Pandora Gastelum is a puppeteer, playwrite, and performance artist who started the Mudlark Public Theater at 1200 Port Street in the St Claude Arts District nearly a decade ago. Since then she has been presenting charming puppet plays there as well as hosting other artistic events on a regular basis.
The Mudlark Theater is an old school neighborhood theater in its purest form. The wood frame building is a former corner grocery store. The type that is commonly found in old New Orleans neighborhoods which were built before the creation of the automobile. The main room has been converted into a funky theater space which is dedicated to hosting live performances for people of all ages. It has also become a venue for the annual New Orleans Giant Puppet Festival.
Pandora creates puppets out of papier mache and fabric for her puppet shows. Many of them hang from the walls and ceilings in the lobby of the theater. These are all puppets that she has made over the years. Some of them are actively being used and some are retired performers.
NCM: How long have you had the Mudlark theater?
Pandora: Nine years. It will be ten years in October. And the New Orleans Giant Puppet Festival will be seven years old this year. We have the festival every year between French Quarter Festival and Jazz Fest.
NCM: Are you from New Orleans?
Pandora: I was born in Austin, but I moved to New Orleans when I was still a kid.
NCM: Why did you choose to focus your artistic career on puppetry?
Pandora: I studied puppetry for the first time when I was a college student in Florence, Italy. I was 18 when I made my first puppet and I fell in love with everything about the art form. I always animated my dolls when I was a kid. I was an only child with a really active imagination. I would make scenes and act them out with the dolls. I also studied puppetry in Prague.
I got my degree from NYU, where I studied theater. I started as a Musical Theater major, but that ended up not being the direction I wanted to go in. However, I still do musicals with some regularity and my puppet shows always incorporate musical elements. But performing other people’s work just became increasingly less interesting to me.
I moved from the musical theater department to this company called playwrights horizons, which has a Broadway theater house. They also have a studio at NYU where they help students learn how to do self-scripting as well as learn how to make an entire production. The students learn to do all of the onstage and behind stage work. It was wonderful because they allowed me the flexibility to spend a year of my four years at university abroad. I used that time to also study puppetry.
NCM: Why did you choose to name it the Mudlark Theater?
Pandora: Mudlark is a Dickensian era word for orphan or street urchin. Mudlarks were the little children in the Victorian era that would dig through the gutters of London for dropped coins and jewelry. They searched for anything that they could find of value. The gutters were also where people emptied their chamber pots. So the mud was literally waste.
I bought the building for this theater not long after I became an orphan myself. So this is my own personal orphanage. I dedicate it to all of the little lost and disenfranchised creatures of this world. It is a sanctuary for strays.
NCM: How often do you have shows here?
Pandora: Five nights a week. We try to encourage as much local theater as possible. The majority of our shows tend to be music related. We offer puppetry at least once a month. We also feature dance, circus arts, cabaret, burlesque, and independent film screenings. Sometimes people rent it out as an event space.
NCM: What materials do you use to create your puppets?
Pandora: I primarily use papier mache and textile sculpting. My style is a variation of Japanese Bunraku. I have modified it a little so that you only need one or two puppeteers to perform it.
NCM: Who inspires you as an artist?
Pandora: Angela Carter has influenced me most as a writer, folklorist, and an essayist. She wrote with a very tender and critical lens.
I am also a fan of Terry Gilliam’s work. He is an inspiration and personal hero. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen had a profound effect on me when I was young. I love his mind.
NCM: Did your family support your decision to become an artist?
Pandora: Yes, my parents were really supportive of me developing my skills on every level. They wanted me to be a well-rounded person. I was able to study theater at a very early age. My mother made sure I knew how to make clothing, which has also helped me sew costumes and puppets.
My parents were both medical professionals and they wanted me to go in that direction as well. My mother passed away when I was fourteen. My father was very worried about financial stability for me as an artist in the theater. Several years after I moved to New York, he saw me star in a production. Afterwards, he came back stage to congratulate me and tell me that he thought I made the right decision about going into the theater.
As soon as I graduated from college, I moved back to New Orleans. This was where I wanted to be. And I have lived in New Orleans ever since, except for two years after Katrina. I lost everything in Katrina, so I moved to New York for those two years and worked for a costume company called Randy Carfagno Productions. They are a fabrication studio that is associated with a lot of Broadway shows and Henson Studios. I was hired at Carfagno to generate 80 pieces at a time for the Rockettes.
After that season was over, a former professor hired me to make masks and puppets at a theater in Bangkok, Thailand. I learned a lot in that theater. And living in Bangkok was very magical. I met some puppeteers from Taiwan that were part of the Dream Community. I ended up traveling and performing with them throughout Southeast Asia at Buddhist monasteries.
NCM: Is anyone else in your family an artist?
Pandora: My mother was really gifted at working with textiles and creating three dimensional objects. Actually, both of my parents were incredibly talented artists. Both of my parents could draw. My father was also a very eloquent writer. He published a number of very spiritual articles in Runner’s Magazine. I moved back to the states in 2007 when he passed away.
NCM: Do you do any work with local schools?
Pandora: Yes, I have done some public workshops with Young Audiences and YAYA. I have worked with a number of non-profit organizations. It is very important to me that this theater space is open to people of all ages. It is a community theater in that sense.
The Mudlark Public Theater is located at 1200 Port Street one block off of St. Claude Avenue in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. You can also find announcements about upcoming events on their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/mudlarkpublictheater/