Nicola McEldowney arrives at The Rebecca School in Murray Hill on a cold Tuesday morning, ten minutes behind schedule and slightly out of breath. She shifts her tote bags from one arm to the other as she waits to be buzzed in, the tip of her nose pink from the early November weather, her breath visible. Out of the corner of one bag is a massive white puppet, covered in purple fuzz, with one black eye peering over the edge of the tote.
This is Petula Monster.
Petula Monster, owned and operated by McEldowney, is a large puppet — she’s a foot tall and weighs about three pounds — but like most women, human or puppet, she’d rather you leave her weight out of conversation. Her hair stands in every direction, a tuft of lilac fuzz nestled between her ears, and her eyelashes are twisted and slightly matted. Petula looks like she’s had a rough night. But she comes with a mission: to read Hansel and Gretel to a small group of children with autism. She talks to the kids as though they’re adults, corralling their attention, asking for help when a page needs to be turned because, after all, she doesn’t have fingers.
McEldowney, Petula’s exact opposite, is a wide-eyed and well-spoken puppeteer who has been performing shows and hosting workshops for children in libraries and schools across New York’s five boroughs for nearly five years. Where Petula is brash and aggressive, McEldowney is poised and proper; she rarely curses, substituting “dang” for “damn,” and when she does, it’s in a hurried whisper. With blue eyes, shoulder-length brunette hair and an infectious smile, McEldowney is amicable and sweet, exactly the kind of person a parent would feel comfortable propping their child in front of for an afternoon puppet show.
“I like that puppets can get away with most anything,” says McEldowney, the owner of nearly 40 puppets herself. “Things come out of puppets’ mouths that we, the puppeteers, don’t expect. They take on lives of their own. They assume a character almost as soon as you get them on your hand,” she adds. “I am very secondary.”
When McEldowney slips the puppet onto her hand, she’s right — she does fade away, allowing her felt friends to take the stage. As a spectator, it can be quite unnerving: rationally, as an adult, you know it’s McEldowney controlling Petula (she’s not a ventriloquist; her mouth is literally moving!) and yet, for some reason, you find yourself maintaining eye-contact with the black marbles lodged in the puppet’s head.
The 29-year-old’s affinity for puppetry has been part of her professional life for nearly seven years. From hot-gluing googly eyes to socks in workshops and performing for toddlers to directing swanky puppet cabaret shows for adults and filming a movie about a puppeteer suffering from depression, McEldowney has used hand puppets in every creative capacity possible.
In addition to puppeteering, McEldowney, an actress and jack of all trades, supplements her income in several ways: as a French translator for Disney and Vice; as a French language tutor; and as a casting director. She’s also a filmmaker — she wrote, directed and starred in “Callie and Izzy,” a web series about a girl learning to live with a parasite that manifests as a puppet permanently attached to her hand. McEldowney also wrote, directed and starred in Creative Block, a short film about a young puppeteer struggling to regain her lost motivation and inspiration. The short has been accepted to four film festivals across the country, and was awarded Best Drama by the Los Angeles Mindfield Film Festival. Her next film In the Land of Moonstones which is currently in production, will be a feature film that she’s adapted from a French novel she bought for a euro.
McEldowney’s love affair with puppets can be traced back to her days in front of the television watching Story Time on PBS. The daughter of two artists, McEldowney was a creative child, encouraged to pursue whatever piqued her interest. Both she and her younger sister Peri were homeschooled, and the McEldowney’s kept their daughters enrolled in a variety of after-school classes, like acting, dancing and singing.
“School was actually a very parenthetical part of my life; it was always on the side,” she says, recalling that it felt like something she had to get out of the way before going to a variety of extracurricular activities. McEldowney adds that she was a “weird child.” She loved watching BBC, listening to her favorite classical music pieces and acting out French operas using dolls with Peri — things that she felt weren’t in the scope of what other children were doing.
Both her parents, classically trained musicians who met at Juilliard School of Music, are freelance artists. Her mother Margaret remains a musician, and her father Brooke, a former violinist, is now a cartoonist, drawing for various different newspapers and websites. The nature of her parents’ work-from-home careers, along with the homeschooling, led the McEldowney’s to become a tightknit family: they were simply always together.
“We would read stuff on my parents’ bed, everybody stretched out with the dog and the cat in the room,” McEldowney recalls. “It’s possibly part of the reason I’m still close with my parents.”
Brooke McEldowney is appreciative of his close-knit family. “It is a closeness composed of four distinctly different personalities, and the ability to dispute a point in conversation without mistaking argument for contumely,” he says.
Because of their upbringing, it seemed unlikely that McEldowney and Peri (now a cartoonist like her father) would choose careers divorced from the arts. “I don’t entirely know what people who have normal jobs do,” she says. “I grew up with these parents who did their own thing. I understand theoretically what an accountant does, but I have no actual idea– because these were just things other people’s parents did.”
Her parents suggested she consider a four-year college when she showed interest in drama school, but ultimately, she was left to decide her own future. “I understood that I could be a doctor, but it never occurred to me, even for two seconds, to study science seriously,” McEldowney adds. “The goal was performing and writing and always creating.”
“I think the way she grew up gives her a unique perspective,” says Alice Ren, McEldowney’s freshman year roommate, who is now a graduate student at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. “She doesn’t feel much traditional restrictions on ‘What should I do when I grow up?’”
When she was 17, McEldowney applied to what she calls the Ivy League of drama schools (Julliard, The Royal Academy, the Central School of Speech and Drama) — but didn’t get in.
She was left hopeless and unexcited about the future. “At that point, I felt like there was nothing left for me,” McEldowney says.
Regardless of these feelings, she continued applying to four-year colleges. She first attended Duke University in North Carolina for a year before transferring to Columbia University, where she majored in French Language and Literature.
“Duke had no access to the arts,” Ren says, noting that McEldowney needed an environment that fostered her creativity. “She really wanted to be in a place where she could do film or something else on the side.”
According to her father, McEldowney has always had an outgoing personality. She makes friends easily and college was no different for her. Allie Klionsky, a friend from Columbia, remembers how approachable McEldowney was on the first day of class.
“I was trying to find a seat and she was making room for people,” Klionsky says with a laugh. “I consider that very typical. She was just really friendly and introduced herself — I had a hard time freshman year and she’d invite me to study with her.”
Klionsky now lives in Miami where she works as a teacher, and the two have stayed in touch. “She visited me a couple of years ago and we went to a sea turtle rescue place, and she was concerned about the sea turtles. She was genuinely thoughtful of them,” Klionsky says. “I feel like that’s very representative of her.”
Not only did Columbia become the place where McEldowney was able to create meaningful friendships, but the university also gave her the chance to spend a semester in Paris in 2010, where she first studied puppetry seriously.
She says studying in France — a place she had romanticized for much of her youth — was the single most important decision she’s ever made in her life. “The French language, culture and attitude about things — they’ve all kind of been lodged in my memory ever since,” McEldowney says. “They find their way into all of my work. Even if I’m not there, I’m always carrying it with me. France is in everything I do.”
The influence that McEldowney’s time in France has had on her is the one thing that weaves all aspects of her life together. Her film projects are steeped in French culture: Creative Block is bilingual, and parts were filmed on-location in Paris; In the Land of Moonstones is a French book she picked up for a euro while in Paris. Her familiarity with the language has allowed her to teach and translate. And most importantly, her career as a puppeteer would not exist if not for her semester in France, a country where puppeteering is taken as seriously as theatre productions and operas.
During her semester abroad, McEldowney met Lydia Gaborit and Marion Chesnais, two women who served as her puppetry mentors. Gaborit, the former public relations director at the Theatre de la Ville, worked with McEldowney as she learned the technical aspects of puppet manipulation. Chesnais, an older woman in her 80s who recently passed away, was the daughter of the famed French puppeteer Jacques Chesnais. She welcomed McEldowney into her home, where she kept a huge collection of puppets dating back to her father’s career in the early 1920s and ‘30s.
“She had these metallic puppets from Sicily and Belgium that were held together with rods, and they had all these iron metal joints that moved,” McEldowney recalls, wonder in her voice. “She taught me literally everything I know about puppets in France — we’d eat cookies and have tea at her house, and she’d talk to me about puppets and her dad.”
Jacques Chesnais’ legacy inspired McEldowney — she wrote her senior thesis about the puppeteer. “He was a big deal, but only in Paris and no one really knows about him except people who are into puppets in France,” she says. “I just wish I could have met him.”
After graduating from Columbia in 2011, she returned to Paris to attend the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, where she got her masters in theatre study, and used the opportunity to learn more about the technical aspects of puppet manipulation. “The masters was an afterthought,” she adds, laughing. “I just wanted to get back.”
While at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, McEldowney interned at Théâtre Aux Mains Nues, a theater puppetry school whose name literally translates to “Naked Hands Theater.” There, she kept records of the rehearsal process. Soon after, she was sent to a small French town near the border of Belgium called Charleville-Mézières, to conduct research for her master’s thesis at a conservatory for puppeteers. At the École Nationale Supérieure des arts de la Marionnette, McEldowney was able to take classes and make puppets.
“I got to be a fly on the wall there for a while,” she says. “The whole question of my thesis was something like ‘puppeteers: should they learn by doing or by going to school?’ It was entirely an excuse for me to leach off other people’s puppetry training, which I did.”
Modern puppetry in the United States, for the most part, is for children — shows like the Muppets, Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock dominate childhoods and being reminded of these shows as adults leave many Americans nostalgic for easier days. In France, however, puppetry is a refined art steeped in cultural tradition.
“Puppetry is such a huge, huge thing over there — everyone goes to puppet shows,” McEldowney says. She recalls the most remarkable piece of puppetry she’s ever seen, El vol de Calandrià, a wordless show that she says left the audience in tears. “The audience was all just everyday people; it wasn’t just theater weirdos and freaks. It was just the most moving thing I’d ever seen.”
Eccentric and bubbly with the ability to think quickly on her feet, McEldowney has the essential character traits that translate easily into her puppet shows. Christophe Lagier, one of her close friends, believes that McEldowney’s quirky sense of humor helps her find success as a puppeteer. “She’s always trying to find the good about situations and people, and that comes with incredible sense of humor when something doesn’t necessarily go her way.”
Lagier, who met McEldowney when he served as the director of Columbia’s undergraduate programs in Paris, also notes that her unwillingness to give up has helped her succeed. “She has that resilience that’s necessary to be successful as an artist, to make good of tough moments,” he says. “She’s very creative, very imaginative — able to be in many different worlds at the same time.”
This ability to have a foot in different worlds transcends her puppetry: its applicable to her life as well. Although McEldowney is a professional puppeteer, she is also an active actress, screenwriter, editor and director. After returning to America, McEldowney knew she wanted to write and direct a film about a girl who loses her creative drive (which would later become Creative Block) — but at that point, the only experience she had had was in playwriting and theatrical directing. When a friend suggested she produce a web series about her life as a puppeteer, she shrugged it off, calling the idea boring. “It’d consist of me with huge bags, sitting on the subway and going ‘Damn it, I’m late. Damn it, I’m late.’”
But the more she thought of it, the more she realized that it’d be a great way to make her entrance to the film universe. She workshopped the idea continuously, landing on the idea of a girl diagnosed with an irreversible disease called Puppetitis B that causes a parasitic, maniacal puppet to grow from her hand.
McEldowney produced two seasons of the web series “Callie & Izzy,” where she played both title characters. Each episode ranges from two to four minutes, just long enough to dispense a few good laughs as protagonist Callie Williams struggles to do everyday things, like grocery shop and use the bathroom, with the pink, hairy puppet on her hand.
“Well, this is awkward,” Callie says as she stops short with her hand on the bathroom door, looking at Izzy with one eyebrow raised.
“Wipe ya crotch with me and I’ll bite ya to death,” the puppet answers immediately, leaving Callie in bewilderment.
Producing the short web series tested McEldowney’s abilities: she was able to see how her ideas would fare on screen and learned to translate her theatrical directing skills to film. The actors who worked with her on “Callie & Izzy” have only positive memories of working with McEldowney on the web series.
“I loved the project,” says Nate Steinwachs, the actor who plays Callie’s physician, Dr. Salverson. He describes McEldowney as well-organized and reasonable, allowing the actors to occasionally improv their lines. “I loved the character, the writing, the puppets, the director…I honestly have nothing negative to say,” he adds.
Lisa Monde, an actress who has worked with McEldowney on various creative projects over the last three years, believes Nicola excels as a director because she was first an actress. “I think it is very important when, you, as a performer get a chance to be on both sides of the spectrum,” she says. “Because then you know as an actor what a great director should be like, and as a director — how you would have liked to be approached as an actor. Nicola knows what she wants from her actors and has a very professional way of giving directions. She’s quite a perfectionist, so she always takes time planning out the whole process beforehand.”
“Callie & Izzy” gave McEldowney the confidence to dive headfirst into Creative Block, her first short film. Released in September, it follows Claire (played by McEldowney), a puppeteer who has fallen into a depression after losing her creativity. Her journey to regain it takes her to Paris to find the one person she believes can undo her creative block: professional French figure skater Thibaut Baudet.
“It’s a film about having creativity, losing creativity, trying really helplessly to get that creativity back — and eventually, having to come to the realization that you’re the only one who can do that for yourself, as harrowing as it is,” McEldowney says.
The 15 minute-film was inspired by McEldowney’s own experiences with depression. “I’ve always wished I could see a film about someone in the same situation, facing her demons but in a lighthearted way.”
In late September on a rooftop in Long Island City, McEldowney held a premiere party for the film. Dressed in an electric blue, floral-patterned dress with her hair pulled into a chignon at the base of her neck, she mingled with her guests, clutching a glass of wine. As the sun set, everyone grabbed seats near the screen to watch the film McEldowney had spent the better part of the year making.
“Every person handles their depression in a different way and it was interesting to see her take on it,” says Jason Duque, a guest at the screening. “I don’t know her that well, but Nicola’s obviously passionate about her art and she’s clearly talented.”
While on location in Paris for the filming of Creative Block, McEldowney found a copy of a short French novel in a bin filled with “random crap.” It was only a euro, so she bought it. The novel, a story about young love, captivated McEldowney.
“I was completely taken by the novel that I went — in the span of five minutes — from thinking ‘I need to see the movie of this,’ to ‘I need to make the movie of this,’” McEldowney says. “It was the best euro I ever spent.”
After obtaining permission from the author to adapt the novel into a screenplay, McEldowney began writing, all while editing Creative Block. She had no intention of diving into this new film project so quickly. But after she held auditions (with the intention of holding a public reading of the script in the mind), she fell in love with two pre-teen actors who she knew she wanted to cast.
“These two kids, they came in together and acted as though they had known each other for a hundred years. They were already a little couple. I saw the characters,” she said. Because of their ages, however, she knew she wouldn’t be to cast them if she didn’t start filming immediately. “They’re 11 and 12…six months from now, they’re going to look completely different and his voice is going to drop and she’s going to be two feet taller,” she says. “So that was when I took the plunge.”
Filming started in early October at locations scattered throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan, including Lisa Monde’s apartment in Union Square. “I admire Nicola’s work and constant wish to keep moving forward, coming up with new ideas for projects and bringing them to life,” Monde says. “Persistence always equals success.”
Natalie Keating, an 11-year-old actress from New Jersey, stars as one of the main characters in the Moonstones. Keating says she enjoys working with McEldowney because she’s constantly cheerful and animated. “It’s easy to be happy and funny around her because she isn’t too professional and forcing everything to be perfect,” she says.
McEldowney, who says she’s always been good with children, is playful with her younger actors — firm, but in the way a babysitter can be. She jokes with them constantly, always smiling. After recording her voiceovers, Keating recalls a conversation she had with McEldowney. “We were talking about how she was an actual cartoon character, but in real life.”
Being the physical embodiment of a cartoon character comes in handy; it makes McEldowney approachable and easy to connect with. She’s energetic and bouncy, ready for anything life throws her way — even if that’s a room full of children scrambling over each other to grab hold of her puppet.