterlinck. Arnold directed Laliberte and other puppeteers for 30 years at the Oak Street Playhouse.

Arnold retired from theater last year, but Laliberte said she intends to revive "The Blue Bird" by year's end as a production of Skwalking Heads, a multidisciplinary production company her family founded in 2004.

"It will be the same," Laliberte said. "My goal is not just to bring 'The Blue Bird' back but to preserve it as a part of the history of Chattanooga."

Q: When you revived the Yard Show plays you did as a child as a theater camp earlier this year, how well was it received by the students?

A: They were so excited. I brought out trunks of hats and puppets and costumes and found objects they could build things out of. I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for kids to use their imaginations and creative expression.

Q: When did you first begin working with puppets?

A: Around the same time as the yard shows. Anything that could be a found object was a puppet doing fun voices and being a character. You can get away with a lot more as a puppet than as yourself. People were very forgiving of puppet misbehavior. [Laughs.]

Q: How did you become involved in the Oak Street Playhouse?

A: Around 1988 or 1989, I met Fred Arnold during "The Blue Bird," and it was the most amazing experience because here was a theatrical production. It wasn't like most people think of puppet shows for kids. It was poignant and touching, and the artistry of the puppets was unparalleled. I had never seen that before.

It took 10 adult puppeteers to bring it to life. Fred was our director, and he was so meticulous, in every nuance of puppet movement, like he was directing a play. The puppets were actors for him.

Q: Did that experience affect how you modeled your approach to directing?

A: Yes, definitely. When I'm facing an artistic problem of how to make something work or how to build something, I think of him.

Q: What is a Skwalking Head?

A: I was looking for a name for a puppet company, and I said, "Talking Heads is such a great name for a puppet company, but it's already a band, so that's taken." Then, [my daughter] Jessica said, "We could be Skwalking Heads."

If you're a Skwalking Head, you can do it all because you speak this language of arts integration. It wasn't just one art form. It was how all the art forms overlapped and layer and support each other. We became this multidisciplinary arts company.

Q: Many of your family members are involved in Skwalking Heads. How does that affect your ability to collaborate?

A: We have a very synergistic energy working together. We're big fans of brainstorming. It's the idea of being open to ideas that you don't have to sit down and say, "I'm going to try to be creative." Life in our house is very fun and exciting.

Q: Why did you think "The Blue Bird" was worth preserving?

A: First of all, the practicality of it was that by the time I realized he was dismantling all of his shows, he had already given them away. I said, "What are you doing. How can you separate these, Fred? Something needs to be saved to preserve puppet history in Chattanooga."

After pestering him for weeks ... he said, "Look ... if you're really serious about wanting to keep this going forward, I will sell 'The Blue Bird' to you."

Q: What is it like working on it without Fred?

A: Scary. [Laughs.] It's very scary because he is the ultimate meticulous artist when it comes to all the nuances. I was one puppeteer working on this project, and he was the director, so I could rely on him and my fellow puppeteers. So, yeah, it's been terrifying, but he's been there as a great mentor whenever I have a question or need moral support.

Q: How have you gone about finding puppeteers for the "The Blue Bird" and future plays?

A: My idea was to train a new generation of puppeteers. I wanted to take this art form and see if I could excite a new generation of people to do it. My husband and daughter both teach at Center for Creative Arts. The young people who attend there are young visual artists, actors and dancers. I thought it would be perfect. To start with, I have a group of 13 students from CCA who have been rehearsing with me.

Q: When would you like to present "The Blue Bird"?

A: "The Blue Bird" was supposed to be Nov. 4, but I have to see if we can still do it. It has such a beautiful message of man's search for happiness. The entire story happens on one Christmas Eve. I would love to be able to do it by the end of the year, but it has to be ready.

Q: Do you have any ideas for new plays?

A: I have an idea for a [play about] a barnyard talent show. We have some acts that are in the wings that go along with that. I have some ideas from books that I'd like to do, as well as some original stories that he will hopefully help me flesh out. There's a wonderful book called "The Brothers Lionheart" by Astrid Lindgren. I would like to do some of her work.