Puppet Chef Emily DeCola creates a colorful cast of characters for The Wiz

Emily DeCola calls herself a chef but she doesn’t whip up dishes.

She’s a crafty puppet master, designing out of a cozy work space where marionettes, string puppets and furry creatures come to life.

DeCola and her business partners Michael Schupbach and Eric Wright run The Puppet Kitchen, a tasty little company specializing in hybrid and custom puppetry and mask creation. Founded in 2008, the Puppet Kitchen, which is housed in a former commercial bakery in New York’s East Village, has earned a host of film, TV and stage credits working with clients such as Disney Theme Parks, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, The Bronx Zoo, CollegeHumor.com and, locally, The Maltz Jupiter Theatre.

The puppet “chef” is among a small niche group of working professionals who adeptly blend artistry and engineering to build kinetic props. They are artists, engineers, producers but – most of all – they’re storytellers with a keen ability to turn moveable body parts – arms, legs, hands, fingers and faces – into whimsical characters that captivate audiences.

DeCola studied pre-med at the McGill University in Montreal before discovering her creative calling. “I was really interested in movement and how bodies work,” she recalls. “Puppets are a moving sculpture and, from a philosophical perspective, there’s such poetry in movement and how we communicate as people, so deeply with our bodies.”

During her undergrad studies, a humanities course introduced DeCola to Bunraku, a Japanese style of puppet. Her life would never be the same. “It was an arresting moment,” she says. A week later, she saw a marionette show and knew she had to try her hand at it. It wasn’t long before she dropped her pre-med studies and took up a dual major in anthropology of performance and critical theory of theater.

The animated brunette went on to learn puppet design and construction techniques through a prestigious – and intense – three month mentorship with Master Marionettist Albrecht Roser in Germany in the mid-2000s. She has also studied with Dan Hurlin and the SITI company and has won grants from the Jim Henson Foundation and the Union Internationale de la Marionnette.

According to DeCola, puppetry, which was once considered a children’s entertainment, has seen a spike in popularity among more mature audiences – especially in the United States. “I think Americans are starting to really enjoy the imaginative process that puppetry can bring to a production – mixing fantasy and reality in a way that wonderfully, illuminates possibilities emotionally connected to what’s going on on stage.”

Earlier this year, the Maltz’s producing artistic director, Andrew Kato, hired the Puppet Kitchen to construct puppets for The King and I. When he wanted to up the wow factor for an upcoming production of The Wiz, he once again called on DeCola and her colleagues.

“Frank Baum’s story is full of imagery and imagination and requires that same commitment if one chooses to adapt it,” Kato says. “When I decided to direct The Wiz, I knew it would require the integration of various storytelling components, which would include projections, aerial flying and puppetry, among others. Integrating these unique art forms in a seamless narrative is something I enjoy and makes a project of this genre come magically to life.”

For the show, DeCola is blending elements of string puppets, Bunraku and shadow puppetry. “[The puppet’s] bodies are incredibly expressive and huge. On the stage, one person might be controlling his head and another other is controlling his arms and legs,” DeCola says. “It’s about creating a unique kind of kinetic poetry that’s very show-specific.”

The very specific tornado winds that will whip the stage, breaking characters apart and sending them flying when The Wiz opens at the Maltz on Jan. 13, are the least of DeCola’s worries. “The challenge has been that there is this iconic imagery that everyone is familiar with,” she says. “People have an idea what the great and powerful Oz looks like. Coming up with a new kind of visual storytelling in that context is a challenge.”