Rachel Gates is a teacher and visual artist whose experience spans over 30 years from the west coast to the east coast. Known for her puppetry, Gates learned the craft of puppetry at age 8, when her mother enrolled her in classes at the Local Y in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. A shy kid, puppet making became a creative outlet for Rachel to express herself.
She recalls the first time someone noticed her puppet making skills:
“When I was 8 I was rehearsing with a puppet while some boys were doing karate, and they were laughing at my puppet. They stopped the class, and this guy came over and said: ‘hey, it’s just a little girl in there,” Rachel laughs. “I felt so proud. Yeah, I am a little girl.”
Growing up, art was a common discussion topic in Rachel’s family. Her father, sculptor, George R. Anthonisen, was always working in his backyard studio and her mother was busy playing the role of artistic manager.
“Other people were running away from marrying an artist, and my mother ran towards it.”
With a background in theatre and dance, Rachel’s mother encouraged Rachel’s artistic pursuits. The first theatrical experience that made a deep impression on Rachel happened around the same time she had started learning to make puppets. During third grade, her mother took her to see Marcel Marceau live at the McCarter theater in Princeton, New Jersey. It was an unforgettable experience for Rachel, and one of many theater visits to come.
Another important female figure in Rachel’s life was her first puppetry teacher, Nancy Brownstone. From her first puppet class at the Y to classes at a local elementary school, Rachel followed Nancy wherever she was teaching. She traveled with Nancy to puppet festivals, seeing puppets from all over the world. Teaching became important to Rachel – she was an assistant teacher in 7th grade. “I was really serious as a kid,” admits Rachel.
By her college years, Rachel intended to be a teacher. She traveled west to Evergreen State College with teaching at the forefront of her mind, but, needing scholarship money, began working in the theater department. There she found a community of like-minded peers, and began working on projects with friends who were pursuing directing and acting. Rachel’s self-directed program gave her time to focus on her puppetry and to intern for Tears of Joy theatre in Portland.
Rachel returned to Tears of Joy after her internship with them. The theater company often presented works of other talented puppet companies. Bob Hartman was one such puppeteer who was introduced on their stage as Frank Oz’s favorite puppeteer. After the show, Hartman invited Rachel to apprentice with him. He would teach Rachel puppet skills, and she, in turn, would assist Hartman at comedy clubs, running sound for his hypnosis shows, and helping with set construction for his puppetry shows.
At the time, she was living in a room Hartman had converted into a little at-home theater complete with a red velvet curtain and puppets hanging on the walls.
Rachel looks back on her apprenticeship with appreciation.
“Puppetry works just like theatre. There’s good theater, and there’s bad theater. And when it works, you know. You could have Bob Hartman’s shows anywhere in the world. They were funny and brilliant.”
Rachel with her Hartman style Racoon puppet made under the direction of world puppet master Bob Hartman.
Marin County, CA, 1995.
In 2000, Rachel moved to Portland to pursue work in puppetry. The amazing thing about the city was all the creativity. “I was one of 5 puppeteers on the same street!” Rachel lived in an art house where artists showed their work and how they were progressing each month in return for lower rent.
At Tears of Joy, Rachel worked on several shows, including a production called “The Red Mare”. The show was based upon Ursula K. Le Guin’s children’s book, A Ride on the Red Mare’s Back. The story follows a young girl, Sophie, as she goes on a journey through snow and woods to rescue her brother Leo from trolls. Rachel was asked to design characters for the production, which were approved by Le Guin. Working alongside head builder Bill Holznagel, Rachel worked on Japanese bunraku style puppets and shadow puppets. The show went on to win the 2003 Baba Award for Best Artistic Design of the Year.
Rachel’s character designs for “Ride the Red Mare” at Tears of Joy Theatre. On left: Trolls.
Right: Leo and Sophie in winter coats. Puppets were sculpted entirely by Bill Holznagel who was the head builder for the show.
Portland, OR, 2003.
Rachel’s father, sculptor George R. Anthonisen holding Leo from Tears of Joy’s
“A Ride on the Red Mare’s Back” after the character was completely built.
Show opened Jan 2003 at the Portland center of performing Arts in
All this time, Rachel had been sitting on an idea for her own puppet show. “I got the idea for the show when I was 18. I thought about it for a long time, because it didn’t get built until 2004.” That show was “The Wild Child.” Co-produced with Hand 2 Mouth Theater, the show would later go on to win two of Portland’s prestigious Drammy Awards for best ensemble performance of the year and best original sound of the year.
The show featured “wild child” Victor, a boy who was raised by animals and “civilized” by humans. Rachel was the lead writer and production designer. Eager to explore the concepts of the human need to control nature and ‘the other’, Rachel designed 3 child puppet and gazelle masks to bring her new world to life. “The Wild Child” was performed in Portland Oregon and was directed by Jonathan Walters.
Rachel and crew performing “The Wild Child”.
Hand2Mouth Theatre, 2004.
“It was a collaboration,” says Rachel. “We started out with me directing the puppets, and him directing the actors. But at a certain point I saw that the tension was hurting the actors. It was really hard for me to step out of it, but I saw that there could only be one director for this to happen, so I stepped out. And it hurt, but it was the right thing to do.”
Rachel’s mindfulness is present in everything she works towards. It was this mindfulness that shifted her world once again, as she moved from Portland back to Bucks County, and then to Silver Spring Maryland in 2006 to raise her family. One challenge she faced was figuring out how she could continue to make puppet shows when her puppetry community was across the country. As much as she wanted to relive the days of The Wild Child and perform the show again, it was impossible. The puppets, set, and crew were in different places. Rachel came to a conclusion: “I need a show that I can pull out at any time so I can have a repertoire.”
Acting on pure creativity, Rachel wrote a one-woman hand puppet show that she could build and direct herself. In 2006, “The Secret Life of Rodents” was born. Inspired by the old folk tale, “Stone Soup,” Rachel created a story about a mouse who “is poor in belongings yet rich in imagination” and teaches a squirrel how to give (Bucks County Herald, August 10 2006). Rachel performed the show all over from Bucks County Community College to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown.
With family in tow, putting on a one woman show was not without its difficulties. “We had a few mishaps,” laughs Rachel. “For one show the car broke down, so we rented a van. During the performance there was a very hard-to-handle little boy in the audience whom the mouse ended up talking back to. It was a Christmas show, and the timing of when Santa came in relation to where the show was, was not well thought out enough.”
For Rachel, every show has been another opportunity to learn by trial and error. Some of her favorite moments are when she sees the impact her show has on the audience. When she worked on “The Lorax” at Evergreen State, she got a lovely surprise from a neighbor who she invited to the show.
“He drove a motorcycle and had the leather jacket…he’s into the whole tough guy image, but he brought his son, and he watched the Lorax. The next day, I heard this little knock on my apartment door. He was at the door, wringing his hat in his hands, and he said, I just want you to know that we really liked your show, and my little boy has been hugging trees.”
Since that moment, Rachel’s work has come full circle. She’s now a teacher in Montgomery County and leads puppetry workshops at Huckleberry Fine Art Gallery on weekends. The rest of her time is spent with family, and though she hasn’t had the chance to take her daughter to Broadway yet, it’s on her list. Until then, she dreams of the next show she will create.
“My next show that I would like to do – please god that I may someday – is actually a Libyan tale. And one of the reasons for that is the ocean, genie, and mermaid. There’s all these fun colors, and sparkles, and stuff like that.”
You can sign up for art workshops with Rachel at Huckleberry Fine Art. Feel free to stop by on Saturdays, she’s always happy to chat your ear off about puppetry.