Eric Van Wyk loves puppets. Lucky for him, they’re part of his job.
Van Wyk creates puppet and scenic designs for Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) in Minneapolis, where he designs animal characters (as well as backdrops and props) for plays like Cinderella and The Biggest Little House in the Forest. He also works for Open Eye Figure Theatre and creates his own shows, among them a shadow play called O the Sky!
That means he devotes his days to brainstorming, drawing, and constructing prototypes for sets, as well as puppet characters like Ritchie the rabbit (a floppy-eared bunny who loves to run) or Bartholomew Bear (a kind-hearted, too-big bear who just wants to be loved). Then he advises the builders and the puppeteers on how to best bring them to life.
And as if that wasn’t a unique enough way to spend his workday, Van Wyk does it all while being a stay-at-home dad. Since his wife is in her pediatric residency at the University of Minnesota, he spends most weekdays with their son Willem — playing, going for walks, and taking care of household chores. He draws and brainstorms while Willem is sleeping or playing, and sometimes takes him into CTC, where — not surprisingly, “people seem to really enjoy having kids around.”
It’s a setup that might not work for many parents, but Van Wyk’s job and fatherhood intersect in an exceptional way. “Puppet design is all about putting oneself in the mindset of a child,” he says, “and asking questions like, ‘How does this character move? How does it come to life? How does it do something unexpected?’”
In other words, he says, it’s about maintaining the “sense of play” that is so rich in childhood and often forgotten by adults.
He aims to do that in his work by drawing ideas from anywhere and everywhere, by being constantly on the alert for materials for bringing characters to life. The body for Rudy the rooster, a character in The Biggest Little House in the Forest, was inspired by a bath sponge. “I was in the shower and I just picked it up and thought, ‘This would be a great body for Rudy,’” Van Wyk says.
And he tries to bring a sense of over-emphasized movement and life to the characters he’s creating with the materials that he uses — like the rabbit, who has wheels instead of feet to showcase his speed.
“The sense of play comes in how the materials are used,” Van Wyk says. “The best puppets have unique qualities that make them larger than life.”
For instance, Rudy the rooster is a combination of about 15 different materials. Van Wyk demonstrates how his every feature is constructed to enliven and exaggerate his character: a dense, hard beak that allows him to tap loudly on the ground; floppy, leathery feet that give him a “hoppy quality”; a long, expandable neck that accentuates his love of crowing. And Rudy is also hardy enough to withstand the extensive wear of countless shows.
“When the characters go beyond what is expected, that’s when the imagination starts to grow,” he says.
sense of play
Van Wyk says that it is his own “sense of play” that makes him so adept at this kind of work. For that, he credits his parents and education. “My father is a potter,” he explains. “I grew up with a lot of tactile ways to be imaginative.” His mother, a teacher, would give her children edible dough, and they’d make characters to bake and consume. The family frequently went to plays and read stories. Later, Van Wyk attended Dordt College in Iowa where he learned to be a “professional imaginator,” as he puts it — in other words, to put his creativity and love of play to work.
In college Van Wyk engaged in a variety of mediums but realized his passion was in theatre. He went on to obtain an MFA in scenic design at the University of Maryland-College Park. Through his theatre work, he was introduced to puppetry and began to design them for his own and others’ projects, eventually landing a stint at the CTC when he and his wife moved to Minneapolis.
“I’ve always been drawn to how the theatre can be a catalyst for change and imagination,” Van Wyk says. “It can really bring a community of people together.”
Puppetry, in particular, Van Wyk says, has a special power to awaken the imagination. Unexpected movement and dynamicity from inanimate objects can allow even adults to relax that “filter that we all cultivate” and believe that the characters are real … if only for a moment.
“There’s this look in their eye that lights up,” Van Wyk says. “It happens in adults too. It’s wonder at seeing something come to life.”
It’s a reaction Van Wyk doesn’t want to limit to puppetry, especially for his own son. He and his wife are conscious to nurture Willem’s imagination, even at seven months — allowing him to “pound on the piano,” reading to him (“even if reading is just chewing the book”), and allowing play that is out of the ordinary. Van Wyk says the toy that Willem opts for over any other is a feather duster.
“Kids don’t bring preconceptions — a feather duster can be anything,” says Van Wyk. “It can be a magic wand.”
As he encourages his son’s growing imagination, Van Wyk never forgets to refresh his own. He dreams of one day putting together a puppet production of his favorite book, The Hobbit, which he reads “about four times a year.”
Maybe there’ll be time for that when Willem gets older. Right now, Van Wyk readily admits, juggling work, his own art projects, and his stay-at-home dad responsibilities can sometimes be a challenge.
“I used to work on my own schedule,” Van Wyk says. “Frankly, the balancing act has been difficult sometimes. One of the frustrating parts is when I’m working and I’m getting in the groove, and [then] Willem wakes up crying. Some days he decides, ‘I’m going to have a half-hour nap instead of a two-hour nap.’ But you just have to let it go and look at the big picture.”
Yet Van Wyk certainly seems to be finding some time. He doesn’t build the puppets for the CTC productions but does construct his own (“I’ve got about 20 or 30 characters at home who’ve never been in a show,” he says.) He seizes his chances to draw Willem (“to catch his expressions and movements”), to assemble characters from driftwood (a recent fixation that keeps him “playful”), to spend time with his wife, and to stay on top of parenting duties like washing cloth diapers and freezing breast milk.
All while designing the set for CTC’s upcoming production, Babe, The Sheep-Pig, a task which involves large-scale imagination and perception of space (and, on the practical side, drawing out ideas on paper and in a model and collaborative meetings with the director and fellow designers).
When he hits a creative wall, he sometimes does the dishes or sweeps the house. He also finds encouragement in the community of his family, friends, and fellow artists. He goes to the museum or flips through books of others’ work, losing his own self-absorption in awe of their astounding creativity. And then he gets back to his own.