UMass alum Kathleen Doyle '92 uses her theater-making skills to raise awareness of climate change
By Anna-Maria Goossens | Friday, November 19, 2021
By Anna-Maria Goossens
Friday, November 19, 2021
The video is only a few seconds long, but it’s poignant: A life-size polar bear puppet, constructed of lacey white fabric that evokes snowflakes, shuffles into a New York city bodega. She finds the freezer containing bags of ice and rests her forehead against the freezer door.
This is Qanuk Nanuk — which translates to Snowflake the Polar Bear — and she was created by theater-maker Kathleen Doyle who graduated from UMass in 1992 with a BDIC in Costume Design, Fashion History, and Textile Printing. Doyle’s interested in what design can communicate, so while she wasn’t building puppets as a student, using fabric and textiles to talk about important issues is right in her wheelhouse.
Originally created two years ago as a collaboration with the Museum of Natural History to educate children about the effects of climate change, Qanuk Nanuk has since traveled throughout New York City and beyond to delight and warn viewers of all ages in equal measure.
“I saw that there was this beautiful icebox with red letters, and the snow melting on the letters and I thought ‘Oh, she's so far away from home’,” said Doyle of the bodega visit. “It would be so great if she just wandered into this shop and everyone's like, ‘Oh no! Look out! Here she comes. . . What's happening? She's gonna break the wine bottle, she's going to eat the cheese’.”
That’s not Qanuk Nanuk’s goal. “Nope. All she wants to do is be close to the ice.”
The moment hit home with folks at the store; one person told Doyle that initially, the moment felt hallucinogenic, but by the end of the encounter, “I actually had tears in my eyes, I never thought a puppet could make me feel moved.”
That is intentional. “It's really important to me that there's a playfulness and a cheerfulness — a little delight — in this because I think that the essence of it is very dark and looming and scary.”
Themes coming together
Qanuk Nanuk is in a distillation of Doyle’s various interests. She always loved theater but wasn’t confident in herself as a performer.
“It’s not where my talents really lie, as much as I love it. So I just realized there's a whole world backstage,” Doyle said. “I knew I loved textiles and I knew I loved working with my hands, and then I just so excited with these courses on the meaning of adornment, and what does it mean when humans put something on the body.”
Out of these interests, she crafted a BDIC program for herself that brought together courses in costume design, fashion merchandising, African American textile art and more. Though not a theater major, she did much of her work in the Department of Theater and has fond memories of Gail Strege, who was a mentor, and of her first work-study job in the Costume Shop.
Upon graduation, she headed for Disney, where she landed a job working in the costume shop.
“I learned how to how to make a bathing suit for Goofy, you know, with a neck that’s like 65 inches and normally it's 15 inches. The proportions were all crazy,” she said.
She also worked for Santa Fe Opera and San Francisco Opera, as well as the Spoleto Festival, before heading for Villanova to get a master’s degree in dramaturgy.
“I felt that I was going too far in the direction of costume and I was losing my footing in theater,” Doyle explained. She also earned an MFA in theater design from NYU Tisch in 2012.
While she never abandoned costumes, the next phase of Doyle’s career saw her crisscrossing the globe and the country working as a dramaturg for established and new works, and as theater-maker creating her own pieces which often moved into theatrical activism. Along the way, she also began investigating the puppetry traditions of the various countries where she was working. Concerned about waste, and inspired by the waste-not, want-not ethos of Brazil’s carnival, she has also moved into using recycled materials to create most of her designs.
A puppet with a point
Qanuk Nanuk is not the first time Doyle has worked with the Museum of Natural History. A few years ago, the museum produced a play she created about sea life around Hawai’i. When the museum offered her the chance to be part of its Day of the Polar Bear celebration, she jumped at the opportunity and pitched the idea of a walkabout puppet.
The concept, Doyle explained, was that the bear had wandered down from Alaska “looking for a more hospitable climate” and saw the museum’s dioramas of other Arctic animals and thought that she’d found a new home. In this new home, she mingled with families, posed for photos, and answered some questions from scientists by shaking her head yes or no (as at Disney, this character never speaks).
To bring the bear to life, Doyle researched the science of polar bears and climate change, and the Indigenous Alaskans who live with polar bears — the name is taken from the Yuptik indigenous language — and how climate change affects them. Also underlying the project is the theme of immigration and homelessness, since climate change has rendered Qanuk Nanuk a refugee.
Doyle designed the look of the bear, which was then built by Sue Kassirer at Hidden In The Hills Studio in Leverett, a frequent collaborator. To operate the bear takes two puppeteers inside the structure, usually Doyle and colleagues in dance or theater. It’s a warm job, says Doyle, because they have to be fully covered — including face paint — to help maintain the illusion for anyone who gets up close to interact.
“The very first time we performed at the Museum of Natural History, I was in front and a friend of mine was in the back, and you know, the learning curve was sharp, because we did have some stairs to climb,” Doyle laughed.
Qanuk Nanuk’s first appearance in February 2020 was so successful that she was invited to return three weeks later, but then everything locked down and Doyle pursued a nascent interest in stop motion animation for a time. Eventually, Qanuk Nanuk started venturing out again.
Doyle delights in surprise and unannounced moments. The bear has popped up in Central Park — Doyle recalled one memorable encounter with a dog walker and the eight dogs who each processed this unusual quadruped in unique ways, as well as stopping traffic as Qanuk crossed the road.
Pre-pandemic, Doyle had started plans to load an RV and cut a meandering path through the southern United States with her creation, with both planned and surprise appearances along the way to spread awareness of climate change. She hopes, eventually, to revive those plans.
In the meantime, if you visit Instagram, you’ll see that there are two creatures trying to find Qanuk Nanuk to join her on her quest: a pair of twin cubs.
Asked what advice she would give current theater students, Doyle, unsurprisingly, advocates looking beyond theater to pursue other curiosities.
“It will make you a richer designer. You can bring something to the equation that someone else may not have,” she said.
Qanuk Nanuk and her cubs will be in an interactive exhibit by Kathleen Doyle called ‘Climate Refugees’ at Studio 522, at 526 West 26th Street, New York, NY through January 7, 2022.
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