Spotlight: Local puppeteer creates and performs original shows


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An elaborate pop-up storybook with miniature marionettes walking across the pages is just a simple retelling of the classic tale “Little Red Riding Hood.” But for puppeteer Monica Leo, it’s a $10,000 investment.

For each original show she produces, the materials and time she spends working on a story can add up to a large sum of money.

A new show typically involves a new stage, props, music, and sound effects to accentuate different parts of the show. But a majority of the time and money spent on creating a new story is dedicated to making new puppets.

Nearly 1,000 puppets handcrafted out of materials such as papier-mâché, neoprene, and paper are a part of Eulenspiegel Puppets, a company Leo started in 1974.

“There are a lot of different ways to create the puppet, and there’s just a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” Leo said. “But if I had to pick one favorite medium, it would be papier-mâché.”

Dressed in bright colors with fabrics wrapped around her head, she often accompanies her puppets on stage, essentially becoming a character in the story.

In addition to creating puppets and performing, she also creates the scripts for each original story, which range from historical fiction to adapted folk tales. Sometimes she collaborates with other people in the company while writing scripts, but most of them are her own.

“I have to have a good reason for doing it with puppets as opposed to people,” Leo said. “There are a lot of times where I think it is the right time to do a story, so that’s when I usually create it.”

Leo’s started by making puppets and dolls to sell. Friend Teri Jean Breitbach suggested the two start their own company after seeing the creations. After being hired by the Vinton School for the Blind for its first show, Eulenspiegel Puppets was awarded a grant from the Iowa Arts Council.

Ron Hillis has worked with Leo for the past 15 years, writing and performing songs for shows with his guitar, banjo, and accordion.

“On some shows, I’ve had a bigger input on creativity, and then other shows have just evolved from [Leo] and I working together,” Hillis said. “It’s been a unique opportunity.”

Leo has also introduced a bilingual show titled “Stories and Cuentos” to the troupe with puppeteer Elis Portugal.

“It is designed so that people who may not understand Spanish can still understand what is happening,” Leo said. “It’s been a lot of fun to tour, especially in places with Spanish speakers and new immigrants.”

Eulenspiegel Puppets has toured in four countries and 28 states, mostly in Iowa and surrounding area.

Leo is focusing on making a difference in her community, and Peggy Fitzgerald, the outreach director for the company, has made that possible.

Fitzgerald has brought in youth groups to the Eulenspiegel Puppets, and they have been able to create their own puppets and perform with them as well.

“[Leo] is a fabulous artist with not only her puppet making but her sets, and she can gather the community together to have them do something worthwhile,” Fitzgerald said. “I think she has been a wonderful asset to West Liberty and Iowa City.”

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