Puppeteer Moves Audiences with Deep Craft from the Dark Side

Edwin Salas has animated his handmade crew in dozens of countries. 
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Edwin Salas’ beginnings as a puppet maker happened through need, not creative dabbling. 

“When I was an orphan child, I lived with my grandmother, who with much great effort was working as a cook in a school in order to survive,” Salas says in a translated e-mail interview. “As you can imagine, there was not much money for toys. So, I had to make my own toys, including puppets.”

Pride Sin Demon
Photo by Rachel Pressley

He was 11 years old when he first made a puppet in his Costa Rica home. He then studied in Italy and founded his own company, Witchcraft of Paper. Two years ago, Salas moved to Asheville with his wife, Caroline Althof, a dancer with Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre. (The two met in Mexico City when the company performed at the studio where Salas worked.) Here, he continues to perform as a stage actor who mixes those skills with his artisanship.

Mother of Hansel and Gretel
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Salas’ puppets, made of wood, papier-mâché, plastic, and other materials, are crafted in his local studio and sold across the globe. He’s performed with his puppets in theater companies in Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Cuba, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Taiwan, the United States, and in many European countries.

Along with the marionettes, Salas has started to produce Star Wars collectibles, including figures of Chewbacca, Darth Vader, and Boba Fett. He has also made a set of horror-movie stars, from Freddy Krueger of Nightmare on Elm Street fame to the hockey-mask-wearing Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th franchise.

Photo by Rachel Pressley

He can make sweeter-looking puppets for commissioned works — most importantly, he needs to know the motivation of his wooden characters.

“Of course, [it] depends on what type of show I am doing. I have to know what the puppet is going to do,” he explains. “How many puppeteers will move the puppets, and what type of show is it going to be? I choose what types of mechanisms they will use. I create the design [depending on] what types of actions they will have in the scene. I typically use wood for the puppets up to 20 inches tall. For bigger puppets, I use other materials that don’t weigh as much.”

Toybox 1
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Salas moves among many established genres, including Japanese Butoh traditions, iterations of Shakespeare, even The Nutcracker. When he creates from scratch, a political flavor emerges, as in the 2016 premiere “Maya Genocide: take and eat Eucharist of evil.” He also shows a practical side, writing books about technique for fellow puppeteers.

Nevertheless, his own visionary style is forever flavored with the macabre and reflected in memorable show titles such as “Witchcraft of Paper.”

Sloth Sin Demon 1
Photo by Rachel Pressley

 “I like to show the dark side of popular stories and classic monsters,” says Sala, “and [monsters] from the dark side of my own mind.”

Edwin Salas, Edwin Salas Performance Studio, 14 Stevens Hill Road, Asheville. Salas’ puppets are exhibited at Taylor Gallery (122 Riverside Drive, Studio A, 828-423-6694; Taylor Gallery on Facebook). His art is also sold at Horse + Hero (14 Patton Ave., horseandhero.com). For more information about the artist, see edwinsalas.com. Salas will appear with the duo OKAPI Saturday, Aug. 24, 7pm, at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center (67 Broadway) in a masked multimedia drama, “Interpretations of Absurdity,” a re-staging of a performance they gave at this year’s {Re}HAPPENING. $10/$15. For details on the show, see blackmountaincollege.org.

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