How We Work: An Interview With Sara Drake

December 4, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest post by A.Martinez

I was introduced to the work of Sara Drake at my first Brain Frame event, March 2012. Brain Frame is an event series that invites comic artists to explore the performative side of their work. That night, Sara’s shadow puppet performance “The Romance of the Tiger Lady”  truly blew me away. I try to avoid using the word ‘magic’ to describe work, but the kind of child-like captivation I felt in response to this piece was both unexpected and incredibly moving.

Bad At Sports last spoke to Sara just before her two-month teaching venture in Cambodia. It was this trip that inspired “The Romance of the Tiger Lady”, and it was also this trip that inspired her (most impressive) self-taught movement towards shadow puppetry. You can find Sara’s work online at http://saradrake.info/;  she is also the  comics writer for Bad At Sports.

 saradrake3

A.Martinez: How did you get from making comics into performing shadow puppetry?

Sara Drake: Estrangement. I had just returned to the US from Cambodia where I had been teaching comics, and every way I knew how to articulate myself became erroneous. I needed to communicate in a mode which wouldn’t come off as abrasive or didactic within an insular arts community in Chicago. I wasn’t ready to process my experiences abroad with other people yet. It takes me a long time to process anything, including my new found political awareness.

Shadow puppets signaled tedious, meditative sessions alone in the dark and allowed me to find a voice I was aware of in the back of my mind but wasn’t sure how to wield.  So much of my creative life is prefaced with writing and asserting justification for making things. When I’m speaking in shadows, I am literally fumbling around in the dark trying to find bits and pieces to a story.

Martinez: So to begin talking about your piece, The Romance of the Tiger Lady, I want to start with your trip to Cambodia to teach comics to a group of young women. When were you there and for how long?

Drake: I was there for two months in 2011 through an initiative called Independent Youth Driven Media Production in Cambodia. My former teacher, Anne Elizabeth Moore, was looking for creative responses to issues relevant to young women in Phnom Penh. I applied with a gendered comics and self-publishing workshop.

Martinez: How did living in a completely different country teaching comics influence your work?

Drake: I was there for such a short time! I wouldn’t exactly consider two months “living” in a foreign country. It did completely shift my life. As for my work I attribute it most to an entangling and dispossession of my morality, which I’m only just beginning to explore through comics.

I am definitely an advocate for travel if you have the means or opportunity to do so, but hesitant to encourage others to pursue a project like mine. There are unique risks and potentially hidden power structures at play. To walk into a community as an outsider with limited understanding could be devastating, despite how well-intentioned an artist may be.

Martinez: Did you watch much shadow puppetry there?

Drake: Only as a tourist. Not as someone who has the ability to talk about the medium affluently or with respect to a long, and important cultural tradition.

Martinez: Of all the comics you read while you were over there, what made you decide to choose this story to work with?

Drake: That’s the thing. I did not speak or was literate in Khmer. I had to find comics in the market places and through word of mouth, typically through western expats. Cambodia is still rebuilding from and coming to terms with decades of illegal American bombing, the Khmer Rouge regime, civil war, and persistent corruption. Comics, like all artistic production during the regime, were completely wiped out. The Romance of The Tiger Lady, by Im Sokha, is a horror comics from the 1980s about a were-tiger lady who falls smitten for a hunter. Aside from it being a good story, it was one of the comics that was well liked and looked at often among the women that came to my workshops.

Martinez: So, you made a decision to make this into a shadow puppet performance, and then how did you begin this process?

Drake: I spend a lot of time writing and collecting fragments of ideas until I internalize and visualize moods and feelings. Then I have to somehow translate them into puppets. I am still a bit mystified as to how that happens.

Martinez: The piece is 17 minutes long. About how long did it take you to just cut out all the scenes?

Drake: For Tiger Lady, I wasn’t just cutting out the puppets, I was also teaching myself how to make shadow puppets. The show took about three months to physically cut out. A clumsy, one foot after the other sort of business.

saradrake5

Martinez: Did you work mostly by yourself?

Drake: Yes and no! When I’m starting to work on a show there is a germination period of a few months, where I’m working solo on scripting out the story and making all the puppets. Then I get together with a group of puppeteers and a musician to figure out the rest.

Martinez: How did you decide to use an overhead projector for your performances?

Drake: They are the staple, it seems, for shadow puppet shows. The puppet community in Chicago is incredibly supportive. Julia Miller of Manual Cinema, another shadow puppet group, gave me a lot of pointers in the beginning. Knowing about their work was an invaluable resource in the beginning and their work is mind-blowingly gorgeous.

Martinez: Comics are usually a very solitary act, so was it difficult for you to switch to an art that is so collaborative both in its making and its viewing?

Drake: I see this logic posed often to cartoonists and frankly, it’s missing the point. Comics are solitary as a process sure! but similar to other art forms, communities have formed up around and about it all over the place. It would seem odd to ask a writer this question. Chicago is not as lonely as my cartoon predecessors would have most believe, yet certainly alienating at times. It bores me when artists use this paradigm as an excuse.

But to answer your question, there was never a time when I haven’t been collaborating. Maybe the result isn’t always a visual one or one whose end goal is something tangibly producible.  For me, cultural production necessitates community involvement and being exposed to as many voices and encouraging access to as many voices as possible.

Martinez: When did PUPhouse form?

Drake: During the production of Saltwater Weather. Early on I realized that the project was going to be ambitiously technical and require a deeper commitment from the artists who stepped up to be puppeteers. Each of us had been collaborating in some form or another outside of shadow puppets. The range of mediums each of us is coming from is pretty protean: textiles, animation, comics, music, filmmaking, theater. PUPhouse, or giving our time together a name, became a way to reinforce what we were building together.

Martinez: Do you like working with a crew  of people like that?

Drake: As with any group of humans, you can expect drama. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I mean, I couldn’t have it any other way.

Martinez: What’s the strangest or coolest thing that’s happened to you while working together?

Drake: Being around other artists is strange and cool in general.

One of the perks of being in an experimental puppet company, is that no matter what event or show you are at, if it’s going badly or is boring, I always have seven weirdos who I adore to hang out with on the sidelines. Eternal friendship lifestyle.

Martinez: How often do you meet and rehearse for shows?

Drake: When a show is in the works once a week. Sometimes two, three times a week.

It takes longer time than one would think to show someone how to move a small piece of paper from point a to b. . .

Martinez: What is the most difficult thing for you about shadow puppetry?

The physical and emotional labor that goes into it. Shadow puppetry may look effortless from the front but there is a flurry of movement, sweat, and awkward body positions happening backstage. It takes an exceptional group of people to be able to maintain strong friendships after tense long hours of being told their fingers need to act more like animals.

Sometimes puppets catch on fire . . . which, is definitely difficult.

saradrake2

Martinez: What are you currently working on?

Drake: I’m taking a break from puppets for a moment to make a new comic – but I don’t want to share all my magic tricks just yet. On top of that, I’m heading out of Chicago for a bit to do an artist residency in Colombia.

Martinez: It seems like you like to travel to new places. Do you work while you’re traveling? Or mostly just collect ideas?

Drake: I have a long-term, co-dependent relationship with wanderlust. I intentionally do not go to any place wanting to make work about it. I’ve found that traveling with a purpose in mind, mediates my experiences. It is however, important that all of the materials I work with are portable. This does two things. I like culture that is definitely small – that’s human sized and encourages people to relate to it. And of course, it’s practical!

Martinez: Do you keep/have a collection?

Drake: I’m always leaving places. I do not like/enjoy owning things, maybe that’s why I work in ephemera and experiences. Although, I am a compulsive autobiographer. I keep a dated record of every book, movie, and art show I’ve ever read or seen since I was a teenager. I keep meticulous word lists of all sorts of things: new compound words I create, overheard conversations, turns of phrases that sound off, mood words, fragments.

Martinez: What is the most distracting thing for you while you’re working?

Drake: Exhaustion. Or not feeling lucid and the feedback loop frustration that comes with that.

Martinez: What’s the biggest revelation you’ve had about the way you work?

Drake: The puppeteers always note that I exclaim “do you hate it?” when I show new work or scenes to them. I have a parasite known to many as self-depreciation.

Martinez: Is there a certain time of day that you feel especially inspired to work, or when ideas come to you?

Drake: I do most of my writing and scripting when I am on my bike. Most days this tends to be the only alone time I have. And of course, shadows are more dramatic after dark. . .

Martinez: Does your cat hang out with you while you work?

Drake: Of course! We have a symbiotic working relationship. I cannot stress enough, how crucial a creative life in the company of other animals is to a human psyche.

Martinez: Is there a piece of advice, art related or not that you think of often?

Drake: When I was small, my dad always used to say, “What makes a good animal, a good animal?”
This was meant to be soothing after some brutal animal world fact on television, a pet death, watching viruses destroy human cells on bring your daughter to work day, etc. It meant, what ensures that animal survives? Is being brutal or dark, something that a human animal might consider bad, a part of what defines that animal?  “What makes a good human, good at being human?” This is how I move around in the world ad. infinitum.

saradrake1

All photos courtesy of Gillian Fry and Sara Drake.


A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL.