In Memory of Ralph Lee (1936-2023), Village Wizard
Humans, anthropocentric as they are, project their emotive capacity onto the inanimate world. If you’re throwing away an old pair of shoes, and you stare at it long enough, they will stare back at you sadly. Those who can make art out of manipulating these transfigurations are almost like magicians. And for years, we were fortunate to have one such warlock in our neighborhood, Ralph Lee (July 9, 1935 – May 12, 2023). Working out of Westbeth, this master puppeteer and mask-maker enriched our lives by infusing the world with a touch of the fantastical, allowing all manner of fanciful creatures to walk among us: towering floating skeletons, fiery dragons, and outsized, dancing spiders, among hundreds of others. Today we remember Ralph’s life, his creations, and his generous legacy.
Ralph grew up in a log cabin lodge, surrounded by pastures and mountains in the distance, a couple of miles away from Middlebury, where his parents taught. His relative isolation from playmates accelerated his gravitation towards the arts. By early grammar school, he had landed his first acting part, that of a detective cat. By age 10, he had become interested in puppets and convinced a woman in town who knew how to make them to teach him. Once he had learned the basics, he crafted a puppet theater out of a victrola console, made scenery, and started putting on puppet shows for post-performance parties hosted by his mother for her dance club. Far grander puppet spectacles would eventually follow.
As a student, Ralph shifted his focus to dance, acting, and directing. He then studied mime and dance on a Fulbright Scholarship. Upon returning to the United States, he moved to New York and started getting acting and directing work, first in commercial theater, and then with more experimental companies, like the Open Theatre and Theater of the Living Arts, where André Gregory was the associate director. Along the way, he got a side-gig making masks for a production of the Tempest. This work led to referrals and, before you knew it, he had himself a prop-making career. During this period, he produced a wide range of masks and artifacts, from gigantic Venus fly traps to a Midsummer Night’s Dream-suited donkey’s head. Accommodating the demands of such diverse assignments forced Ralph to expand his stylistic vocabulary. He highlighted, for instance, the great influence exerted in his artistic development by choreographer (and one-time Graham dancer and Martha Graham husband) Erick Hawkins, who insisted on Brancusi-like simplification in his masks.
Ralph’s career might have proceeded on parallel tracks had a production back in his hometown not provided an avenue for a triumphant merger. Ralph had gotten a teaching gig in 1974 at Bennington College and decided to put on a show that would incorporate many of the masks and puppets that he had made over the years. The production would be staged at select sites throughout campus and proceed from one to the next in a sort of surreal procession that members of the audience would follow. Logistically complex but tremendously exciting for both audience and participants, this show moved Ralph to continue developing productions in a similar vein. He found that masks and puppets — which already liberated a performers’ expressive capacities from the confines of their bodies — took on, in their unreality, a magical energy when juxtaposed against a natural, quotidian backdrop.
Thus inspired, Ralph started working shortly thereafter with the recently launched Mettawee River Theatre Company, staging outdoor performances in small towns in Vermont and upstate New York. Within a year, he had become its artistic director, a position he would hold for the remainder of his life. The company, which soon moved to its permanent home in Salem, NY, allowed Ralph both the satisfaction of bringing theater to communities that had little access to it, and the opportunity to produce work based on myths and legends, sources that he found especially well-suited for exploration with puppetry and mask work. He found in this material an inspiration for expanding his universe of dramatic creatures and for grappling with universal themes, such as conflict among elemental forces. The company drew from Native American and eskimo folklore, Sufi legends, and Japanese and Indonesian myths, among others. For over a decade, Ralph made annual visits to San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico to develop work with a Mayan writer’s collective. The company takes a new show on tour throughout the region every summer, occasionally even bringing the production to New York.
Ralph’s work also found fertile ground closer to home and to our neighborhoods. By the time of his Bennington College production, friends at Theater for the New City (Village Award Winner, 2018) had been prodding Ralph to do a Halloween event for several years. In 1974, he acquiesced. He would organize a small Halloween parade of masked musicians and puppets that would follow the format of his Bennington show, staring at Westbeth, his home and studio since 1970, and proceed from scene to scene, culminating at Washington Square Park. It was a small community affair, but a fun and exciting one. So Ralph staged another one the following year, this time replacing the sequence of scenes with looped events so that the parade could proceed from beginning to end without stopping. The second parade enjoyed far greater participation than the first; and then the third, far more than the second. As the event grew, community members started contributing decorations and props. Ralph would still coordinate the increasingly unwieldy affair from his apartment, but with the help of an ever larger crew, which was charged with tasks such as talking their way into neighbors’ apartments so as to install theatrical lights. This yearly event made the neighborhood streets come alive like few others. Ralph directed it for a decade, before turning his attention elsewhere. These days, the event attracts over 200,000 from far and wide.
Beyond these major efforts, Ralph’s creations have enchanted innumerable audiences in a wide range of settings, from the Metropolitan Opera to the Bronx Zoo, from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to the New York Botanical garden. Along the way, they also cast their special magic at more public celebrations than we can count. These fantastical creatures continue to inhabit our world and to enthrall us, reminding us, now that Ralph has left us, of the inspired and generous spirit who first animated them. Thank you, Ralph.
To learn more about the life and accomplished career of Ralph Lee, you can check out his oral history.