Pandora Gastelum grew up in Austin, an only child who, from her earliest years, spent much of her time creating really large-scale, complex stories composed of many Barbie dolls and stuffed animals. She was, she realizes, a born puppeteer. She just didn’t know it at the time.
Leaving Austin for the Big Apple, Pandora graduated in theater and sociology from New York University. In 2003, she left there for New Orleans, hoping to make her talent for puppetry a full-time occupation. While there were many opportunities to present puppet performances, and she did, she actually made her living as a costumer in the emerging film industry.
Then, like so many others, Hurricane Katrina pushed Pandora out of here. For slightly more than a year she wandered around southeast Asia, finally landing in Taiwan. There she discovered the Dream Community.
“Their special focus is to keep the heritage alive of the many aboriginal communities in that area,” she says. “There are 14 different tribes with their own languages and mythologies. The Dream Community creates parades and keeps them alive.”
When Pandora came back to New Orleans she brought with her one particular myth that she loves and that her company, The Mudlark Puppeteers, will present to local audiences in this upcoming weekend’s final performances of the second annual Giant Puppet Festival taking place Thursday, May 2, through Sunday, May 5, in the Marigny Opera House.
“The Monkey King is a really beloved story in Taiwan whose main character is a very irreverent and wicked monkey with an aptitude for magic,” she explains. “It’s actually a Buddhist fable all about hubris and arrogance, and it’s quite a comic story.”
This family-friendly fable featuring a company of five and a “cast” of 20 puppets ranging in size from 3 to 15 feet tall will be accompanied by a live band and a narrator.
Pandora is the artistic director of The Mudlark Puppeteers, the resident company of The Mudlark Public Theatre based in the Lower Nine in what was once a greengrocery. Pandora renovated the 125-year-old store into a black box theater and, like generations of old, lives above it in what was the family’s apartment.
Although she grew up in Austin, a city that proclaims that it wants to stay weird, Pandora chooses to live in the city that proclaims it’s still easy, bewitched, as so many are, with our unique culture.
“New Orleans has such an incredible heart” she says. “When you belong here, you know it almost right away. When this place inspires you, no other place can hold a candle to it. It’s so rich and diverse. Every day life here is such a colorful pageant.”
For ticket information and more about other this weekend’s family-friendly Giant Puppet Festival offerings at the Marigny Opera House, as well as two late night adults-only performances in The Mudlark Public Theatre go to www.marignyoperahouse.org.
Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie.