Q: You described yourself as a person who makes strange things. What kind of strange things?
A: My favorite thing this year was to make dinosaurs. I made six dinosaurs for a show at the Discovery Theater at the Smithsonian. The tallest one was 16 feet tall and the longest, my favorite, Stella Stegosaurus, was 15 feet long. She's the one with the bumps, the plates on her back. In her head was the best mechanism I've ever made in my whole life. Her head fits on my head in a chin harness so that when I open my mouth she opens her mouth. She talks and moves her tail and she walks around and dances.
I have a 9-foot dragon that breathes smoke. I have a banana upstairs. She's a stripper. She peels herself. I only take her to parties. But it takes three people to really make her do it, to really peel off and do a dance and swing her feather boa.
Q: In your kitchen you have a band saw. What else?
A: A drill press and a 11/2-horsepower compressor and a wall full of carpentry tools, and a few pots and pans and dishes.
Q: How did you start getting interested in puppetry?
A: My mother took me to a puppet class when I was 6. My older brother was 8. We made puppets and put on puppet shows and I was hooked. Hook, line and sinker. My brother never used his puppet again but I wore his and my puppet out.
When I was 12 my father was in the Air Force and we got to go to Germany and it was wonderful! There I saw all kinds of puppet shows. In one, all the puppets -- everything in the puppet show -- was made out of cardboard tubes. It was the most amazing, delightful, fun puppet show I've ever seen. You just never know what puppeteer can do.
Q: You say you're into plastics now. What do you mean by that?
A: I had a project where somebody wanted me to make very large hands, but they had to hang from the air from thin line. So I needed something that weighed nothing but could take up a huge amount of space. I had found this plastic junk in trash all the time, in boxes, kind of a semi- rigid, semi-flexible foam. I finally went to somebody and said, "What is this?" They said it was ethafoam. I found the manufacturer in North Carolina and they sent me a huge roll of it in this huge truck. I couldn't even get it in the door. Ever since then, about every six months, the truck rolls up with this roll and I cut it up and glue it together. You can make anything. All the dinosaurs are made out of it and the 9-foot hands that I could lift with one finger. They look very realistic. People call me up from various theaters to say can you make a large this and a large that? It's great for making hats. The head and the shoulders of the 12-foot ghost for "A Christmas Carol" are made out of ethafoam.
The other foam I discovered was air-conditioner foam which is not lightweight but it's incredibly tough. You can make faces that wiggle and squirm and pout and smile. The kind of foam that you can get in regular stores tears when you try to make it do shapes.
I make eyeballs. I call it cooking eyeballs. They're rather realistic- looking eyeballs. I pour all these chemicals. I feel like a mad scientist. Six drops of this, five drops of that, and pour it in layers with this polyester resin which is a plastic. I'm into plastics and glues and high-tech puppetry. My 13-year-old nephew came over one day when the studio was fairly neat and he went to the glue shelf and counted 87 different kinds of glue. People call me from all over Washington and Baltimore and say, "Ingrid, I want to glue this to this. What will I use?" And I'll go to the shelf and say, "Well it's 3M number 5487." These glues are so high-tech they don't even have names anymore.
Q: You also use dental plasters, right?
A: Oh yes. My brother the dentist has been a wonderful help in my career. He taught me about alginate which is the junk you take impressions of the teeth with. If you want to duplicate something in a lighter material, you can take an impression of it with alginate and then pour your other plastic into it to reproduce. I made a giant dishwasher for a TV commercial and I liked the front piece on a dishwasher that was in somebody's house. So I went over there with my brother's alginate and copied it. Then I reproduced it and put it on my dishwasher.
You can reproduce people's faces. The dental plaster that my brother uses is far superior to hardware store plaster. It comes in fast set or slow set and various densities. There's one called dental stone that's a yellow plaster so tough that if you have to make a prop and youre worried about dropping it, you make it out of dental stone and then if you drop it it probably won't break.
Q: How do you get your jobs? Who wants all these strange great big light puppets and props?
A: I had a theory once that my name floated around through the air and people just picked it out. I got a job with the Houston Grand Opera -- I don't have any idea how they got my name. I was on my way to Minnesota to go fishing and they called and they wanted me to make a bunch of puppets for a show called "The Best Little Puppet Show in Texas." They wanted me to make six little pigs and an armadillo.
Q: What was the strangest thing you ever made?
A: Oh, boy. Strangest. The biggest thing was a 22-foot elephant's trunk. For Toby's Dinner Theater. They were doing "Barnum" (a musical). The traditional way it's done is on a procenium stage. You have four giant elephant legs to walk by a lifesize actor that you want to look like Tom Thumb. Well, Toby's Dinner Theater is in the round. They couldn't do elephant legs. So I said, "Well, just stick a big elephant trunk in through the door, and, of course, the elephant won't fit through the door. Somebody is inside about a 12- foot length of the trunk with a big stick. You lifted the stick and the elephant nose drew up. The person in the trunk could be a big tease. He could see the audience, but the audience couldn't see him. So he could stick his trunk into someone's pina colada. Which he did.
Q: You're about to do some giant- sized insects?
A: Oh, yes. There's a wonderful children's theater in Charlotte, N.C., and they're doing a show called "The Potters of Cabbage Field." It's a strange little English play and all the characters are insects. So not only do I get to create all these bizarre insect costumes -- spider, maggot, very strange things -- I also get to create the whole environment. The director wants me to fill an entire stage with giant plants. I'll be at the foam for days with that one.
Q: Do you ever get lonely working on your projects by yourself?
A: No. When I get into a project I really get into it. The time just passes and before I know it the day is gone. I don't have time to get lonely. My mother says I was born busy. She said as a child I was always entertaining myself, always making something. I find it lonelier to be in a crowd of people than to be here by myself with one of my creations.
Q: What happens when a creation just doesn't work?
A: I have a box of those upstairs. Eventually they work. There are certain projects that I work on over a long period of time. Sometimes I just make things for the heck of it. I don't have to have a project. I just make things for the fun of it. I have those projects around the house that I work on. Then I have a box -- not a very big box -- of things that I call works in progress and that I knew didn't quite make it. And they just don't stay in there. Somehow I solv the problem or it gets changed into something else.
I'm working on an owl puppet now. I want a head to be able to move in all directions and still have the mouth work. In the past I've made puppets -- either the head moved all ways and the mouth didn't work or the mouth worked. But I finally perfected this gismo. It's based on the principal of the top of a lampshade. This came to me in a dream one night. It's really a neat gismo.
Q: Have you ever thought you'd prefer steady work?
A: Oh, dear. Probably my biggest nightmare is not having work. How to eat. Work seems to be quite seasonal. August through the end of December, I eat very well. January, February, are usually the pits. January, especially. The moon's on the horizon again. But that's OK. I usually manage to squirrel away enough to get through January. Then it begins to slowly pick up. In spring it's usually okay. Late summer, fall, I turn down work.
Q: Yet your most steady work is actually being in and designing for "The Christmas Carol" each December.
A: I call that my annuity. This is my sixth year. You never know, though, from one year to the next if they're going to produce the show again. They sell out every year and so it seems like they will do it. Right now the set, the costumes are quite worn.
Q: And you act as the ghost of Christmas-to-come?
A: Future. I call him Futch for short. He's 121/2-feet tall. Real cutie. Looks like the figure of death. I have great fun backstage scaring people.
Q: You also design some of the props, right?
A: Yes, through the years when they've needed props and special effects. There is a book -- you press the bottom and a smoke bomb goes off. Christmas-Present has a lot of little lights in her head and I made those and keep those going. There's a battery that has to be charged up every night.
Q: Do you ever feel yourself getting into a rut?
A: I've never been in a rut. One friend calls me for what she calls her monthly laugh to see what kind of strange project I'm working on. You never know whether it's going to be a 9-foot golf bag or a 22-foot elephant trunk. Never know what I'm going to be doing.
Q: You've also worked at the Folger Theater sewing Elizabethan costumes?
A: Yes, off and on for about four years. I do the specialty things -- like the fancy collars that are called ruffs. They call me the blind Belgian nun there because anything that would take hours and hours of doing the same thing over and over again to make it really beautiful -- that would be the kind of thing I would do. I did a lot of their leatherwork. I still see shows there and see my sword belts on people.
Q: Have you ever felt that you'd rather act than make the puppets, the costumes and the scenery?
A: No, I like the magic. I like creating the illusion. That's a wonderful thing about puppets. You can have a puppet and the audience can't see its feet and it doesn't have any feet anyway and it can look down and say something about what the audience can't see and if you're a good puppeteer the audience will believe it. Puppetry is like radio and television combined. Good radio creates things in your mind. Like Stan Freeberg ('50s comedian) -- once he bet somebody that he could make a radio commercial that could not be made on television and everybody went, oh, yeah, uh huh, pooh pooh. So, with sound effects he created the world's largest ice cream sundae. The first thing he did was drain Lake Michigan. Then he took all the bombers in the U.S. Air Force and he dropped ice cream into the hollow pit that used to be Lake Michigan. Then he dropped the hot fudge. Then he finally dropped this giant maraschino cherry. It was beautifully done. You heard the world's largest ice cream sundae being made. You couldn't do that on television.
Q: Do you ever see yourself as kind of a throwback to the late '60s?
A: Am I a hippie? I used to think of myself as a hippie, except I never did drugs. I used to have my hair down to the waist and I'm certainly eccentric. I sleep on the floor on top of a sleeping bag, except when it's cold and I crawl in. I don't need much in the way of creature comforts and I live off the affluent Washington throwaways.
Washington is a fabulous city because people throw away the most wonderful, incredible things. To date, I've gotten two sewing machines out of the trash which cost me $75 to fix them both up. They work beautifully. The best things I've got out of the trash. Every piece of furniture, the lumber to build cabinets, came out of the trash. As long as everybody else is going to be stupid and throw things away, then I just live off their trash.
Q: Do you have an affinity for big things?
A: Yes. I also like real tiny things. I guess I like things that aren't regular size, one extreme or the other. Since I've never been small -- I'm 6-feet tall and I grew so fast I didn't remember what it's like to be small -- I love the idea of something bigger than me. I've always liked dinosaurs. Maybe I've just never grown up. Go out and ask any 4-year-old you know. I'll bet they all know names of dinosaurs.