Pageantry lessons at Parade School

About 30 attend workshop held at Towson geared toward boosting communities

June 07, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

They came from all over the country - and even Europe - with very diverse resumes. One recently pedaled a 70-foot rattlesnake puppet. Others had helped schoolchildren make gigantic clouds that turned into sheep. Some excelled at walking on stilts.

But all of those who took part in Parade School, a four-day workshop held at Towson University, agreed on one point: Human-powered, handmade, boisterous, colorful celebrations boost communities.

"It's an opportunity for people to come together and do something for the love of it, not trying to represent a corporation or sell a product," said Peter Casby, who traveled from Galway, Ireland, for the workshop. "The common goal is to come together in the streets and make something beautiful, something extraordinary."

Since Wednesday, about 30 people have been crafting oversized creatures from reeds, fabric and ripped-up bicycle tires, wobbling on stilts and discussing the fine points of inspiring community groups and the question of how to handle that perennial nemesis of parades - rain. The workshop will culminate with - what else - a parade on the university campus at 5:30 this afternoon.

While large-scale civic parades, such as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day spectacular, have grown larger, glitzier and more technical in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in homespun, quirky street festivities. Schools, artists and community groups use parades to share messages and build alliances.

"It's a really democratic way of getting people involved of different backgrounds," said Molly Ross, who organized the workshop. "There's that sense of hope and celebration."

For about a decade, Ross has coordinated one of the city's most creative spectacles - The Great Halloween Lantern Parade in Patterson Park. She is the founder of a parade-making organization called Nana Projects. This is the second year that Parade School has been held.

Yesterday morning, the participants sawed wood, glued feathers and engineered an oversized beating heart in a classroom in the university's arts center in a class led by Casby. He works for an Irish organization called Macnas, which means "the joy a calf feels when allowed out to pasture after the winter" in Gaelic.

Sachi Decou of Austin, Texas, and Valeska Populah, a local performance artist, worked on brilliant bird costumes that they plan to wear while walking on stilts in today's parade. The birds are built on a lightweight framework of reeds lashed together with masking tape and strips of ripped tire and covered with colorful fabric feathers.

"We live in a culture where everything is mass-produced and done for you, but people want to not just watch, but become part of it," said Decou, who created the enormous rattlesnake with other members of the Austin Bike Zoo in Texas. "In response to the homogenization and mechanization in society there's a big movement of people wanting to make stuff."

Local festivities such as the avant-garde Transmodern Festival and the whimsical Fluid Movement water ballet are evidence of a growing interest in participatory art in the Baltimore area, said Populah, who teaches at Maryland Institute College of Art.

As Mark Donley rigged strings to control the bird's beak, he explained that he would be using techniques he had learned in the workshop for a parade called "The Waters of Eno and Her Creatures," that he plans to produce in his home of Hillsborough, N.C.

Donley, who works for his community's arts council, said that parades bring together people of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds in his town.

"The goal is to get everyone together, and parades have a way of doing it," he said.

Nearby, Monica Chemay and Amanda Stone of New Orleans worked on a red heart flanked by 12-foot-long beating wings. The heart appears to pulse when a string is pulled within its complicated frame.

The women are part of a performance group called Skookum Heehee Tumtum, which they say means "humongous monstrous happiness" in a Native American language. They improvise plays with squid, bird and boat shadow puppets to accompany music played by a group called the Diesel Combustion Orchestra, said Stone.

The numerous parades, which mark time in New Orleans, foster a sense of civic engagement, Chemay said.

As she tied strips of green fabric to a tree made of woven reeds, Jamie Shilling of Philadelphia's Spiral Q Puppet Theater explained that her group has recently helped community organizations and schoolchildren craft puppets of a sleeping giant, a koala, and a saber-toothed tiger for parades. "It's just an incredibly empowering art form to shut the street down and display publicly who you are."


Watch a video of parade school at

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