Puppets A La Carte feeds the imagination through hands-on puppeteering for all ages. Founder and Creative Director, Nicole Cloeren, believes play is hugely important for all of us. Puppets are a portal to exploring new ideas as well as a canvas for sharing them. The company’s signature puppet playdates are a unique blend of education and entertainment and offer a hands-on approach to learning about puppetry arts. In her work, Nicole uses everything from elements of nature, found objects and abstract constructions to traditional hand puppets, marionettes, rod puppets, and other forms of puppetry.
Nicole was a shy child who loved animating her toys. At age 11 she received a hand puppet that gave her the courage and voice with which to improvise street performances while on family vacations. Reactions of surprise and delight from adults encouraged her to continue. As she got older, she took her puppet to college and to study abroad. She still has that puppet today!
Academics and puppetry arts have always been entwined for Nicole. She holds a Ph.D. in Higher Education and an M.A. in American Studies. Whether teaching English as a foreign language abroad, English literature in a high school classroom, or play-based learning in nature to preschoolers through Tinkergarten, Nicole works puppets into the curriculum. Likewise, her studies inform her puppeteering as she works to integrate themes of culture and identity into her performances. “What started as a childhood hobby, worked itself into academic roots, and now is a full-fledged endeavor to share the wonders of puppetry arts with others while exploring our humanity,” she says.
Nicole states that the goal of puppetry is to bring something to life with the help of an audience willing to suspend disbelief. “It’s a very active dialogue and that’s why I do play dates, so that the audience is always bringing their own thoughts into the performance space. If your puppet holds its breath,” she continues, “then your audience will inadvertently do the same, leading to fatigue, and soon disengagement. That’s why it’s so important for the puppet to have the breath of life reflected in its movements. You want to make it easy for the audience to engage.”
Currently, Nicole is performing with storyteller Karen Rae Kraut once a month for Riverside’s First Sundays programming. The performance is sponsored by Riverside Art Museum and Inlandia Institute. She is also collaborating with Project CHELA (Children Helping Each Other Learn and Achieve), a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth and their communities to provide opportunities for expression, exposure to the arts, and a focus on self-care.
Additionally, Nicole leads her VIP (Very Impressive Puppeteers) Club for elementary aged children. They meet once a month to learn about puppets from around the world, practice puppeteering skills, and improvise puppet skits. All of Nicole’s work aims to help participants find their voices and share their stories, real or fictional. She notes, “I like celebrating that we are all creative and must foster our imagination.”
In the upcoming year, Nicole is especially excited about collaborating with a visual artist on creating a puppet experience for children and their caregivers that includes a performance and a related hands-on activity. The aim is to inspire children to create something and be able to express themselves. “When it comes to the arts, children need to be allowed to experiment freely with material and direct their own play,” Nicole believes. “This approach not only brings out great art that kids are proud of, it also builds life skills such as problem-solving, teamwork, empathy and self-expression.”
Nicole is putting puppets on the map in Riverside. Her permanent space at Riverside Studios, alongside so many other talented creatives, allows her the physical and artistic space to grow through collaboration and experimentation.