As 21st century Americans, we tend not to think much about puppetry as art.
There’s one huge exception; the Muppets, and their Sesame Street cousins, whom most of us think of with joy. The Rainbow Connection! But then our imaginations tend to take us in darker directions; Pinocchio the puppet, who longed not to be one; the “Godfather” logo, revived with the film’s 50th anniversary; or then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, stalking his opponent, Hillary Clinton, on the debate stage in 2016, telling her “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet.”
Let’s get all that out of the way.
Puppetry is an art form with ancient roots and a vibrant present.
Sam Jay Gold is, among other things, a puppeteer whose latest show, “All Vows,” about his grandfather’s extraordinary life, will be at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum next week. (See box.)
Mr. Gold’s life, too, has taken extraordinary — and self-propelled — turns.
Mr. Gold grew up in San Diego, the son and grandson of two doctors, and when he was a kid he thought he’d likely have medicine in his future too. But his middle school “had a fantastic theater department, and I really got hooked in eighth grade,” he said.
He went off to Pomona College, where he began as a double major, in religious studies — focusing on Jewish mysticism — and theater, “but I abandoned the religious studies,” he said. “I was playing Richard II, and I realized that I didn’t have enough time to do both.”
He hadn’t had a particularly Jewish childhood, Mr. Gold said. “I didn’t grow up around other Jews, there weren’t that many in San Diego. We didn’t belong to a synagogue. Growing up, my life didn’t really resemble what I had internalized as the American Jewish experience, between the California-ness of it and the lack of persecution. It wasn’t like Seinfeld.
“I went to an Episcopalian school for most of my childhood,” he continued. “I didn’t know what it meant to be Jewish, but I knew what it didn’t mean. In chapel, at school, when I was asked to read something from the Bible, I was told, ‘Don’t worry. It’s from the Old Testament.’
“It was well-meaning, but it was othering.”
And on the other hand, he had the story of his grandfather, who had died when Sam was 4, but whose stories remained alive.
So, back in college, Mr. Gold played Richard II in Shakespeare’s history play. He loved it. “It was like the solar system,” he said. “I was the sun, and everyone else revolved around me. It was a lot of fun for me; I don’t know how much fun it was for Guard #3.” And that did it for him.
By the time he graduated from Pomona, in 2011, “I had received a national fellowship from the Watson Foundation,” he said.
The fellowship, named after Thomas J. Watson, who headed and shaped IBM, gives 41 new college graduates nominated by their universities “enough money to travel around the world for a year, with a project of their own.” It’s supported people in a range of disciplines for more than 50 years. “In the theater realm, Julie Taymor,” the director and visual artist who created, among many others works of art, Broadway’s “Lion King,” “got a Watson about 40 years ago.
“I call the Watson a Goldilocks award,” Mr. Gold continued. “They don’t want it to be anything you’ve done before, but when you apply for it, you have to say how your whole life has led you to this adventure.
“I did puppets.
“That’s how I started in puppetry.”
Another element of the Watson fellowship is the requirement “that you live in at least three cultures through the year. I lived primarily in the Czech Republic, in Japan, and in Bali, although I made many other stops.” All of those countries have strong — and different — traditions of puppetry.
“Who knew that an award like that could exist?” he asked rhetorically. “And how lucky am I?”
When he began his proposal, “It was a bit more intellectual than it turned out to be; it was about empathy and imagination and projection. I’d spent a lot of time in the theater in college, thinking about empathy and how we relate to each other.
Theater is about, among many other things, relationships — with other actors, with the audience. “I’ve always been a head-y, intellectual person,” Mr. Gold said. “A lot of what drew me to theater was that it isn’t good enough to have a theory. You have to put it into practice. It is in the body, in the moment, in the experience. I found a lot of meaning in it, not just how I could perform but also how I could process life, how I could take what was going on inside me and turn it into a live performance.”
Okay. So we have a young man, an intellectual and also an actor — someone who uses his head and also his body and his voice — set free to explore his imagination, within a supportive and not-expectation-free framework, for a whole year.
Where do puppets come in?
“I spent the year studying Czech carved wood marionettes, Japanese bunraku — a very elaborate three-person puppet that looks very naturalistic — and in Indonesia learning what it means to be a shadow puppeteer.
“And then I came back to the United States and I had no idea how I could process any of this, and I was lucky enough to get involved in a show that got me to New York, and a community of other like-minded artists, and here I am a decade later.”
That show was called “Echo in Camera,” and chief among those like-minded artists was Roman Paska, an inventive puppeteer and theater-maker “who has been a mentor,” Mr. Gold said.
When he got to New York, “I didn’t know if I could make a living,” he continued. “I didn’t have any models for freelance artistic pursuits.” But that changed quickly. Puppetry is a small field, and unlike other parts of the performing world, where too many very gifted artists chase after too little work, “it’s such a blessing,” Mr. Gold said. “The field is supportive and based on relationships. There’s such a model in theater for auditions and casting and agents,” but that’s less true for puppetry. “You can’t pretend that you’re good at it if you’re not,” he said. “People will find out quickly if you’re lying. So it’s more a question of can we get along with each other?” Can we work together?
That gets back to compassion and empathy, which “continue to define my own interests and my own work,” Mr. Gold said. “I have my own pet theories about what that really means, but every new piece that I make is an opportunity to explore them in some way. I think about the ways in which we crate narratives for ourselves that can take on really important meaning for us, whether or not they are true.
“That was at the forefront of my thinking when I began to learn more about my grandfather.”
This brings us back to Mr. Gold’s new work, “All Vows.” And also back to his fellowship. “The idea of traveling around the world for a year was draining, but it was at the origin of my family mythology,” he said.
“My grandfather, Ralph Peter Gold, grew up in Ekaterinoslav, in Russia. In 1916 he, his mother, and the man who for a long time I assumed was my biological great-grandfather, but I learned was not, fled for China, and they joined the slowly growing community of Russians in Harbin. They were running from the revolution.”
Why did his family want to escape the Russian Revolution so badly that they ran all the way to China? “I don’t know,” Mr. Gold said. “At the heart of this project is that I don’t know the answers to a lot of the questions. I never got some of the answers, and the pursuit became the meaning, more than the answer.
“Which in itself I guess is very Jewish.”
His grandfather was only 10 months old when his family got to China. “He grew up in Harbin — he spoke Russian and Chinese — and then he went to Bologna, in Italy, to become a surgeon,” Mr. Gold said.
The family’s not entirely clear about when Ralph went to Italy and when he started medical school; their lore is that he got to Italy when he was 18, in 1931, and realized that his inability to speak Italian would make it hard for him to flourish in an Italian-language medical school. Whoops. So he took two years to become fluent, and then began his studies.
He grew the mustache that would become his trademark when he got to Italy, Mr. Gold said; at first, it was to make the young man look a bit older.
Ralph Gold stayed in Italy for seven years; “what he did was a mystery, but it is clear that he enjoyed himself,” his grandson said. But then “he saw Hitler meet with Mussolini, and he knew that it was time for him to leave. He went back to China, shortly before Mussolini prevented foreign-born Jews from leaving the country.”
By then, Dr. Gold’s family had moved to Shanghai, where most of the Jews fleeing the Nazis settled. “So he got to work there.” In 1941 his parents were able to emigrate to America, but he could not get a visa. Instead, he got married, to Sam’s grandmother, Rosalia.
“After the war, in 1947, my grandparents came to the United States on tourist visas. And then, in 1948, there was Truman’s Displaced Persons Act,” which allowed some European immigrants permanent residency. (Yes, the Golds were only sort of European, but Ralph was born in Russia, and most likely Rosalia was European-born as well.)
“Poppy had application number 47, which leads me to believe that they were planning to find a way to stay in America. His own parents were in San Francisco. My dad’s older sister was born in China, and her son says that there are stories about them hiding the few precious things they had in her diaper.
“That suggests that they had plans.”
Soon after they got to San Francisco, Sam’s father, Daniel, was born, and his grandmother died. Peter Gold became a general practitioner; the credentials he’d earned in Italy did not allow him to practice surgery in the United States. Instead, “he became a home-visiting doctor,” his grandson said.
“That was halfway through his life. After that the stories didn’t stop, but they became less exotic, and he carried a lot of grief for the rest of his life.”
Dr. Gold remarried. “She was a Jewish woman from San Francisco, and there was a big cultural clash. She was a third or fourth generation American. They both were widowers with young kids; they both played bridge; they were married for 32 years, but not particularly happily.”
Mr. Gold remembers a story about his grandfather, although he has no idea if this is his own early-childhood memory or a story he’s heard so often that he’s assimilated it. “It’s about going to a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco and trying to order, and the waiter trying to talk him out of it.” The food was spicy, and the waiter thought this elderly mustachioed Jewish man couldn’t tolerate it. “But then he started talking to the waiter in Chinese.” Astonishment unsurprisingly ensued. And then pleasure.
“He was a worldly, smart, and resilient person, who became an aspirational figure to me without any deliberate choice on my part,” Mr. Gold said. “I saw how much I built up his story, and I wanted to own it.”
So he created a show around it.
What about show’s name? It’s called “All Vows.” That’s a translation of Kol Nidrei, the solemn three-times-sung plea to be relieved of all unkept vows from this erev Yom Kippur to the next one.
“When I began this project, I was surprised to discover feelings of shame surrounding my until-then casual — even passive — relationship to my own family’s history,” Mr. Gold said. “This is never explicitly said in the show, but the only memory of my grandfather that I can confirm with 100% certainty to be true, is the day he died.
“I was 4, and already obsessed with video games — in no small part because my parents wouldn’t allow me to have any. We were seeing family for the winter holidays, and I had barely gotten my hands on my cousin’s console when I was told to put the controller down and join the family in a solemn moment. We had just got the call from my aunt that Poppy had died.
“But what I recall clearly, even now, is that I was more annoyed at being forced to stop my game than saddened by my grandfather’s death. Of course, I was 4, so I don’t berate myself over this, but it is, in no uncertain terms, a bummer to me, to this today. And so I think that this memory, combined with the realization of how casual I’d been with the stories of my grandfather’s life, led me to realize early on that this project has always been, on some level, about forgiving myself, absolving a promise unkept, and moving forward with new knowledge, understanding, and resolve.”
It’s part of the life of a puppeteer; when you choose an unconventional life — “I try to make a living, make meaning, and go on adventures,” Mr. Gold said — you get to experiment.
He works on many projects; he will tour in France and Poland, and “I’m going to Colombia for a week for a show,” he said. “A friend and I created a company, and we are making new works with traditional shadow puppets. It’s an unconventional path, and you stumble through it, try to pay your bills, and have a good time along the way.”
No one ever knows what’s going to happen, of course. Der mensch tracht, un Gott lacht; to be clear, man plans, God laughs. (If only it rhymed in English!) But the life of a freelance artist in general, and a puppeteer in particular, is even more open to creative swerves.
“All Vows” was created with support from the Jim Henson Foundation; it was going to open in 2020. But then covid shut everything. Mr. Gold had no idea if it ever would be performed. “We’d had momentum, and then it stopped. I’m so grateful to the Morris Museum. It reached out to me, and I said yes. They gave me space and time to start over. I am so lucky. People have given me time and money to probe more deeply into my own family history.”
The show includes five puppets, presenting his grandfather at different stages of his life. “I carved these puppets from wood and they’re joined like dolls,” Mr. Gold said. “Some puppets are designed to take three people to perform. That’s beautiful. But I’m drawn more to the singular relationship between one person and one puppet. In this case, between me and my grandfather.
“The body and the limbs are drawn from my training in the Czech Republic, and a lot of the head technology is Indonesian-inspired.” He also was deeply motivated by his mentor, Mr. Paska. “I don’t know anyone else who has made puppets like this, other than him,” Mr. Gold said.
The show itself is “devised theater,” he continued. “In a traditional play, you have the script, which is the foundation. In a devised piece, the script isn’t given that primacy. In this case, I made the puppets and built the tables, and then I came into the room with people and started to explore the whole thing. An analogy I often use is that we had to draw the map of the mountain as we climbed it. Sometimes this comes out as a mess, but at other times you can find poetry in places where you might not have found it if we started with a script. It’s more organic this way.”
“All Vows” has changed significantly since it first was created. “In the first version, I didn’t speak,” Mr. Gold said. There were three performers, including him; the others spoke. “I couldn’t,” he said. “I wasn’t ready. This was about my grandfather, not about me. I can’t fully explain how or why, but whatever the cause, during the pandemic, when I reengaged with the show, it changed. Now I am the only one who speaks, and the others are much more frequently puppeteering.
“This show has two goals. One is to honor this man’s story, and share it, and make it more widely known. And the other is for me to grapple with why this means so much to me. I was 4 when he died. I didn’t really know him. What am I caught up in? it’s about legacy, and about truth. Is it true or did I make it up?
“I’m curious about how stories define people. A family history is the foundation we build lives around, and it’s also an organic thing that changes based on misremembering and retelling.”
Although the play is about his father’s family, Mr. Gold says that much of his creativity comes from his mother, Patricia, and he is enormously proud of his sisters, Sarah, who teaches history at the University of California Berkeley, and Becca, who is a doctor (and therefore carrying on the family legacy).
“I don’t think that my mother would self-identify as an artist, but if anyone is interested in how I became who I am, you’d have to talk about my mom.”
Among other creations, “she made amazing Halloween costumes. One of my favorites,” pictured here on page 28, “is a headless person she built using old yardsticks and clothes hangers. I was in third grade and I went to school about 6 feet tall. My head was a cutout so I look like I’m holding it in my arms.
“She is so inventive. One year she made me Frankenstein; she took the sharp points off thumbtacks and glued them on me.
“She never presented it with an artist’s flair, but I am sure that she is the person who taught me to be creative.”
Patricia Gold made the puppets’ costumes for “All Vows.” “I am so grateful,” he said. “This is a real family affair. When I asked my mom, she was surprised and a little daunted, but she did an amazing job.”
One thing about Mr. Gold’s life that has become more conventional is his connection to the Jewish community. He and his wife, Ariela Rotengold, live in Brooklyn, and belong to a shul. (Gold is his professional name, but he and his wife combined their last names when they married, so socially and legally he and Ariela both are Rotengolds.) A theater major like her husband, Ms. Rotengold works for Co/Lab, a theater company that works with adults with disabilities. Mr. Gold also teaches arts education; he works at the New Victory Theater at Lincoln Center.
One thing about this show — puppets notwithstanding, it’s not for kids. “I call it an adult piece of theater that features puppets,” Mr. Gold said.
Who: Sam Jay Gold
What: Presents “All Vows”
Where: At the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown
When: On Friday, May 6, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 8, at 2 p.m.
How much: $40 for nonmembers; $35 for members; $25 for students who are 25 or younger with a valid student ID
To get tickets or for more information: Call (973) 971-3706 or go to morrismuseum.org
And also: On Sunday, May 1, from 1 to 3 p.m., Sam Jay Gold will teach a shadow puppet workshop in the museum lobby. It’s free with museum admission.