A young girl, a snail, a bus ride, and the search for home.

Felicia Cooper creates a magical world of puppetry with Porto Domi

By David Bernabo

Recital continues our partnership with the New Hazlett Theater by publishing a preview and an editorially-independent review for the five performances in the 2018–19 CSA Performance Series season.

Throughout the season, Recital is meeting with each of the artists to bring you a brief profile of them and their work in the days before their opening performance. We will publish a considered review or a post-show discussion with the artists for each performance, developed from post-show discussions with a consistent panel of local experts in related disciplines.


“I was travelling on a long haul, off-brand Greyhound bus,” says puppeteer, dancer, educator, and maker Felicia Cooper. “There was a family in the front row seat, just hanging out with their dad, the driver, treating the whole bus like their living room.” Charmed, Cooper spoke to the family’s youngest daughter, who disclosed that, “she imagined there were snails living in the luggage compartment!” This encounter with a family and their makeshift home-away-from-home led Cooper to develop Porto Domi, a new family-friendly, multimedia puppet show that follows a young girl and her best friend, a garden snail, on a bus ride, as they search for the meaning of “home.”

In our ever-changing world, home can mean many things. It’s part of how a person defines themselves. Home is a term that often resets with each generation. Home is the house that you were born in or your hometown or a new country that promises a fresh start. “When I talk to people about this show, almost everyone has had a very personal, recent experience with their own definitions of home,” says Cooper. Home can be a dream when no place provides a sense of comfort or stability.

Cooper grew up in the wooded hills and valleys of the Pocono Mountains, but developed her artistic practice in Pittsburgh and, currently, at a fellowship with the makerspace at the University of Connecticut, where Cooper is pursuing a Puppetry Arts MFA Program. “The world of puppetry is wonderful in that everyone is so passionate about the art form that they are also passionate about helping each other make it better!”

Porto Domi took form a year ago and always involved the use of puppetry. Early performance experiments took the form of shadow puppetry and crankie performances at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and The Glitter Box Theater. With the opportunity to perform at the New Hazlett Theater, the puppets have grown in size.

“I’m not entirely sure what to call this style of puppetry,” says Cooper. “They’re big! All of the puppets use various techniques gleaned from other styles of puppetry — you’ll see some strings, some rods, some Muppet-y mouths.There will also be old-school overhead projector shadow puppetry. I’m very inspired by the traditions of marionette artists and their relationship to gravity, and I’m fascinated by mechanism.”

Cooper relays that, “the process of building puppets is about 65% planning and prototyping, 20% building, 10% failure, and 5% sticking the eyes in the right place.”

Crafted over a four-month period at the University of Connecticut and at Prototype Pittsburgh, the puppets will be handled by some wonderful puppeteers: Jamie Agnello, Claire Sabatine, Kalee George, and John Michnya. Also, joining the production are musician Juliana Carr, who wrote five original songs for Porto Domi, scriptwriter Tim Barr, and lighting designer Madeleine Steineck.

To get acquainted with their new tools, the puppeteers spent time playing with the puppets, testing the limits of movement and gesture, identifying a language of expression. As an extension of the body, puppeteering shares some commonalities with dance.

“My style of puppetry incorporates the body in a way that allows it to become part of the gesture. The movement quality of the puppet is often reflected in the body. I think both dance and puppetry aim to express an idea or a feeling in movement, but puppetry necessitates a distillation into gesture. Puppets need to be more efficient, I think.“

While some of the performances in the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA series happen to be age-appropriate for children, this is one of the few performances geared towards the younger generation (while still providing nuanced themes for adults).

“This piece uses music, dance, and jokes to connect to a younger audience,” says Cooper. “I’m extremely interested in creating theater that celebrates all kinds of kids and their interests-not just the kind of kid who typically gets taken to the theater. I believe theater for young audiences has taken great leaps and bounds in the past few years in being more accessible, more fearless, and more open to experimentation. I hope to begin to build an audience of people of all ages open to more of that.”


Porto Domi premieres on Thursday, December 6 with a second performance on Friday, December 7 at 8PM at the New Hazlett Theater. Buy tickets here or at the door. 6 Allegheny Square E, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.