Kimi Maeda was working with big and small flashlights, flicking them on and off. She was looking for the right light beam to animate her shadow puppet production, “The Homecoming.”
The light source is so imperative that she’s visited flashlight forums online. There is a forum for flashlights?
“Yes, there is,” Maeda said. “And they were very kind.”
“But this one is mediocre,” she continued, as she moved the beacon over a firework display that crackled like a kaleidoscope on her living room wall.
“The Homecoming” is one of several puppet shows that will be performed at the Spork in Hand Puppet Slam tonight and Saturday at Trustus Theatre. The production, organized by Belle et Bete, the company Maeda runs with the artist Lyon Forrest Hill, will feature Southern puppetry that’s sublime and challenging. Along with work by Maeda and Hill, the show will have performances by Happiness Bomb, Paul Kaufmann, Tarish Pipkins, Greggplant and Bean, Jenny Mae Hill, Jason Von Hinezmeyer and Rob Padley.
Like the puppet slam Spork in Hand hosted at Tapp’s Arts Center during The Indie Grits Festival in the spring, this isn’t for kids, as some of the shows may have adult themes and language. In other words, the Muppets aren’t going to be hanging out at this one.
Puppets aren’t just Muppets, Sesame Street characters and marionettes, the kind of puppets controlled by wires or strings.
“I think that in this country with the Muppets being such a huge force, a lot of people think that’s just what puppetry is,” said Maeda, who, like other puppeteers, was influenced by Jim Henson’s creations. “I think that there’s so much more out there, and I’d like to introduce that to people.”
The slams do just that.
“The Homecoming,” a multi-paneled display, examines what creates a feeling of home, particularly when things are lost. It is one of a handful of recurring themes for Maeda, a Japanese American who was raised in Concord, Mass., a town just outside of Boston. After attending Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., Maeda went to graduate school to study scenography at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design in London. She also received an MFA in scenic design from USC in 2005 where she studied under Nic Ularu.
Puppetry is a natural extension of the work she does in theater.
“It’s sort of the one area that you can control all of the elements as a scenic designer,” she said. “You can make it as crazy as you want it to be, and I know I like that. With the puppetry, I feel like it’s more of a chance of self-expression.”
In 2006, Maeda, who had lived in New York and Philadelphia, came to Columbia to work at the Columbia Marionette Theatre. She’s called Columbia home since.
Space in large metropolitan cities is a premium. While working on a project and living in New York, Maeda needed to spray paint a cardboard wing. She couldn’t do it in her small apartment and she couldn’t hold up pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk. She didn’t have roof access. She saw the marionette theater as place to work and experiment.
“In the city, you end up talking about stuff, criticizing it, but not making it,” said Maeda, who produced “The Crane Wife,” a charming shadow puppet show that debuted in 2010. “I don’t think you can grow as an artist that way.”
Maeda, who shares a home off North Main Street with her husband Andy Smith, the executive director of the Nickelodeon Theatre, has plenty of room to work. The couple married in 2010, back when Smith, who Maeda said is a good cook, was still vegan. That was before they went to visit her family in Japan.
“Fish is in everything,” Maeda, 35, said. “Even things you don’t think should have fish in it, has fish in it.”
Growing up, Maeda spent every other summer in Japan visiting her grandmother and other extended family members.
“I have pretty strong ties there,” she said. “I feel like ‘Crane Wife’ was a lot about that. It’s a theme that I come to a lot in my work. And growing up Japanese American in New England in a very white town is definitely a theme in my work.”
Maeda spoke while sitting on a stool at a work table she built in an upstairs room of her house. Maeda, who is leading the set design for the Trustus Theatre’s February production “The M*********** with the Hat,” can build reliable structures like set pieces. But she claims she’s not handy around the house.
“I’m not so good at that,” she said. “Only stuff that only has to stand for a few weeks.”
She put together the wall-mounted chalkboard in the upstairs room that shares wall space with her grandfather’s paintings. What’s on the chalkboard is a piece of art itself. Maeda, who is a meticulous planner, creates what she calls Mind Maps, a series of words that, lumped together, looks like a graphic map. Well, it is a map.
“Usually, I start with a central thing, like if I’m doing a show it will be the title,” she said. “It’s just really my way of combing through my ideas. I write words that I associate with it and try to draw lines from one to another.”
Usually the maps for projects are in her notebooks. The one on the chalkboard is for life.
“I’ve been trying to balance my life a bit, so that’s not project focused,” she explained. “Part of it is that I’m working on so many things at a time.”
Maeda, who was featured in “Red Social: Portraits of Collaboration by Alejandro Garcia-Lemos,” a September exhibition at Columbia College, wrote the words that acted as tree leaves on her portrait. It is easier to express herself in writing than visually, said Maeda, who wrote the marionette theater’s shows for “The Little Mermaid” and “Snow White.”
“The Homecoming,” which has elaborate designs that will be illuminated by the flashlights, is a story Maeda wanted to share. Spork in Hand, she hopes, will become a twice-a-year production.
“It’s a great place for experimentation. We’re really excited about it, especially since there aren’t any other slams in South Carolina,” she said. “It’s something that’s a little different, a little new.
“I hope that we can maintain the interest because the slams will be so different every time. I think that’s the beauty of the slams.”