Wise Fool Puppet Intervention:
Conversations with Amy Christian and K.Ruby

Originally published in WHAT IF? Journal of Radical Possibilities, Volume 1,March 2000
WHAT IF? c/o Christy Rodgers, Editor • 125 Buena Vista Terrace • San Francisco, CA 94117


You can trace the many of the artistic techniques being used in the wave of creative street protest that crested in November 1999 in Seattle at the WTO Ministerial to the decade-long work of two dedicated and creative women, who formed a small, grassroots theater project called Wise Fool. Wise Fool Puppet Intervention emerged from the 1989 encounter and continuing collaboration of San Francisco Bay Area artist activists, K. Ruby and Amy Christian. In the decade after its founders first met and conceived the idea of bringing large-scale puppetry and processional theater to Bay Area political protests, Wise Fool became an essential participant in what had seemed to be a vanishing tradition in the U.S.: community oriented folk art and street performance.

K. Ruby describes the lineage of Wise Fool: first, in the earlier wave of political street theater of the 60’s and 70’s came Bread and Puppet, the Vermont-based processional puppet theater founded by Peter Schumann. They are the “grandparents of all of us,” Ruby says. For years, Bread and Puppet was pretty much synonymous with large-scale puppetry with a political and social message in the U.S. The company still exists, and its farm in Glover, VT was, until recently, the host of a yearly gathering for political puppet theater attended by thousands.

In the mid-seventies, after working with Bread and Puppet, a Minneapolis artist named Sandy Spieler helped to form what became In the Heart of the Beast puppet theater in her city. It was through Ruby’s internship with In the Heart of the Beast in the late 1980s that she got some of the ideas for putting together what was then to become Wise Fool Puppet Intervention. Ruby became interested in their work because, as a mask maker and dancer who had participated in groups producing theater for social change, she wanted to learn what larger-than-life puppetry could do to motivate and inspire an audience to action. In the Heart of the Beast had a broad concept of the uses of street theater and puppetry for social change and community building. They were key organizers of Minneapolis’ May Day celebration, which included not just processional and street theater but puppet-making workshops for adults and children. They involved large numbers of people in brainstorming the themes of the event, and designing and building the puppets and masks for the parade and performances.

Ruby says she returned from her six-week stint with Heart of the Beast “incredibly jazzed,” and immediately began looking for local organizers who might be interested in applying some of what she had seen in Minneapolis to Bay Area work for social change.

Meanwhile, Amy Christian had come to the Bay Area from the East Coast as an art student and activist, who had worked on campus in the student movement for divestment from apartheid South Africa. She says: “Though I wanted to study art, I became disgusted with the ‘straight’ art world. It was so limited, so self-involved.” She started working with the Bay Area Peace Test, participating in actions at the Nevada Test Site for nuclear weapons, and at Lawrence Livermore labs in California, where high-tech nuclear weapons and the Star Wars defense system are designed.

Actions in these remote, sparsely populated areas were powerful to those who participated in them, and involved a direct challenge to the system in the form of mass civil disobedience. However, they seldom received any attention from the mass media, even in their own local areas. Activists were becoming frustrated with their isolation and the lack of larger impact their demonstrations were having.

The person who became the link between Ruby and Amy was David Solnit, a local organizer for the test site actions. David worked with anarchist collectives in a number of areas organizing direct action on issues from housing to old-growth forest protection to the anti-nuclear movement. When Ruby returned from Minneapolis, she decided to look up David. At the same time, David and Amy had the idea for a Hiroshima Day “art action” at Livermore, which would involve dancers and other performers in a march to the lab. David contacted Ruby about sharing her skills. A core group, including David, Ruby, Amy, and her then-partner David Keyek, met to brainstorm ideas. Ruby’s basement on Ashbury Street in San Francisco became the workshop for the construction of four giant puppets including a Bird of Liberty and Toxie, the Toxic Waste Monster. “It was very challenging,” says Ruby. “I had never built these puppets on my own before, never showed anyone else how to build them.” Her skills were already apparent, though. The result was a uniquely powerful antinuclear action. “Our community had not seen an action like that, ever,” according to Ruby. There were butoh dancers, stiltwalkers, drumming, and the big puppets. “The local papers all covered the march for the first time—with a photo on the front page of the puppets,” says Amy. “It was an epiphany for me. Visual art and performance and activism—all these things I wanted to do coming together.”

They decided to prepare more puppets for the next Nevada Test Site action in March of 1990. There was at this point, still no sense of “ownership, of a project” as Amy puts it. “But the three of us [herself, David Keyek, and Ruby] were now definitely the main people involved.” This time there would be a theme, a story line, a full-scale processional performance: “The Mask of Rage.” They also invited other participating groups to learn how to make their own puppets. The puppets then led over 2000 people in a “Procession of Fools” at the test site. “People loved the puppets and the drumming. They kept asking if we were Bread and Puppet Theater!” says Ruby.

Returning from the test site action, they decided they needed to call themselves something. After discussion, they settled on the name Ruby had already been using for her mask-making workshops, Wise Fool. “The concept of the wise fool is a very old and powerful one,” she says. She cites an article called “The Fool, the Clown, the Jester,” from Gnosis magazine. The author, Fred Fuller, calls the Fool, that traditional figure of western folk culture “a canny, amoral rebel against all authority.” He traces the origin of wise fools, who offered cryptic counsel and social satire to kings and lords, back to ancient Celtic tales, where they are also presented as “poets, seers and wizards.”

Both Amy and Ruby proudly mention that soon thereafter, they received the first grant either of them had ever written. This enabled them to do six weeks of workshops on creating large-scale puppets for the San Francisco Day of the Dead procession in November. The theme was “Spirits of the Forest.” Honoring the disappearing ancient forests of California was appropriate for this celebration, which has its roots in Latin American culture, and traditionally commemorates the ancestors who gave us life.

As far as setting up and administrating a formal project was concerned, that is, getting funding, finding a fiscal sponsor, or developing non-profit status: “Amy and I were both very resourceful people; we just sort of figured it out as we went along. We kept saying, ‘Oh, this can’t be so hard!..’” says Ruby, laughing.
Then, as both women remember, came the Gulf War. Ruby: “Nineteen ninety-one put Wise Fool on the map.” Amy: “The Gulf War [protests] definitely propelled Wise Fool into being something. We were constantly present and involved. We taught stiltwalking, drumming. We made new giant puppets. We were also doing direct action. The puppets became a huge force supporting people doing civil disobedience.” There were significant actions happening two or three times a week. Amy talks about the power and courage that friends in street blockades and lockdowns felt when they found themselves confronting the police, and could hear the drummers and see the puppets supporting them. It gave them the sense that “we were bigger than the police, stronger than the police. This really inspired me.” Ruby says: “We made puppets that represented rage and grief, that said ‘this is the normal response to war.’ The puppets were really effective because they made what people were feeling larger than life.”

As a company, Wise Fool began designing and putting on its own performances, while continuing to participate in street festivals like Carnaval and Día de los Muertos. Among them were the Chasky, in 1992, whose theme was the European conquest of the Americas, BABEL, about immigration, racism and diversity, and Touch/Prayer, about living with HIV/AIDS. They developed a yearly event, the Feast of Fools, held at a San Francisco soup kitchen. The Feast of Fools is a medieval celebration, in which, according to Ruby, “the rich play poor, and the poor play rich. Our guests would come all dressed up. We made a five-course meal, and there was theater that went with each meal, and the food was related to the theater; it was all woven together. One year we flambéed the Capitol building. One year we made a sheet cake in the shape of a dollar bill and reapportioned the wealth.” They toured Europe shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They developed the Wise Fool School, and taught workshops on mask making, puppetry and music.

Then Amy became involved in founding In the Street, San Francisco’s only street theater festival, with Moshe Cohen, who performed as a clown with his own troupe Clown Conspiracy. “We just met at a party and started talking about how there was no street theater in San Francisco. Then later he called me and said “So, about the street theater—do you want to put a festival together?” She brought in Darryl Smith, who directed arts programs in the Tenderloin, a vibrant inner city neighborhood that was considered a high crime area and thus had few public events of any kind. He suggested they hold the festival there. The result was a colorful, inventive mix of street performance: dance, highwire, puppetry large and small, clowning, acrobatics. There was a high level of participation by youth and people of color. It was also a completely vendorless and sponsorless event. Wise Fool’s remarkable puppets and stiltwalkers led the procession through the streets on opening day in June 1996. Ruby put together a sculpture garden in an alley, where kids could use the materials they found to make their own sculpture and take it home with them. In the Street continues to be an annual event in San Francisco’s Tenderloin at this writing.

In August 1996 Amy and David Solnit went to the Active Resistance anarchist conference in Chicago, and the seeds were planted that would end with Wise Fool’s work having a national impact through its influence on Art and Revolution (see following article). “Our ethic has always been to teach others how to do this,” Amy says. “It’s really great to see our tiny company now become part of something that’s spreading all over the country. We’ve been part of the resurgence of a movement.” “This is what makes us different from a normal art company,” says Ruby. “We give it away, constantly. What we do is no secret. This is art for the people.”

Then in 1997 Amy and Alessandra Ogren, a long-time Wise Fool collaborator, joined a project of Moshe’s, Clowns Without Borders, and took a Wise Fool show to Chiapas, Mexico, the heart of the Zapatista indigenous rights and resistance movement. They found the laughter they generated with a simple clown and puppet show was transformative and liberating to the indigenous communities facing almost daily violence and repression there. A chronology of Wise Fool’s work in the 1990s, prepared by Ruby, lists almost 60 separate major events organized solely or with significant involvement by Wise Fool.

Amy, and later Alessandra, relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they formed their own ‘branch” of the company, along lines which took Wise Fool in a different direction from its historic Bay Area work. Together with Jaime Smith, from the Center for Cooperative Arts and Dialogue, they used puppets and theater to do trainings and workshops on conflict resolution, rejuvenating Native American languages, and also with children, disabled adults, substance abusers. They participated in another Chiapas tour, and took steps towards becoming involved in a longerterm project there. And they organized a wildly popular all-woman circus, the One Railroad Circus, which has performed in backlots and festivals in the Southwest. “We’re working on long-term issues. For example, with the circus, some people were shocked at first when they realized we were all women. We’ve found you can take that step, and politicize them through the back door,” says Amy.

Ruby, in the Bay Area, organizes the PuppetLOVE! festival every year, which brings together dozens of groups to perform and share skills. She produced an excellent handbook which teaches the basic techniques of largescale puppetry that Wise Fool has developed, along with stiltwalking, mask-making, and street music. At this writing she has plans to set up an internship program that will train artists in puppetry and processional theater, some of whom may become new members of the Wise Fool company. “We need to involve new people on a regular basis, so there isn’t burnout,” says Ruby. “We always said the company was kind of like an onion. There’s the small core group in the middle who come to meetings, make decisions about what organization will be involved in and do the work to make that happen. In the second layer there’s a group of 10-15 people, musicians and performers who work with us on a regular basis. The outer layer are the people who are involved marginally throughout the year: workshop participants, people who carry a puppet in a procession or a demonstration, people who volunteer to help out at a show.”

Both Amy and Ruby are upbeat about the future of Wise Fool. Outside Santa Fe, Wise Fool New Mexico now has its own workshop, gathering space and home for the core members. “I see a lot of different directions [we] could go in. I would like to see Wise Fool keep doing what it does,” says Ruby, “touring, doing workshops and events. But in a way, it doesn’t matter what happens to us. We are just one grassroots theater group in the lineage of folk art, and we have already done a really good job of passing on the knowledge, and creating new technology, and passing that on, and revitalizing this art form. We’ve already spawned new groups, and influenced thousands of people. Wise Fool now has an identity that’s bigger than any of us individually.”

At the end of the conversation, Ruby reflects on what the power of the puppets is for her: “This is an ancient tradition. People have been making images of themselves ever since they could use their hands. There’s a tradition of puppetry in every country: from the Vietnamese water puppets to the Balinese shadow puppets to the subtle, amazing Bunraku puppets of Japan and China. And Europeans have Punch and Judy, from Punchinello, of the commedia dell’arte tradition. Puppets are like people, but they can express things that we can’t. Just as the clown can stand outside of society and comment on it to the king. Because the tiniest degree of separation that the puppet has from being a real human allows that puppet to get away with it.

“Why is this art effective?” she asks. “It’s effective of course, because it’s visual and interesting. But also, even though the puppets can be big and ominous, there’s something very friendly about them. They’re made out of paper and wood and cloth. They are something people can understand and relate to. And definitely something they could make themselves, with a little instruction. I think it incites the imagination. And there is not much in our culture these days that really incites the imagination. We have a culture that’s been bankrupted by TV, mainstream media. There are a lot of people who are bored and frustrated with that culture, they don’t want to sit watching a little screen, they want something else, something they can participate in. They are tired of parades that they just stand and watch go by. But they see these [puppets] and it incites their creativity. They think: I could do that. I could be in the parade. All puppetry, pageantry, circus arts, outdoor festivals, touch that need. There is a natural human desire to participate and to create.”