We had the good fortune of connecting with Nicole Cloeren and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Nicole, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
I believe in the power of play! I founded Puppets a la Carte because I wanted to offer hands on puppeteering opportunities for children and adults alike. For years, I saw my puppeteering as a hobby. When I had the opportunity to invest more time in my art form, I started my business. Making my efforts official in this capacity validated my creative work to myself as well as to the community. At first, I considered starting a non-profit, but I was advised by several wise mentors who have worked in the non-profit art sector to pursue a business license instead. I believe strongly that all people should have access to the arts, and so I choose to partner with non-profits whenever I can. I currently have a GoFundMe campaign (Puppets for Foster Youth) to support Project CHELA in offering educational and arts opportunities to foster youth. My work differs from traditional “puppet shows” in that I strive to place a puppet in every participants’ hands. Instead of puppet shows, I offer Puppet Play Dates, where we can all play and learn together in an improvisational manner.

Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Going to puppet shows and theater performances as a child, I looked up in awe at the stage, the curtains, the puppets. I smelled the saw dust and mildew. I longed to touch the puppets, sneak a peek behind stage. Usually, for good reason, this was not permitted. My longing to immerse myself in the enchanted space, to touch and play with the magical puppets, led me to found a company that emphasizes a hands-on-approach. Experiential learning is a critical tool in building our problem-solving skills, as well as our creative and critical thinking skills. Additionally, when we work in groups, we build community and learn to empathize and treat each other with compassion. My puppet play dates offer participants opportunities to work together as they learn about different kinds of puppets and the parts of the world they come from, practice puppeteering skills, find and raise their voices, and contemplate the special meaning puppets bring to a performance. My path to professional puppeteering was not direct. I have had a love for the art even before I knew that animating my stuffed animal friends was puppeteering. Beautiful wooden marionettes sent from relatives in Germany further fostered my interest. Somehow the puppets refused to stay quietly in the background of my life. Puppets accompanied me on every family trip where I improvised in public. In college, I wrote a senior honor’s thesis on how inanimate objects come to life in children’s literature. In graduate school, I wrote an MA thesis in American Studies on the Muppets in American culture. When working on my PhD in higher education, I wrote my dissertation on Theater for Social Change, an arena familiar to puppets. Although I would have enjoyed pursuing my puppet dream more head on, I whole-heartedly believe that every step of my valued and privileged education helped prepare me for and shape the work I do today. In my puppetry work, I act as teacher and student. As I help others lift their voices, I learn about individuals and communities that surround me. My journey has taught me to listen to my inner voice and validate what I hear. I have learned that I can repurpose many skills I have picked up in life and schooling to elevate my art. As I continue to grow my business, I am deeply grateful to my husband and family for allowing me to follow my heart. While other pursuits would likely bring more financial security to our family, I hope my working from home and following my dream of puppeteering, teaches our children the invaluable skill of using their imagination, listening to their hearts and the hearts around them, and telling their stories in whatever form they choose.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Wow. During this time of COVID isolation, it’s truly a dreamy escape to imagine where I would take my friend if she came to visit me for a week. For sure I would like to share two spaces that are special to my puppeteering work. First, I’d give my friend a tour of Riverside Studios, where I rent space and collaborate with other creatives. Riverside Studios is an exciting new space in Riverside that offers filming locations, film production training, and content creation. It houses a number of businesses and organizations ranging from film production and photography to special effects, children’s theater, and puppetry. Second, in Joshua Tree, I’d take my friend to a special spot where Project CHELA and partners are working to clear land and prepare structures for an intentional community that focuses on supporting our mental and physical health through arts, storytelling, yoga, meditation, drumming and other pursuits. Having children whom I adore will definitely shape where I go with my friend, who I imagine is also bringing her daughter. Top of the list are my favorite outdoor spaces: Joshua Tree National Park to scramble over the boulders, Crystal Cove State Park to explore the tide pools, California Citrus State Historic Park, Mt. Rubidoux, and the UCR Botanic Gardens. Walking outdoors and soaking in the natural splendor is rejuvenating and the shared experience lends to tighter bonds and open conversations. On at least one day, we’d take a stroll through downtown Riverside, visiting the Mission Inn, The Arts Block, and the Center for Social Justice & Civil Liberties. We’d take a break to reflect at Back to the Grind Coffeehouse. Ideally, we’d get there in the early evening when a band is starting to play, or a poetry slam is underway. Visitors also inspire me to try new things I wouldn’t have found the time to explore otherwise. To this end, I’d love to try out one of the Korean bath houses I’ve heard my friends talk about. I’d also like to catch a show at the Fox Theater in downtown Riverside. Most of all though, I’d really relish in sitting on my patio and catching up. Eating some good food together and watching the kids play. After some alone time to catch up, I’d host a little party with my amazing community of friends in the area. I want to share and spread the joy and intellectual stimulation and creativity my friendships bring. They are my lifeline.

Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I am deeply grateful for all the opportunities and encouragement I have had in life. The principle foundation of these opportunities and support comes from my parents who from an early age celebrated and modeled play and story time and championed my education all the way. My sister too provided hours of imaginative play for me, even making a passport for my puppet that provided amusing encounters with customs agents. I am also thankful to playwright Rickerby Hinds for inviting me into Riverside Studios; to storyteller Karen Rae Kraut for her mentorship and collaboration; and to Inlandia and Project CHELA for their ongoing support. Finally, thank you to my husband and children for understanding and supporting my dreams. For all the family members, friends, teachers, and mentors who have seen me, accepted me, and encouraged me to keep being me – THANK YOU! I try to pay it forward by helping others find their voices, follow their dreams, and unburden their hearts.

Website: www.puppetsalacarte.com
Instagram: @ladywithpuppets
Facebook: facebook.com/puppetsalacarte
Youtube: Puppets a la Carte
Other: https://www.gofundme.com/f/puppets-for-foster-youth

Image Credits
Elisabeth Girke Kafi B. Bella Stevie Taken

Nominate Someone: ShoutoutLA is built on recommendations and shoutouts from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.