Christopher Lutter is a designer, inventor, theater-maker, and community educator whose work revolves around the design, construction, and performance of puppets, masks, props, costumes, unique theatrical inventions, kinetic-sets, and sculptural installations. Chris received a 2006 Bush Artist Fellowship, a 2008 Public Art Saint Paul Sustainable Practices Fellowship, and a 2012 McKnight Theater Artist Fellowship. He is on the Minnesota State Arts Board and COMPAS/Young Audiences of Minnesota teaching-artists rosters. Chris manages and directs Puppet Farm Arts. Recently, he has collaborated with the following theaters and organizations: TigerLion Arts; MN Jewish Theater; MN Boychoir; Circus Juventus; Guthrie Theater; John Ferguson Theater (now Theater Forever); Southern Theater; Open-Eye Figure Theater; Bedlam Theater; Home Base Theater; Theater NoviMost; In the Heart of the Beast Theater; VSA Arts; Alan Berk and Co.; Backbone Campaign (Seattle, WA); The WormFarm Institute; James Sewell Ballet; and the Puffin Foundation (Columbus, OH).
This conversation took place on December 9, 2014.
Wu Chen: Chris Lutter, You own and are the main guy for Puppet Farms, LLC?
Chris Lutter: Puppet Farms, it’s not an LLC, it’s a non-profit. It’s been around since…well technically since 2001, when I was living in Wisconsin, squatting at barn with piles of trash and puppets. People call it the puppet farm because it was a rural, kind of like, outpost for projects that were happening kind of in the Ashland, Wisconsin area and up in Washburn, Wisconsin.
WC: Cool, when was that? When were you in Wisconsin?
CL: I was in Wisconsin from about 1993 until about mid-2006. That’s where I started doing a lot of the stuff that I still do now, like building spectacle puppets and you know, but more that than I was facilitating community arts workshops. Like not just in the Ashland area, but small communities throughout Wisconsin and Northern Minnesota. I really came from a community arts context, just bringing together community groups to create theatrical and artistic productions. Sometimes they’re more like installations, parades, water front performances, you know, that kind of stuff. So art on the landscape was kind of a big part of how I got into what I do.
WC: People talk about community arts a lot. Especially these days, that’s a big thing people like to talk about. Community arts, what does that mean to you?
CL: It means really sourcing the ideas and even the visions of performative kind of happenings from the community itself. What I used to do in Wisconsin was just a general call out to the community at large, like come together to help build a performance that deals with ecology of the waterfront. Like, setting a theme or whatever, inviting people to come and have a forum and building out from there. Storyboarding and envisioning together how we want to communicate to the broader community about our understandings of our place in the world. So really, trying to engage the public and community at large from the conception on through to the performance or parade, or whatever it is you’re building.
WC: How receptive were people to that?
CL: People loved it! As you can imagine in a rural landscape, in a rural community, there isn’t a lot of things going on like there is in the city. And this is back when I would still post flyers, people would read flyers in a community.
WC: I’m looking at these dates, 1993 to 2006, this was pre-cell phones and pre, everything.
CL: So posting flyers and saying come one, come all, kind of like the circus. Because circus made it big in a rural landscape. It’s because people would be like, “What are we going to do tonight?” “I don’t know, let’s go down to Chris’s workshop and see what happens.” So yeah, I got a huge response. I had some very large workshops that could be a hundred people in there at a time, building things. I took charge of a community aspect of a workshop called Live Art on Madeline Island from about 1997. Taking what was kind of an artist-driven project out on Madeline Island and bringing it out more into the public. Part of the thing in doing community arts workshops is that they happen out in the community, they’re not inside the building in some room. It’s out in the public venue, so that when people pass by they see it happening and they come to it. Of course, Madeline Island is very much a touristy place. So we’d get this amalgamation of tourists, local folks, young people, retired people. A lot of that was just a function of it just happening out in the concourse of an open space, under a tent. A lot of the projects I did in Wisconsin and on Madeline Island and throughout the state in the early days, were done in open air tents out in parks. Public space where people just come walking through. Kids will come through on their bikes and suddenly the next day, they’re totally hooked. They’re building a beast or something to join into the whole artistic fray.
WC: Would tourists get into it as well as the locals?
CL: Absolutely. You know how they have eco-tourism? Well, what I was doing in the early days was kind of like artsy tourism, or art tourism where people would come and be like, “Well now what are you going to do with the kids? Buy stuff? Or go look at the view? Oh, look at this, there’s a workshop over here where we can engage with the local community members and make art that relates to the landscape, and even relates to current political affairs.” It’s really kind of like, wow this is an opportunity for us to do something totally different with our vacation. So it became really popular for tourists as well.
WC: How did you market that? Publicize it, to get those people to be aware of those things?
CL: Flyers, for one. We’d have barkers, like down at the ferry as people got off. Again, like the old circus style. And then the outfit that hosted the whole thing, Tom’s Burned Down Café, which is kind of like an enterprise on Madeline Island, been there forever, Tom through his live art enterprise, would promote it on the web and on his schedule of events and on the [Madeline Island] chamber of commerce. Through the chamber of commerce was a big way that things were promoted. Getting into the local newspaper, but again a lot of that stuff has high impact in a rural community where everyone is reading the paper to find out what’s going on.
WC: How did you make it financially sustainable?
CL: Doing fundraisers, fundraising letters out through Tom’s Burned Down Café and through the Live Arts Enterprise, which had a mailing list already for other artistic projects he was doing, there was the Wisconsin arts board that we’d write a grant to every year to get a few thousand dollars through them.
WC: Did you charge at all?
CL: No. No, one of the keys to all the community arts is that it’s free and open to the public. There’s never a charge at the door. Being in a rural landscape where there was tourists and summer homes and boats, a lot of people from Minneapolis who had some means to help fund these types of projects would throw in.
WC: So you had a tip jar?
CL: More than that. They would give money ahead of time to make it happen, help finance it. So we had some good sponsors and patrons of the project, who could help make it happen. That really believed in it.
WC: That sounds like a great thing. So what caused you to move to the cities in ’06 then after 13 years?
CL: Despite those projects, I still had to cast a wide net and travel all over northern Minnesota and even come down here [to Minneapolis] to do some projects, and travel all over Wisconsin, and sometimes traveling out of the region, just to patch enough together to have a living.
WC: Sure, so you were paying yourself?
CL: Yeah, so when I got married and had a child, adopted a child through the marriage, the reality of, oh, I’m not a solo freelance artist, that changes things. Also, wanting to increase my work and the depth of my work, and having been connected to the Minneapolis community, because I lived in Minneapolis before I moved up to Wisconsin. So I still had connections in Minneapolis. I received the Bush Fellowship in 2006, so that was back when the Bush Fellowship still funded artists in the northwest quadrant of Wisconsin, so I got very lucky, I was very fortunate to get it. But schools for the children was a big part of coming to Minneapolis. So all that, work, schools, wanting to deepen my work and do more commission-type work, because I was really heavy into the community arts stuff. I really cut my teeth as an artist on community projects, but I really had a desire to start doing more production work for production companies in Minneapolis and deepen my experience that way, so we moved to Minneapolis.
WC: Is that your primary income now, is doing production work for companies in Minneapolis?
CL: It’s about half and half, because I work through Compass and ArtSage, and Minnesota State Arts Board and then also freelance through Puppet Farms, which books teaching jobs for me and for others. I still do a lot of teaching, but I do quite a bit of build and design stuff for theatres.
WC: Do you make a decent living? About roughly how much per year do you pull in?
CL: It’s average between 30-35,000, so it’s modest, but for freelance, it’s hard to make ends meet with a family of four. My wife is an education administrator and we both work long hours.
WC: To make that kind of money, how much do you work?
CL: I work nonstop. Part of it is I don’t have much downtime, I don’t have a lot of cushion. Being freelance is particularly difficult because one has to manage their own security for retirement, for insurance, and all that stuff. So I’m not afraid to give people sticker shock when it comes to building something for them or designing something. It’s taken many years to learn how to price things fairly for freelance, but I’m happy to help educate people about the real cost of work.
WC: I’m very curious, that’s a hot topic. How do we decide what to charge? We could say, what is art worth, what is a puppet worth, what is a lighting design worth, what is a set design worth? How do you decide on what that is worth? How do you decide what a fair price is to the client, but also to you?
CL: Well, a lot of that work has already been done, like by the state arts board, for instance. They have a standard rate. Generally, that hovers around, although as I’m getting older and I have more experience, I tend to kind of even up it a little bit. But as far as a residency day, let’s talk about teaching, for a residency day consists of, by the standards that have been set, of 4-hours of contact time with a student body in a day. I usually break that down to 2 hours in the morning, 2 hours in the afternoon. However a school likes to divide it up, I like to keep it in blocks as much as possible. But that full residency day is worth $250 - to the artist. That doesn’t include all of the costs of the materials. Many people who work within the school system totally understand that. Some of them are married to freelancers, or have freelancers in their family and understand that. But if you break that down, that breaks down to $65 per hour, per contact hour, and they say for every hour you spend in the classroom you spend probably about an hour, at least, prepping. So I usually break it down to that, $250, and whenever someone asks me, how much? I usually think, well, that’s the state standard. And that’s all I say. And I don’t have to say anything more. That’s the state standard for professional working artists in the school. You’ll get your occasional person who’s like, whoa, that’s a lot of money, but most people that working the system say that’s really reasonable. If a seasoned, extremely astute artist came in saying I want $500 a day why not? It depends on the impact and the value of it to the site. Unfortunately, when you’re working with a public school, and not just public schools, but a school system, they’re so strapped that sometimes it’s so distressing for them. That’s when I say, “Let’s go for some grant funding. Let’s put ourselves together. You’re a school doing a public good, I’m an artist doing a public good, let’s get together and write a $10,000 grant and bring me in for the whole year.” The fair pricing thing, as far as commission work, it’s taken me a long time, it’s hard to estimate. When someone asks you to build set pieces for whatever, or for me to build some of the mechanical outside the box weird stuff that I build for people, it’s really hard to calculate. But I have a whole lineup of things I’ve done in the past and I’ve been trying to be more cognizant, like how much time did I spend on that? How much did I get paid for that? Was I completely strapped and like flat on my face at the end, and not able to even breathe for a day? Then I need to up it a little bit. Almost to the point where some production company wants me to build some large-scale thing, like that enormous crocodile I built, or that enormous grizzly for the Guthrie, I start at $5000. I know, after building all these pieces, I know what the expectations are, and what the expectations are for myself. I know where the start point is and where the medium point is and then I have to add in. It’s really hard to estimate especially when there are a lot of unforeseens. To build flats is one thing, a painted flat, but when it has mechanicals in it and all these variables, like how it’s going to handle, how it’s going to feel to the performers, how the rigging is going to deal with it. The more technical it becomes, the more mechanical, the more unforseens that you have to deal with. The more unforseens, the more you bump the price up because you’re bound to run into stuff.
WC: Does that just come from experience? When you were starting out, what did you do to set prices?
CL: I just guessed! I guessed. Oh, a couple hundred bucks is fine. I’d start by guessing how many days it would take me to build. And it would always run over. Oh, I could build that in 3 days, just give me 600 bucks, I’m good. I wasn’t calculating in the materials, the thinking time, with technical artwork, you have to think. Now it’s to the point where people are like, I don’t know, can you do us up a design? I’ll be like, that’ll be $350. Just for the design. Just for drawing and for me to kind of figure it, for a day or two. Early on, I didn’t really figure in all those things. I didn’t figure in rent, I didn’t figure in insurance. I didn’t figure in any of that stuff-gas, driving around getting all of the materials- but as I continued on, I started thinking, okay wait a minute, I got all these things pulling away from what I finally take home so I have to break all that down. I mean, every businessperson knows that, right? A lot of artists don’t, because we’re like, oh I could build that thing and we’re not very good at business, so to speak. I mean, some are.
WC: The inherent tension that happens in the community of business versus the arts, in my opinion at least, of failing to recognize what we do ultimately is a business.
CL: Yes, yes, whether you like it or not. If you’re taking money for it and you need to feed yourself, and you need to feed your family with it, you’re running a business. And you’re either running it poorly or whatever, but the thing about the sticker shock that I said is I almost got to the point where it’s like, if people don’t get sticker shock, I’m doing something wrong. Because part of it is that material culture, built things, have been de-valued to a point where producers won’t even consider, when they’re making their budget for their productions, how much that bear is going to cost, or how much that creature, or that big build element that they even know from the get go is going to cost. They think, oh, a couple hundred bucks will take care of that. And then ask me for it, and they only have 200 bucks for it and it’s a $2000 thing.
WC: Arguably, in terms of under-budgeting, this is a problem that extends beyond puppetry to a lot of different aspects of event production, not just necessarily performing arts, but event production. Do you think the product under-budgeting is related to this issue of valuation of goods and services?
CL: I think that it’s broader than that, I think it’s de-valuing of the material culture…
WC: Devaluing of material culture?
CL: Yeah, amazingly enough, because we think of ourselves as a materialistic culture, but we’re in an information age and things are being done faster and more astutely through digital. Everything has been virtualized to the point where people have lost touch with what’s hand-craft. Anyone in the crafting culture can tell you, yeah people have totally lost touch with the value and how much it takes to create something by hand. So I think it’s a cultural thing that has happened.
WC: Having done what you did in Wisconsin and rural Minnesota, coming now to cities as you have for the last 8 years now…how does that differ being in the city in terms of reaching out to people to do community arts, as you describe it?
CL: There’s more competition. I mean there’s so much happening in the cities. There’s such a competition for headspace. You could go from one community workshop to another all week long every week of the year practically. There’s just so much happening in the cities that it’s just a more saturated and it’s great! There are so many amazingly creative people here, so much to learn from everybody around us. I feel like I’m just a little fish. When I was livening in Wisconsin I was the big fish, you know and I came down to the cities I was like, Whoa! There’s a lot of people doing a lot of stuff and there’s a lot of talent and a lot of experience here. So it’s just a little more challenging. As a businessperson, even thinking about how to grow my business, I think well, how can what I do stand out and be unique? And maybe people want that and if not they maybe to another person that’s doing it in another way. I guess it’s more specialization, which is part of the reason I focus in and I try to design really nicely articulated puppets, for instance, that really answer to people’s desire to represent something. And that’s one of the paths I’ve kind of gone down. I want to honor nature and mimic nature and see how far we can go to create really dynamic movement pieces. For better or for worse, you kind of find a niche and work in it. But for the community arts thing, I think it has to be spiced with something that really like, that really gets people, beyond just art making, it has to really hook people in because its special or it really expresses something or it proposes to explore something that is a little bit above and beyond what has been done.
WC: From a business perspective you said you moved here partially to help support income, you have a family, and with that increased competition, has that financial stability come with it?
CL: Not entirely. But we’re lucky to live in Minneapolis because Minneapolis is very saturated with artists and it’s actually a magnet for people to come here because of the funding and because of the support for the arts, but I was thinking during the economic collapse, I was thinking, how lucky are we to be here in Minnesota, not Minneapolis, but Minnesota. The voters voted in a huge, enormous amount of money that has permeated libraries, parks, theatres, community organizations to help sustain our culture. Because usually in an economic collapse, I mean, the economic collapse was really hard, but I think it was a lot harder in a lot of other parts of the country, certainly. We live in a very supportive environment for the arts and people understand that it’s connected to revenue and economic development and all that stuff. So I think we’re lucky to be here. It’s still a struggle because I write grants pretty much constantly and I get rejected constantly because there’s 200 applicants, you know? It’s really competitive.
WC: And with the sheer quantity of people that are around, would you say that it’s a good place for young people trying to get into art here?
CL: Absolutely, yeah, I think so, yeah. On the other hand, some artists are moving to Detroit. Because of cheap space and they can make things happen, so that’s a good question, I don’t know.
WC: So what makes it a good place? You said absolutely very quickly.
CL: I’m a communal person. I’m not like a cloistered artist who likes being left alone; I like being around talent and connecting with teams of artists. I want to connect with more people here that I haven’t connected with and do cross-collaborative work with other artists and learn from them, so I have this attitude that we can all lift this up, even with more people, we can create like a, whatever, an empire of art. I don’t think there’s a limit to how much you can do. I mean, whole cities grow up around whole industries, right?
WC: Do you think if the industry grows large enough, the amount of revenue and therefore the value placed on it, would also commensurately increase and thereby increasing living abilities? One of the things about the Twin Cities is that people have said that if you want to make a living doing art, this is one of the best places to come.
CL: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s because of the understanding. The reason that I have faith in it is because it’s not just happening. There are policy makers and there are foundations like the Bush Foundation and the McKnight Foundation and the Jerome Foundation. There’s a lot of foundational understanding too, and of the value of it and that to keep it going is really important. More so than stadium building, for instance. Because they recognize, people that understand economies that are working on those levels, the funders understand that this is working because it does generate. You don’t just have artists flocking to the city, you have audience, supporters.
WC: One last question. You mentioned the McKnight. You were the receiver of a McKnight Theatre Arts Fellowship a couple years back, has that changed anything for you? Career-wise, in terms of how you’re perceived in the community, gigs, commissions?
CL: Absolutely. It gave me an enormous amount of recognition. It lent me recognition as having done good work and it’s really nice to be on the award. It’s made connections and it’s great on the resume. It’s hard to measure, but you know when people look at it they’re like, wow. It’s a huge, what do they say, ‘a feather in the cap’ as far as going forward and doing more work. I think it’s huge. And the Playwright Center was just really wonderful. Jeremy and the whole crew over there were just really warm and engaging and just really did a good job of the site, delivered the awards. I think it helped. But again it’s hard to measure these things. You get through the award and it’s like, whew, back to the grind! I often come out thinking, both for the Bush Fellowship and for the McKnight Fellowship, I think gosh, I should’ve been more productive. But part of it was like, wow, it was really nice to breath. To breathe out and to be able to spend time with the family a little bit and not be so distressed and to not be running a hundred miles an hour. I deserve that didn’t I? You have to say that to yourself. It’s okay that I didn’t produce my big magnum opus stage production that I’ve always wanted to make. Because sometimes we just need some time to breathe.