The Lessons I (Re)Learned from Cerberus in Deadland

In February, I was hired by Prospect Theater Company to build puppets for a new musical by Hunter Foster and Ryan Scott Oliver entitled Jasper in Deadland.  I was given the task of creating some shadow puppets and Cerberus, the three headed dog that guards the entrance to the underworld or according to Dante:

…Cerberus, monster cruel and uncouth,

  With his three gullets like a dog is barking

  Over the people that are there submerged.

Red eyes he has, and unctuous beard and black,

  And belly large, and armed with claws his hands;

  He rends the spirits, flays, and quarters them.

(excerpt from “The Divine Comedy”)

Yikes! I had my work cut out for me.

This was my first gig with Prospect, the members of the creative team & the director, Brandon Ivie.  The puppet design meetings were rich with ideas, encouraging and intimidating (this is a crazy talented group of people, who really know their craft).

I was given roughly 4 weeks and a limited budget.

Lesson #1: Identify your limitations and own them.  

I was approached after our final design meeting to help build some of the other design elements. This was an overwhelming request as I was already concerned about having enough time to build the puppets.  My plate was overflowing with commitments and projects.

Without fail, my inner pleaser was right there ready to say: Yes.  Thankfully, I no longer readily listen to that voice. I breathed and took a good look at my commitments, timeline and resources.  I didn’t see how I could possibly take on more work.

Just then [insert trumpets trumping here] my inner overachiever shows up to save the day.  It said things like: you can suck it up for three weeks, sleep is overrated, be a team player. I don’t know about your inner overachiever, but mine rarely looks at reality.

After much battling with pleaser & overachiever, I came to the honest and healthy response: No.

Though it was uncomfortable and I felt bad telling the design and production team that I couldn’t take on the additional work, I was proud of myself for being realistic in what I could produce with the given circumstances.  The team was understanding and I was able to put all of my focus back on the puppets.

There was the initial excitement of a new project.  I did research.  I created a Jasper Pinterest board and pinned.  (Sidebar – If you’re an artist and not creating Pinterest boards for your projects as a way to collecting and organizing your research and inspiration, start. Seriously.  Game changer!)

When starting a project, the trick is to do just enough research to inspire and inform but not so much that it keeps you from actually creating. I had reached that point and so naturally I avoided the project for a couple of days as the creativity insecurities and fears edged in.

How do I get past this?

First, I talk – a lot.  I tell everyone & anyone who will listen to me what I’m working on.  It helps with accountability.  It’s also encouraging to hear myself speak artist-speak.

Second, I begin.  I just start.  So, I started…

Two days later I had a pile of newspaper, cardboard, tape and a plastic bin that represented four ways that didn’t work for building a three headed dog!!  So frustrating!!!

So, I did what any self-respecting 37-year-old would do, I called my Mom.  Now, it just so happens that in addition to being supportive, loving & a creative genius, my Mom is the Artist Director for a community theater.  She was also in the process of building a dragon puppet for her production of Shrek.  She reminded me of…

Lesson #2: You have a support network.  Use it!!!

Me: I have a big ol’ pile of failures and no puppet.  I know failure is part of the creative process and knowing the four ways of how not to build a puppet is useful, but I have a deadline!  I don’t know what I’m doing! I’m freakin’ out! 

My Mom said lots of validating and supportive things and then this gem:

Liz’s Mom: Okay, so you may have never built a puppet just like this one before but I’m sure you know someone who has.  You have lots of friends and colleagues that would be more than happy to give you advice.  Call them.  

My Mom was right.  I knew just the person to reach out to and she told me exactly what I needed to do.  I had the form/armature built within 24 hours. Thank you, Gina!!!

Cerberus form/armature

I had friends help me paint, transport the puppet to the theater, and build the manipulation armature.  It was great!  I was reminded that even though I’m often a loner and value my alone time when it comes to creative projects, I’m a collaborator.  It is far more enriching and enjoyable when I have a team to dream, problem solve and create with.

Cerberus made with Wonderflex. (Cecil running away from three dog heads)


And yet, even with my support network this project got the best of me and I STRESSED OUT.

Lesson #3 – Put projects in their proper perspective.

The final week leading up to the first performance is always stressful and this time I managed to work myself all up.  My overachiever was back with her friend perfectionism.

I was working long hours at the theater finishing Cerberus and building the shadow puppets.  I was sleep deprived and grumpy.  I was so irritable that I didn’t even want to be around me. Finally, I had to main street it with myself:

Me (with loads of self-compassion): Self, you’re stressed out because this is a stressful time and you’re sleep deprived.  Yes, this project is a big deal. Yes, you want the puppets to match the level of professionalism everyone else is bringing to the production.  Yes, you want to make the production team happy.  However, this is a puppet in a play.  This isn’t life or death.  This is a level 2 and your acting like its a level 10.  So, how about taking a breath and getting a proper perspective on this project.

And that’s exactly what I did.  Once, I had this clarity I immediately felt better.  The stress level became more than manageable and I felt happiness & excitement fill my belly.  Creating was fun again.

Mounting Cerberus onto the manipulation armature.

Lesson #4 – Relationships are what’s most important. 

I’m quite happy with the final product of Cerberus & the shadow puppets.  But they will be dismantled for parts after the final performance.  However, the relationships that I built with the members of the Jasper family are what’s lasting and what’s most important.

The Jasper family was hard working, kind, gracious & talented. Crazy talented! I thoroughly enjoyed working with them and look forward to future productions.

Rehearsal picture of Cerberus. Manipulated by Andi Alhadeff, Ben Crawford & F. Michael Haynie (left to right)

And if all of that wasn’t enough, maybe me & Cerberus were mentioned in the NY Times review of the show.  Shut. The. Front. Door!