It’s a blustery winter afternoon, and Kevin Augustine lounges in a dimly lit basement studio in Fort Greene, surrounded by the actors that make up his theatre troupe, the Lonely Wolf Tribe.
They play leering clowns, war-worn veterans, even fighting dogs. Augustine writes, produces, and directs their performances, down from the movements of their elbows to the labored intricacies of their breathing.
Only Augustine’s “actors” are made entirely of foam.
For more than 12 years, Augustine has been handcrafting puppets with nearly nothing but scissors and a serrated knife. The results are startlingly lifelike and moving. These are no mere mannequins held up with string: Augustine’s puppets heave, they sigh, they droop when dejected. Along the way, Augustine has racked up honors from the world of puppetry, including grants and fellowships from the Jim Henson Foundation, The Puppeteers of America, and the New York State Council on the Arts.
He wants to tell stories that “deserves some greater attention, something that’s unreported,” Augustine says. “A puppet has a magical capacity in that way to disarm us.”
Instead of manipulating his puppets with string, Augustine prefers to act along with them, sharing the stage. In Hobo Grunt Cycle, a one-man, multiple-puppet show, Augustine portrays a homeless veteran clown, opposite a larger-than-life wounded fighting bulldog. To make the dog move, Augustine uses a traditional Japanese puppeteering technique called bunraku, where several puppeteers, dressed only in black, move the puppet’s parts with nothing but wire and pressure. Augustine has held performances all over the world, appearing in puppetry showcases in Holland, Brazil, and San Francisco. He’s also held solo shows at La MaMa and Dixon Place.
In God Projekt, Augustine portrays an aging Judeo-Christian God with Alzheimer’s, resplendent in an old bathrobe. His co-star is a massive, larger-than-life puppet arm, which, in the play, he keeps in a massive freezer as a reminder of his lost love. The arm, Augustine says in the play, once belonged to a goddess.
This year, Augustine is working on his ninth one-man, multiple puppet show that is being workshopped at St. Ann’s Puppet Lab in Dumbo. It can sometimes take him up to five years to produce, conceptualize, and perform a single work. Yet the themes of Augustine’s art, though seemingly eclectic, are also constant—the empty sadism of killing, the pointless brutality of war, the philosophy of loss.
In addition to his major staged works, Augustine is an active participant in political street theatre about veteran trauma. As an artistic collaboration with the non-violent group Veterans For Peace, comprised of veterans and their families, Augustine often plays a World War II-inspired ‘hobo grunt’ soldier in flash appearances at parks and parades. In these performances, which Augustine dubs Clarion Call, he often performs along with the “body” of a fallen puppet solder, cradling him gently as he rocks him back and forth. The series is performed in complete silence. As a result of these public performances, he’s developed a profound connection with some of the group’s members.
“Kevin has demonstrated many times over the years how much he understands a veteran’s suffering and pain,” said Georgia Wever, a 72-year-old associate member of Veterans for Peace. She lost her husband, a veteran, many years ago. She says she was incredibly moved the first time she saw Kevin perform.
“He understands, but it doesn’t translate into rage,” Wever says. “It translates into a reverence for life.”
Augustine didn’t always plan to spend his time whittling foam into seemingly living, breathing objects. He found the puppetry profession by accident. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, he says he often played with a childhood sock puppet his grandmother made him, that he dubbed “Fang.”
“It always just stayed with me that someone could make their own toys, and that no other kid in the neighborhood could go into the store and buy this guy identically lined up on other boxes and shelves,” Augustine said. He preferred toys that require imagination. “Once you have the toy, you can create the world that the toy lives in.”
He also loved to draw. One of his favorite memories was sitting alongside his father on an old couch in the basement, taking turns scribbling characters and finding inspiration in the zany world of Mad Magazine.
“Collaboratively we would draw this one goofy guy,” Augustine said, recalling the ties, the shoes, and the body parts that the two of them would create.
Yet outside of the comfortable cul-de-sac in Philadelphia, where he often rode his bike and played with his puppets, the Vietnam War was raging.
For all his idyllic childhood, there’s a reason that his puppetry is often motivated by politics
When Augustine was 12, he said, he remembered a day when his neighbors came to pick him and his sister up from school. They were told that their dad had been put into the hospital, but that it was nothing to worry about. Yet after arriving home, Augustine was greeted by a sea of somber faces. There were so many distant relatives around, Augustine remembered thinking, that it seemed like a holiday.
“It wasn’t until that moment that kind of hit us subconsciously, we knew something wasn’t quite right. And my brother just said that Dad’s dead. And everyone, the four of us, just held each other and cried and cried and cried,” Augustine said.
Augustine’s father, a former Marine who was trained to fight in World War II, had died by suicide. Yet no one in his life at the time acknowledged the cause of his father’s death, Augustine said. There was a “culture of silence” around the trauma. It took years for his family to tell him what had happened, and for him to process the meaning of his father’s loss.
“There was the funeral and then back to school the next day, and no one in school talked about it,” Augustine said. “There were no grief counselors that came knocking on our door.”
Augustine reeled, drifting and aimless. In high school, he would sit, apathetic and quiet, he said, knowing that his classmates had a grasp of their futures while he did not.
After high school, he took a job as a parking lot attendant. He frequented junkyards, he says, wandering around trash heaps. One day, he happened to find an old foam seat cushion. Something clicked.
“So seeing this piece of foam, I think just really from boredom, I must have picked it up and thought, maybe this could be something else… so I just started hacking at it. I thought maybe this could be something,” he said.
Augustine ended up with a rough sketch of a foam face, and though he couldn’t tell if it was a foam mask or a puppet, he knew that he was onto something. The memories of his childhood creations came crowding back.
He followed with his first 13-foot puppet. And ever since discovering that first puppet, he’s only sculpted in foam. The first face he made hangs on his wall, opposite elaborate painted foam body parts that move. Some of his puppets even have fully formed joints.
These days, Augustine is rehearsing for his latest show, Body Concert, an ethereal series set in pitch black with a group of larger-than-life, anatomically correct body parts.
When he thinks about how far he’s come from making his first puppet, Augustine smiles. “It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror, you know, you don’t recognize every morning that you’ve gotten a bit older,” Augustine says. “It’s only until you look back at a picture from five years ago….”
Though his puppets have also changed and transformed over the years, the identity of the bulldog, wounded from being forced to fight, is a metaphor for the epidemic of veteran suicide, the same silent torment that took his father’s life.
In his original play, the dog dies. But after repeat objections from his audiences, Augustine finally decided to let the dog live in a new version. The performance, made in near silence, a hallmark of Augustine’s performances, breaks with the sound of the veteran clown sobbing. He thinks the dog is gone. But it isn’t.
The dog hears the crying, “and slowly and painfully he gets up on his three legs because one had to be amputated… and walks over to the clown to say, I’m still here.”
For his fighting dog, life is difficult, but hope still lives. For Augustine, life is better for it.