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Two River Theater Associate Producer, Dennis Chambers, sat down with Playwright Kate Hamill, Director Shelley Butler, and Puppet Designer James Ortiz to discuss how the puppet of Pearl came to be!

Two River Theater Associate Producer, Dennis Chambers, sat down with Playwright Kate Hamill, Director Shelley Butler, and Puppet Designer James Ortiz to discuss how the puppet of Pearl came to be!

Prototype of the Pearl puppet in rehearsals for THE SCARLET LETTER.

Prototype of the Pearl puppet in rehearsals for THE SCARLET LETTER.

Dennis Chambers [DC]

How did the decision come about to have the character of Pearl be a puppet?


Shelley Butler [SB]

Pearl’s such a fascinating character. How do you theatrically represent a child that has been excluded from society? In a reading we had once done of the play, we had a wonderful 13-year-old, but no matter what she did, we never got that otherworldly element—we simply saw a precocious child.

Kate built this world full of heightened theatricality that begged for something as conceptually big as Pearl. It’s a small cast representing a much larger community. We are telling a huge story through an intentional, economized lens. We all kept digging into who Pearl really is – what are her relationships, and how does that manifest as this creature that the audience is going to experience? Those explorations led us to the puppet idea.

Kate Hamill [KH]

In some ways, a real child is too real. The magical thing about puppets is that they accomplish the real and the otherworldly.

James Ortiz [JO]

Puppetry is supernatural and hyper-real. There’s a Dan Hurlin quote, that I’ll butcher, that goes, “An actor may die, but we know he’ll get up when the curtain comes down. With puppets, there’s no pretending.” So, our brains say, “I see. And I accept.” There is this contract that happens with an audience that’s magical and strange and bizarre. Pearl as a puppet made total sense to me.



How did you decide that you wanted to bring on James Ortiz to design and create the puppet?



Puppets can mean so many things, so they need to be designed by someone who really understands both the motivations of that character and how to theatricalize that within the context of the whole play. I’ve been a fan of James’ work since The Woodsman Off-Broadway and knew he was the person we needed.



James, were there any challenges you faced while designing and building Pearl?



I’ve created a few child puppets, but what I liked about attacking this is that the puppet will inherently spook us, because Pearl is this feral monster.

Puppet characters are usually simpler – cleaner lines with a face fixed in one expression, but Pearl has to express a huge range of emotions. Trying to do that and still make her a human child was a magical exercise. Pearl is this outward explosion of what repression culture does.



What has the process been like incorporating the puppet into the larger design of the play?



We definitely spent a lot of time unifying the vision of Pearl. With puppetry, I love that there’s no version of it where I’m not in constant conference with every department in a theater, from costumes to company management. It’s an “all hands on deck” thing. A puppet is the mascot of the play.

Other people on stage believing in Pearl is where the magic trick comes in. As creatives and craftspeople, we’re all part of that illusion.


What I love about theater is that there’s lots of stuff I don’t know. But you just get a bunch of smart, interesting, creative people in a room, and you find a common language of discovery. When James sent over the sketches for the first ideas for Pearl, I was like, “That’s so much better than what I was thinking.” That’s the beauty of good collaboration and that’s what you’ll see reflected on stage.


The Scarlet Letter runs from February 3—25 / 2024.


Kate Hamill

Kate Hamill is an actor & playwright. Plays include Pride & Prejudice– Primary Stages / HVSF (originated role of Lizzy; nominee, Off-Broadway Alliance Award), Sense & Sensibilityat Bedlam (originated role of Marianne; winner, Off-Broadway Alliance Award; nominee, Drama League Award); Vanity Fair at the Pearl (originated Becky; nominee, Off-Broadway Alliance Award), Mansfield Park at Northlight,Little Women at Primary Stages & the Jungle, Dracula at Classic Stage Company, Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson, Apt. #2Bat KCRep,  Emma at the Guthrie, The Little Fellow (Or: the Queen of Tarts Tells All) at Cygnet Theatre. Other plays include Scrooge for Senate;The Piper (O’Neill Finalist, PlayPenn Fellowship),In the Mines(Sundance Finalist);The Odyssey, and The Light and The Dark. Her plays have been produced off-Broadway, atA.R.T., the Guthrie, Seattle Rep, The Alley, Folger, OSF, TrinityRep, Pittsburgh Public, Dorset Theatre Festival, Shakespeare Theatre of DC, Dallas Theater Center, Kansas City Rep, Long Wharf, A.C.T., Actors Theater of Louisville, & manyothers. Upcoming in 2024: Emma at Denver Center, The Light and The Dark at Chautauqua Theater Company, and more to be announced. Kate has been one of the most-produced playwrights nationwide every season from 2017-current season. Wall Street Journal Playwright of the Year, 2017; Einhorn Award, 2023. 

Shelley Butler
Shelley Butler has over forty Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional credits to date. She has worked extensively with writers on new plays and musicals and has directed over two-dozen new works including the world premiere of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2 (South Coast Repertory) and the Japanese premiere of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Shelley currently serves as Artistic Director for the South Carolina New Play Festival. Shelley has directed and developed work at prestigious companies nationwide including: Ars Nova, Primary Stages, E.S.T., WP Theater, Yale Repertory Theatre, The Old Globe, Milwaukee Rep, Hartford Stage, South Coast Repertory, Denver Center Theatre Company, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Geva, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Pioneer Theatre Company, Contemporary American Theater Festival, New York Stage and Film, Partial Comfort, New Georges, The Playwright’s Realm, Keen Company and New Dramatists. Shelley is the recipient of a Drama League Fall Directing Fellowship, a 2018 Drama League Directing Resident, a 2005 Director’s Guild of America Trainee, a member of SDC, the Lincoln Center Directors’ Lab and the WP Directors Lab. Learn more at

Puppet Designer

James Ortiz
James Ortiz

James Ortiz (Puppet Design and Direction) Ortiz’s recent creation of Milky White for the Broadway revival of Into the Woods and the Dinosaurs for Lincoln Center’s Tony-nominated Skin of Our Teeth have become fan favorites. Recently: Disney’s Hercules. Previous credits include: The Kennedy Center, Paper Mill Playhouse, The Public Theater, Carnegie Melon University, Dallas Theatre Center, Shakespeare Theatre of DC, Ars Nova, and New World Stages. 2022 Drama Desk winner for Skin of our Teeth. 2016 OBIE winner for The Woodsman. American Theatre magazine “Six Theatre Workers you Should Know” in 2020.