Detroit Puppet Company Building Neighborhood Wealth
In the Detroit Puppet Company’s “The Weight of Air,” the voices of residents, school teachers, and firefighters share their experiences via puppets. They recreate poignant scenes from across a city much of the country left for dead a decade ago, but which has been busy redeveloping and revitalizing itself. The performances raise questions about where resources should be put, whose lives are worth investing in, and how those investments take place.
For the Detroit Puppet Company, it’s not only a stage performance, it’s part of a real-life mission to grow the field of puppetry while playing a role in the revitalization and wealth building in the neighborhood it calls home.
“We believe that something as small as a puppet can inspire larger social change,” says Detroit Puppet Company founder Carrie Morris. “A lot of our programming is Detroit-centric. It’s centered around narratives that are relevant and resonant for Detroit communities.”
The theater provides awe-inspiring performances and arts for Detroit and Hamtramck residents as it offers work for local artists and performers building sets and puppets for each show, with an emphasis on historically excluded communities that too often face additional barriers.
“We do all of our hiring for our performers and for most of our vendors from the city of Detroit, if not the metro Detroit area,” says Morris, 46, who formerly served a puppet curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts before leaving to bring puppetry out of the museum and into the neighborhoods.
In the past three years, the Detroit Puppet Company has provided free programming to over 25,000 residents at performances, including the four-day Detroit Puppet Slam last fall, in the Campau/Banglatown/Davison neighborhood straddling Detroit and Hamtramck.
With assistance from business support organizations such as Michigan Women Forward, a New Economy Initiative (NEI) grantee, the organization now has five permanent part-time employees who work alongside about 15 contractors and project-based vendors who support live events.
Building Wealth in the Community
The Detroit Puppet Company’s impact goes beyond providing income for its employees and local artists, the space itself is designed to build equity and wealth in the community. Morris purchased the bungalow that now comprises the puppet theater and laboratory in a foreclosure auction and renovated it.
As audiences grew, the performances spilled outside leading to the development of a 1.3-acre performance area and garden that transformed 12 vacant, overgrown lots into a venue and welcoming neighborhood gathering space.
“It felt like this is no longer a space that I’m just developing for a puppet studio, this space has a larger responsibility,” Morris says. “At that time there were multiple lots that were directly adjacent to the structure that during the summer months, the grass would go really long. So for the sake of appearances, I started mowing the grass. And then we had this really nice big lawn space.”
“I realized that there’s this larger outdoor opportunity for this outdoor green space,” says Morris, who has regularly engaged with the city to see how its work fits into broader citywide revitalization efforts. The company’s strategic plan calls for eventual to transition of ownership to the community to help build equity and wealth in the neighborhood.
NEI and Partners Setting the Bar High
For Morris the support through Michigan Women Forward is the second phase of NEI-funded support, including her Detroit Innovation Fellowship in 2019-20; NEI’s final cohort before COVID.
“We work with a lot of the foundations and NEI set the bar very high for the care of their grantees in the Detroit small business ecosystem,” says Morris.
Without that support from NEI and others, the Detroit Puppet Company faced the prospect of laying of its five permanent employees – and giving up the hard-fought growth it had achieved in expanding its operations and impact over the past several years.
“If that happened, five people would’ve gotten laid off and our operational capacity would’ve been decimated,” Morris says. “It was amazing for us just to know that we were still able to support all of these Detroit residents in a financial way. That we were able to continue to support people professionally in their development and also support our organization and just continue to run our organization, that was incredible.”
Learn more about the Detroit Puppet Company.