Life Story

Life Story

In Anatar Marmol-Gagné’s hands, a little puppet—a white creature with fuzzy green eyes and big, pink-filled ears—has come to life. It tilts its head and rubs its paws. You can see her hands manipulating it, but the puppet’s movements are so subtle and fluid you believe in it anyway.

Marmol-Gagné is in the Project Room at Artspace, setting up an exhibit of puppets representing her autobiographical work-in-progress Sueños, on display through March 20. A 15-minute excerpt will be performed live at the gallery on March 13. Tickets for any of the four in-person shows that night, limited to 20 per show and finishing with a backstage look at the puppets, are free but must be reserved in advance. Viewers will also be able to watch a recorded performance later at Artspace’s website.

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The story of a disrupted childhood in which Marmol-Gagné was torn between two parents and two countries, Sueños—in English, “dreams,” a word that bears the weight of nightmares, escapism and artistic imagination—has literally been a lifetime in the making. First, Marmol-Gagné had to realize she was meant to work with puppets. It should have been obvious; she grew up around puppeteers, including her stepmother’s close friend, the internationally renowned Roman Paska. From the age of two, Marmol-Gagné made her own puppets from fabric, following in the footsteps of her grandmother, a seamstress, and later her stepmother, a clothing designer. Still, as a teenager and young adult Marmol-Gagné studied nearly every art form but puppetry: dance, music, drama, painting, sculpture, ceramics, fiber arts, writing. In 2011, an ankle injury laid her up at home, and she decided to make a puppet. “And then I just couldn’t stop,” she says. “When I finally had my ‘aha moment’ it was like, ‘I’ve been training all my life for that.’”

Marmol-Gagné headed off to study in UConn’s MFA in Puppet Arts program. But even once she found her calling, it wasn’t quite time to tell her own story. She first created numerous short pieces and films and the full-length Calle Allende, a puppet show based on an entry in painter Frida Kahlo’s diary about the artist’s “struggle to reconcile her broken self and dying inspiration.” Marmol-Gagné often collaborates with close friend and fellow puppeteer Katayoun Amir-Aslani, whom she jokingly refers to as her “puppet wife.” Together, they took Calle Allende on tour up and down the East Coast.

Working on the show about Kahlo, who famously examined her infertility through her paintings, helped Marmol-Gagné publicly embrace the intensely personal topic of her own infertility, she says. It was a step toward telling the larger story of her own life in Sueños, a story that asks, “Who am I? Where do I belong? And where is my home?”

Born in Venezuela, Marmol-Gagné was brought illegally to New York City by her father when she was seven years old after he and her mother divorced. She didn’t see her extended family again until she was 16. Her childhood was spent hiding not only from immigration officials but also from her mother, who periodically showed up to try to claim her and take her back to Venezuela. On several occasions Marmol-Gagné hid in the elementary school bathroom. “I would stand on top of the toilet seat,” she recalls. An experience that wasn’t funny at the time has become “such a fantastic scene in the show”—an example of the dark humor Marmol-Gagné says she likes to insert into her productions “because I never want to beat up an audience.”

In the course of developing Sueños at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, Marmol-Gagné found creative ways of telling her story. “I did used to imagine flushing myself into some other place because I just hated my life,” she says. “But what came out of that is really hilarious and fantastic, so that kind of surprised me.”

It’s one piece of a complicated story with many moving parts. When Marmol-Gagné was 15, her stepmother left her father. “Once she left, I realized she was the glue,” she says. “She was the one that pushed my art, she was the one that pushed every creative thing. She was the one who was home, making dinner… She had the discipline and she was acting as a mom, and I’m so grateful for that. She has saved me multiple times.” Her stepmother also made it possible for Marmol-Gagné to get her green card. At 16, she returned for a time to Venezuela but eventually came back to New York. Today she and her husband, David Gagné, live in Northford.

Elements of the full production of Sueños reside, for now, in the exhibition at Artspace. A little girl puppet with thick locks of blue hair lies awake in a bed. Pink circles under her eyes suggest she’s been crying. Shadow puppets, which will form the basis of the Artspace performance, appear behind creative screens: the transparent lid of a traveling trunk, a huge needlepoint hoop, a hoop skirt (a nod to Marmol-Gagné’s seamstress grandmother). Pages of a diary, copied in both English and Spanish from Marmol-Gagné’s own diaries, are laid bare for visitors to read.

Different types of puppets help tell different parts of the story, Marmol-Gagné says: physical hand puppets for her fighting parents, shadow puppets for imaginary worlds. Direct manipulation puppets are often those characters closest to herself. Because she uses her own hands, as opposed to rods or strings, to move them, “I just feel very, very connected with the puppet.”

Sueños is in further development with Dramatic Question Theatre in New York City, with plans for a full production eventually. A story that had at first seemed too dark to tell is finding an audience, and its creator is finding her voice.

by Anatar Marmol-Gagné
Artspace – 50 Orange St, New Haven (map)
Wed-Sat, noon-6pm through March 20
Free live performances March 13 at 7, 7:45, 8:30 and 9:15pm. Register here.
(203) 772-2709 |

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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