University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Art in Hand

Chamindika Wanduragala employs puppetry to support BIPOC artists and explore the world around us.

Photo credit: Sarah White

The creative life does not always have to happen on center stage. That discovery was a lightning bolt moment for puppetry artist Chamindika Wanduragala, who realized that her anxiety about performing was preventing her from fully immersing herself in her art.

Wanduragala had learned a bit about puppetry in the art courses she took as an undergraduate in the U of M’s Department of Art in the mid 1990s, where she focused on oil pastel drawings. But she didn’t feel the urge to try it herself until a friend asked her to see a performance of several New York City-based puppeteers at the Southern Theater, including Basil Twist, a puppet artist who would later receive a MacArthur fellowship, a “no-strings-attached” $625,000 grant that supports artists in their creative endeavors.

Twist’s wooden marionette was bare bones: no clothes, no facial features, no hair. But the way that he made the puppet move so fluidly felt incredibly real to Wanduragala. “I totally believed the puppet was alive,” she remembers.

Still, it took almost 20 years for that spark to turn into anything hands on. In the meantime, Wanduragala was busy running Diaspora Flow, an arts organization based in the Twin Cities that she cofounded to support and build solidarity for BIPOC artists doing multidisciplinary performances. (Wanduragala was born in Sri Lanka; she moved to the United States when she was 6 and her dad was in graduate school at the University of Illinois. Her family moved to Minnesota when she was 15.)

Then, in 2015, Wanduragala ran into England-based puppet artist Andrew Kim at a wedding. “I told him how jealous I was that he got to make puppets and travel all over the world doing puppetry,” she remembers. Kim responded by saying if she could get funding, he’d teach her.

That invitation turned out to be the start of Monkeybear’s Harmolodic Workshop, the arts organization that Wanduragala founded with $4,750 she received from an online fundraiser. (The website for the group notes that “Harmolodics was jazz musician Ornette Coleman’s term for his musical philosophy, the equal importance of all the elements in a creation.”)

Wanduragala’s goal with Monkeybear is to support BIPOC artists in developing creative and technical skills in contemporary puppetry. “I didn’t see any point in just learning for me,” she says. “I wanted other Native, Black, and people of color artists [to join me] because puppetry is such a white field.” Twenty-six artists signed up to take the workshop with her.

The workshop covered everything from shadow puppetry to masks to hand-and-rod puppets. Participants also created short performances. “I learned alongside everyone in that first cohort,” she says. That experience led Wanduragala to take a six-month course in 2017 at Puppet Lab, an art program founded and taught by U of M alumna Alison Heimstead (B.A. ’98). It is a developmental laboratory program for emerging artists based at Minneapolis’ In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre.

It was the first time Wanduragala had created an entire puppet theater performance. Using shadow puppetry, stop-motion animation, and tabletop puppets made from breast pumps, the piece explored Wandurgala’s challenges of being creative while raising young children. Puppet Lab also provided her with that breakthrough realization about her feelings about performing.

“I couldn’t start because I was so frozen,” she remembers. “I don’t like being in front of a group of people and having to be on stage.” When she realized she could instead hire Monkeybear artists to perform while she directed, the floodgates opened. “I felt so free.” Today, Wanduragala remains happily behind the scenes as the executive/artistic director of Monkeybear. Each year, the nonprofit offers a seven-day intensive taught by puppeter Kim, and a six-month program open to artists who take the intensive to create short puppet theater pieces. 

Participants receive funds for a sound artist for their piece, 24-hour access to Monkeybear’s studio, 22 hours of mentorship, feedback sessions, and a culminating show at Pillsbury House Theater. Home-cooked food is also provided at all group sessions. They also run Puppet Film Program, a six-month mentoring program for puppet artists interested in creating stop motion animation projects.

Wanduragala is excited about the increased reach these films will have. 

“What I love about puppet films is that just anyone can see it on their phone, computer, whatever, and more people can see the work of our artists."

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