On the occasion of the new administration reaching its first 100 days mark, the wardrobe mistress, makeup artist, set builder, and casting director of the Wee Folk Players (They’re a Stitch) steps out from behind the curtain. In the following interview, I (Salley Mavor) reflect on my foray into political satire, talk about how I deal with critics, and describe how speaking out through art has affected my work and life. I answer questions about subjects my followers have been curious about over the past few months and also reveal what’s next for the theater troupe.
How did the Wee Folk Players come about?
The theater troupe evolved naturally in the first days after the presidential election. I did what I always do when distressing events loom large — I occupy my mind with creative thoughts and ideas about what to make and how to do it. Lying sleepless in the dark, I imagined wee folk characters acting out scenarios with pithy captions, like in New Yorker cartoons. The unfolding political drama seemed to translate seamlessly into little vignettes with ironic twists. I read the news from a less emotional and more analytical point of view, picking up on the terrifying absurdity of it all. During dinner, I tested out possible parodies and punch lines on my husband Rob, to see if he laughed. Soon, I was making a growing cast of characters with removable heads that fit on a variety of bodies and costumes. For a stage set, I unearthed my old doll house and Rob took photos. Every news cycle presented a surplus of ideas for more episodes in the series. The project took over to the point where I had to postpone starting a new children’s book that has been in the pipeline for a while. In the past 6 months, I’ve published about one installment a week on this blog, which are listed at the end of this post. Our creative partnership continues to evolve and Rob and I are currently working on a stop-motion animated video that includes many of the Wee Folk Players.
How did you go from making sweet fairies to political satire?
All along, I’ve said that the fairies made me do it. Fairies aren’t really sweet, but feisty, mischievous creatures who tease and prod. So they were just doing their job, acting as inner voices or muses, coaxing me to follow my path as an artist. For the past few years, I’ve felt a push to make art that addresses topical events, so in a way, I was ready to jump into the fray. I usually avoid confrontation, but this election hit me in the gut so hard, I knew I couldn’t sit idly by, hoping it would all work out without getting involved. Almost immediately, the new administration’s antics unleashed my comical side and inspired a flood of creative ideas. It’s been said that ridicule is one of the best weapons against bombastic authoritarians, so I figured it was worth a try.
Will you get over the election and go back to making fairies?
Some of my fans are probably wondering when this seemingly never-ending fixation will run its course, so that we can all return to a non-threatening fairy land. I can certainly understand the need to escape into fantasy, but it doesn’t feel safe for the fairies to come out yet. Even if they did, they’d first have to gird up their loins. In the meantime, the wee folk are freely exploring new territory. Maybe it’s not so sad to leave the land of innocence. It can be liberating to branch out and move through the world with one’s eyes wide open, with more of a sense of purpose (and humor, too).
Isn’t it risky to take a political stand while running a business?
I’ve always been politically neutral on professional platforms, so sharing my reaction to the election was a major shift. In the past I would’ve stayed silent out of fear of alienating someone. In this case, the artist in me won out over my pragmatic business side. I’ve become more outspoken with age and feel that if I’m ever going to break out of complacency, now is the time! I knew full well that some of my followers would be turned off, but decided it was worth the risk. I believe that trying to please everyone can stifle artistic growth and now more than ever, it seems most urgent to shed light. We must keep creating art that recognizes and reflects the irony and tragedy, as well as the beauty of the world we live in. Expressing myself through art is how I’ve dealt with the angst lurking inside and I’ve since learned that it’s also helping people cope with PTSD (Post-election Trump Stress Disorder). At first, my satire created quite a stir, which I addressed in a message to my followers. It’s an invitation to come along on my search for understanding of the real world around us, as I strive to make art that speaks from the heart, in my own way. For those who feel that they can’t come along, I say make your own art that reflects the world the way you see it.
Yes, I’ve lost fans, some out of frustration and anger, but I also suspect some people have left because they find it unpleasant to be constantly reminded of the whole fiasco. I find laughter to be very beneficial, but not everyone gets my jokes or thinks what I do is funny. (I discuss dealing with criticism further ahead in the interview.) At the same time, more people than ever are finding out about my work because of this series. I hold no illusion that the Wee Folk Players will change anyone’s mind, but rather hope their performances serve as a balm to those who enjoy my particular brand of humor. Sure, it’s preaching to the choir, but we need to sing loudly in this brave new world!
What is compelling about a doll house sized theater and cast of characters?
Even though it’s clearly play therapy, I just love the excuse to fuss over my doll house! This gray-haired lady is truly at home combing through miniatures, rearranging furniture and decorating rooms to suit each scene. Finally, a use for a doll house that has been practically untouched since I made it 40 years ago! Besides the cathartic benefits of controlling and manipulating doll house sized characters, there’s the cuteness factor. Everything looks so innocent to the unsuspecting eye, until you look closely and see what’s going on in those precious little setups! There’s something satisfying and even subversive about having everyone cut down to size — especially boastful, grandiose personalities who are dangerously delusional. We loom large over them, as they are exposed and held captive in miniature scale and for a moment, their power is diminished.
What’s it like to copy likenesses of unlikable characters?
For me, the process of making dolls is a way to confront and engage with people and situations that scare and upset me. Just the process of researching and painting their faces can be therapeutic. Some wonder how I can put so much love and care into rendering portraits of people I obviously do not admire. One person commented that these individuals don’t deserve my attention and it’s a waste of my talent. Others think my portrayals should be more exaggerated and less attractive, but my style tends to be on the subtle side, instead of grotesque caricature. I actually think that the juxtaposition of “cute” little characters playing out the horrific real life political drama is more incongruous. It’s also comforting to hold and manipulate the figures and choose their outfits. Then you can put them in compromising positions and make them say and do what you want!
How do you deal with criticism?
This has been the most stressful and educational part of the experience. Over time, I’ve become more used to the controversy this series has caused and see it as an important part of understanding and coming to terms with the starkly different ways people in our country live and believe. It’s also refreshing that my new work is generating discussion about content rather than technique, which in my opinion, is over-emphasized when talking about fiber art.
I knew that my scenarios would stir debate, but I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the responses, both positive and negative. In the beginning, there were a lot of complaints from followers who were upset with my parodies, which they described as disrespectful and divisive. I’ve been told that I’m not qualified to have a political opinion and that I should leave the country if I don’t like it. My favorite was from a woman who said she was throwing my book in the recycling bin! Many act like exasperated parents scolding a naughty child, saying that what I’m doing is disappointing and unbecoming. I cannot lie and say these comments didn’t sting at first. I tell myself that this is what to expect when you do the unexpected. I usually post negative comments as long as they are civil, but I’ve learned to wait before answering them, so I can be as thoughtful as I can, without succumbing to the temptation to argue back. I try to acknowledge people as individuals and not make them wrong for having the reaction they have. After all, they are exposing themselves as well. On the other hand, I am encouraged by and thankful for the overwhelmingly positive feedback that keeps coming in!
What have you learned from the Wee Folk Players?
This quirky ensemble has taught me that the power of storytelling should not be underestimated. I am grateful that their voices and actions serve as an outlet for expressing what is going on my head and heart. Throughout this series, I have learned to trust my creative impulses and have discovered that speaking out has more benefits than downsides. I have come to know that every theater group needs an audience and that the Players have the best cheering section ever! And they have taught me to be more appreciative and protective of the rights and privileges we enjoy as Americans.
Do you plan to make a book with photos from the series?
Many people have suggested the idea of publishing a book with photos of the Wee Folk Players. While I have thought about it and think it would be great, sending out proposals and doing the necessary work to find a suitable publisher requires time and focus that I don’t have right now. I know that I do not want to self publish and all of my connections are in children’s book publishing, which is a different category all together. Right now, I’m in making mode, which can be all-consuming and in direct conflict with promotional impulses. But, if there’s a publisher or editor out there who’s interested, please get in touch.
What’s next for the Wee Folk Players?
More material is coming, including an episode with guest star Abraham Lincoln, but the troupe will soon have to go into recess. I’ve felt committed to keeping the series going through these tumultuous months, but now need to get to work on a long-delayed children’s book, which I really can’t show in any detail until it’s published in a few years. That doesn’t mean the Players are completely folding up their tent. Rob and I are currently working on location in the basement, filming a stop-motion animated video. It’s a political take-off of a cautionary tale that you will all find familiar. We are at the very early stages of the project, which will require an immense amount of time and patience. I just hope our marriage survives the process! We don’t know when the film will be finished and ready to show, but you can be sure that it will debut before the next presidential election!
Please scroll down to see a complete list with links to all Wee Folk Players episodes. To keep up with new posts, subscribe to this blog (top right column on the home page). And for a wide-ranging look at new and old material from my studio, please follow along on Instagram and Facebook.
Episodes in the American Drama Series:
Click on titles to see individual posts with photos, videos and corresponding commentary. For the complete Wee Folk Players archive click here.