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Maria Zurita Ontiveros ’21: Dreaming

Project Date:
Project Date: Summer 2021

In a world where comic book characters live side by side with real people, Malachi Washington works to free comics cast in prejudice bodies while Bob McCay seeks to revive his father's comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. What follows is a compelling story of reckoning, healing, and examining the racist legacy of comics and animation, told through various forms of puppetry.

About the Project

This summer I started working with Professor Torry Bend on her puppet show Dreaming, which follows the story of a comic book character who, drawn as a racist caricature by the artist, learns how to draw himself. It is a story of agency and justice. Based on the source material Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland, a fundamental piece in animation history, the show questions how to reference and use problematic source material in a way that doesn’t ignore its problematic nature but examines and challenges it. The project involves multiple types of puppetry, from tabletop puppetry to toy theater and overhead projection. I had worked on Dreaming in its very early stages of development my freshman Spring, and I learned the basics of puppet building and puppetry performance. After waiting for my Optional Practical Training to process and finally being approved to work as an international student, I continued working on these skills– I built and tested puppets, taking over the shop as Bend’s assistant left the job. I continue to work on this project today, as we gear up for performance in La Mama in New York City in October, and in the Chicago International Puppet Festival in January.

Working on Dreaming has already given me an amazing skillset which I can apply as I embark on my life pursuing stage direction, but also makes me a good puppeteer and builder. Today, I am a more rounded artist than I was when I graduated. My understandings of visual composition and scale have grown immensely as I have built sets and puppets of all different scales that each have a different dramatic purpose. My understanding of objects in space has also grown, especially props and how each character relates to them. This was an area of interest I had since my thesis, where I used objects as visual metaphors, and I now feel much more confident to do it again in the future. I have learned practical skills like building structurally sound sets, painting, sewing, and Photoshop. I have also expanded my network of theater professionals. Through the process of building in July, I got to meet and work with a lot of local Durham visual artists, learning from their techniques and approach to the material. Rehearsals started a week ago, and I have met professional puppeteers and actors, both local and NY based, and I have had the chance to learn from them. As the show moves on to New York, I will continue to deepen these connections and forge new ones at the festival, which will be key to my professional development.

Reflecting on Arts Amidst COVID-19

Because the show was being worked on at Duke, but I graduated, I needed to find housing for the summer. My Optional Practical Training documents, which I needed in order to begin paid work on the project, were quite delayed. Despite aiming to start in May, I signed a contract in July.

The Benenson allowed me to survive while waiting for my documents, and to afford rent and food as I worked on the project. It also covered transportation fees when I could not use Duke transportation. These were very real barriers to me working as an international student now depending on art to make a living. Thanks to the Benenson Award, I was able to focus on making the best art I could, growing my skillset and learning freely.