Interview by Laura Palotie

By fusing her knowledge of method acting into her career as a puppet artist, Finnish Terhi Lintukangas has garnered accolades on both sides of the Atlantic. She has won the Finnish national championship in puppetry, spent a year as resident artist at New York’s International House and studied at the city’s famed Actors Studio Drama School on a Fulbright scholarship.

Last year she staged a large-scale puppetry production in Turku, Finland as part of the city’s Capital of Culture program. The performance, which partially drew from her personal experiences of chasing her dreams in both Finland and New York, earned praise from local critics.

I recently chatted with Lintukangas about the origins of her puppetry career, the methods she employs in planning her performances, her sources of early inspiration and her future plans with this distinctive art form.

Q: What inspires you about puppetry?

A: As a visually oriented person, I’ve always seen stories as images, so puppetry has been a natural art form for me. A lot in puppetry is communicated without words. To me, puppetry means telling a story through an object; the story, not the puppet, is the most important thing. The puppet can be a rock or a glass of water, anything.

Q: Where, or when, would you say that your interest in puppetry sparked?

A: I grew up in the countryside, in a tiny Finnish town called Iitti, where we didn’t have a lot of options for things to do. So I relied a lot on my imagination, making up stories and characters using branches and pine cones. Years later, studying pantomime with a Czech theater instructor, I became interested the use of objects in theater and applied to study puppetry and acting in Prague. I got in, and spent a year there. They have a long tradition of puppet theater, and it was wonderful to see how respected that art form is. After that I went back to Turku, Finland for my bachelor’s degree in puppetry.

Q: You completed your master’s degree at New York’s Actors Studio Drama School. What made you want to study there, specifically?

A: As a child, I spent a lot of time watching movies, and specifically old movies. Some Like it Hot is my favorite, and the comedy I use in my own work has been strongly influenced by that film. It’s a story with so much heart and excellent comic timing – and, well, that movie has a direct link to the Actors Studio, because Marilyn Monroe, like a lot of actors of that era, trained here. In my application I mentioned people like Marilyn and James Dean, and how I wanted to come and spend time at the original source of so much legendary acting. The application process was thorough and the audition was tough; getting in was, obviously, a dream come true.

Q: You’ve used a wide array of different kinds of puppets on your performances and workshops. What’s the process of planning a performance like for a puppeteer?

A: I’ve had the joy of working closely with puppet makers. I firmly believe that there are no surprises – that the right collaborators are always out there. I like to first have a vision of the performance myself, and when I meet the puppet artist, we can figure out together what the puppetry expression would be like for this particular story. Once the puppets have been made, they continue to develop until opening night. Part of puppetry for me is finding the best possible expression in the material I use. It’s like playing as a kid – seeing a familiar object in new ways.

Q: One of your puppet theater works, UKI-NYKI, was selected to be part of the 2011 Capital of Culture program for Turku, Finland. How did that performance come about?

Students of a puppetry workshop at New York’s International House.

Students of a puppetry workshop at New York’s International House.

A: I had this idea about the importance of dreaming, and how one’s surroundings affect his or her happiness. In my story, I had a Finnish girl and American girl who both have dreams, explore them and see if they lead to happiness. I knew I wanted to work with Timo Väntsi, a fellow puppeteer, and we also got some American collaborators. Timo and I subsequently started HOX Company, our puppetry ensemble.

Q: When seeing the work of other puppeteers, what are some common mistakes you see, and what aspects of puppetry do you appreciate the most?

A: Well, in many ways I think that mistakes are gifts. However, it’s a problem if a puppet doesn’t appear to breathe. Puppetry is based on the idea that the puppet is alive in the same way as any other actor, so it can’t be treated like an object. I always appreciate when time has been put into planning the puppet’s expressions and movements. 

Q: You taught puppetry to adults as the performing artist-in-residence at New York’s International House. What was that experience like?

A: I had done a lot of teaching before my time in New York, and knew that puppetry has a very strong universal language. International House had people from all different fields and backgrounds, but the feedback was similar across the board: that it’s wonderful to use one’s imagination and do something creative. Everyone is capable of playing and coming up with stories, and it’s nice to give people the opportunity to experience that joy. Once you let go of the fear of feeling awkward or silly, your imagination takes off. Teaching is something I’d love to do more in the future, especially in the U.S, especially now that Finland has gotten so much international acclaim for its education system.

Q: Where would you like to end up? New York, Finland or elsewhere?

A: New York feels like home after three years here, and my dream is to be able to get involved with interesting projects here. It would be wonderful to be part of a good movie, for example, while continuing in puppetry as well. So an ideal scenario would be to spend time both here and in Finland, and draw from both cultures in my work.