Art in Hand
Chamindika Wanduragala employs puppetry to support BIPOC artists and explore the world around us.
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.
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
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."