To the Jen Murphy, a founding member of the Street Creature Puppet Collective, her interest in gardening and foraging has often influenced her work. This is also the case with the latest production of the collective, The earth is alive!a family musical and puppet show celebrating the medicine and magic of Appalachian plants.
Written by josh fox and produced by Murphy, The earth is alive! premiered at the LEAF Festival in Spring 2022. On Saturday, July 23 at 4pm, the collective offers the audience an encore performance at Jubilee! Community, a place that has been home to Murphy and her fellow Street Creature puppeteers since May 2021.
“It fits well, like [Jubilee! has] a strong approach to environmental and social justice and an appreciation of the arts,” she says. “Our Puppet Clubhouse is on their lower level next to their new JAMS microshelter for homeless women.”
Xpressspoke with Murphy as part of his ongoing Cost of Creativity series about the inspiration and associated costs of her group’s latest production, the importance of creating from a place of love, and how telling healing and empowering stories brings us together .
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
What is the story behind how That The earth is alive! production came about?
I first met Josh Fox, the songwriter of The earth is alive!years ago when he was making music and walking on stilts with The Faerie Kin [a local stilt-walking troupe]. Street Creature Puppet Collective… co-developed with The Faerie Kin, with much overlap of people, ideas and puppets. The Fae Kin have mostly been on hiatus for the past few years, but last spring the tribes came together to create something junglean eco-fable for Earth Day written and produced by glimmer sun. It was quite an undertaking, with a cast of 30, lots of new puppets, scenery and props, on a tiny budget at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater.
There was one song in particular that brought me to tears: “The Earth Is Alive!” It’s a joyful song about the changing seasons in our bioregion, naming dozens of plants and trees in the order in which they bloom and fruit wear. The music reflects the spinning cycles and the abundance of life in these mountains. That jungle The audience reacted powerfully to the song and jumped up to dance with the performers.
So I started talking to Josh, a herbalist and acupuncturist, about doing a puppet video with a spinner for that very song [rolling paper storytelling scroll]. Instead, over the past summer, fall, and winter, it evolved into an hour-long family show centered around songs Josh had written over the past decade. These songs are inspired by his relationship with each of the plants, many of which can be found on his album named Spells cast by rain.
The songs inspired me, as did my own love for our plant relatives. I also wanted Street Creature to expand our scope and capabilities, tell a longer story, go beyond the momentary interaction of a parade and be on a stage, but still be interactive.
How do you manage a project with so many components and dozens of people?
I’m a triple virgin and I love lists. Also, I had lots and lots of help. Through years of running the Puppet Clubhouse, I have learned how to use good organization, delegation and communication to keep projects moving. A willingness to listen helps – letting go of control as much as possible, but still steering things towards the best possible quality. It’s also important to always remember that this is community art, meaning the process is just as important as the product and everyone’s contribution is valuable.
When I work with so many puppeteers creating such large pieces, I can imagine the materials are costly too. How do you reduce costs?
Street Creature has always tried to make most of our costumes and dolls from recycled junk and donated materials. We first became known for our giant kite made from Ingles bags. This is a budgetary decision, but it is also a political one. We like to show that people can make really cool stuff out of trash without supporting sweatshops and creating more plastic waste.
To the The earth is alive! The dandelion heads were made from packaging material. The wind turbines come from an old dictionary. Paper mache is made from newspaper and cornstarch paste and costs only a dollar a box.
For people interested in community arts, are there other inexpensive ways to manage the day-to-day expenses associated with production?
Because Street Creature operates under the Asheville Puppetry Alliance, a 501(c)(3) umbrella, we receive donations from our Patreon each month and have inherited a small nest egg from the previous incarnation of APA [which Murphy and fellow Street Creature members took over from the original board in 2018]. Along with Jubilee’s generosity, it keeps us stocked with cornstarch.
Also, all street creatures are willing to work just for love and fun. We are privileged in varying degrees to be able to do this, although none of us are rich. We choose to spend our free time making glasses. But we work in a capitalist system that tends to ignore the value of this work.
We’ve gotten a few small grants, but there’s a catch at 22. To get a big enough grant to pay for a commercial studio, we’d have to have a bigger budget. We don’t want to spend all our time raising funds or finding paid gigs. We already have a full calendar of things we love to do to give back to the community. We enjoy working as volunteers on a budget and we focus on being creative.
What are some of the other challenges, opportunities, and benefits of community-based art?
The biggest cost of community-based art is space. If you’ve been trying to find affordable employment, you know it’s as scarce as chicken teeth here. Having a place to meet weekly, store dolls and supplies is vital. It makes everything we do possible. The loss of our longtime home at North Asheville Rec Center two years ago due to COVID changes was a rude awakening for the state of commercial real estate in Asheville.
Artists also have to pay for their rent, medical bills, car repairs, etc. and can’t do it with bags of kale or leftover paint. Personally, I would like to see more government support for small arts organizations and would like to see the city do more to alleviate these problems. There are so many buildings that sit empty for years while artists and arts organizations struggle. … Street Creatures does what we can, in part because our group is resourceful and constantly committed to helping one another.
Community building is vital in these times. What we need is to imagine a better world and tell healing and empowering stories. The benefits are great – benevolence, creative growth, enjoyment, and connections to the community.
Anniversary! The community is located at 46 Wall Street. To learn more about the upcoming performance, visit avl.mx/bs0.