Ralph Lee

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Ralph Lee makes work centered on the mask, both its design and use in theatrical performance. Most of the theater events he creates take place outside traditional performance venues. These include parades, pageants, seasonal celebrations and outdoor theatrical performances. Masks and giant puppets are a key element in these presentations. His concern is to make the artistic experience accessible to all facets of the community by staging events in familiar public locations, free-of-charge whenever possible and creating startlingly vivid images that are immediately resonant.

Early life[edit]

Ralph Lee first created puppets as a child growing up in Middlebury, Vermont. He graduated from Amherst College in 1957, and studied dance and theater in Europe for two years on a Fulbright Scholarship. Upon returning to the United States, Lee acted on Broadway, off-Broadway, in regional theaters and as a member of the Open Theatre, directed by Joseph Chaikin, from 1967 to 1973. During that period he started creating masks, unusual props, puppets and larger-than-life figures for theater, dance and television.

In 1974, while teaching at Bennington College, Ralph Lee staged his first outdoor production, which took place all over the college campus, and featured giant puppets and masked creatures, with a large cast of performers and musicians.

Village Halloween Parade[edit]

Also in 1974, organized the first Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, which he directed through 1985. The parade began in the courtyard of the Westbeth Artists Community. During his tenure the parade grew from a small community event built around his masks and giant figures into one of New York City's major festivals, attracting over 250,000 people and media attention from around the world.[1][2] For his work on the parade Mr. Lee received a 1975 Village Voice OBIE Award and 1985 Citation from the Municipal Arts Society, and in 1993 he was inducted into the CityLore People's Hall of Fame. Under his direction the Village Halloween Parade was funded by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (1974–1985), Con Edison (1980–1985), American Express (1983–1985), the Association for a Better New York (1985), the New York State Council on the Arts (1979–1984), the Public Theater (1983, 1984), the Kaplan Fund (1977, 1978 and 1983), and the National Endowment for the Arts (1977–1982).

Mettawee River Theatre Company[edit]

In 1976 Ralph Lee became Artistic Director of the Mettawee River Theatre Company. Mettawee's productions are based on creation myths, trickster tales, Sufi stories, legends and folklore from the world's many cultures. Most performances take place outdoors; they incorporate masks, puppetry, visual effects and live music. Each summer Mettawee gives over twenty-five performances in upstate New York and New England, traveling to rural communities that are likely to have no other exposure to live theater. These performances take place in parks, public lawns, fields and town greens. The company has also appeared at many festivals, including the 1991 New York International Festival of the Arts, the New Theater Festival in Baltimore, the Universiade in Edmonton, Alberta and the National Puppetry Festivals in San Luis Obispo, California and in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and on a month-long tour of Alaska. Since 1984 they have finished their summer tour with performances in the garden of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Notable productions[edit]

Heart of the Earth, which was developed by Mr. Lee with the Mettawee River Company in 1993, was then produced by INTAR at the 1994 Henson Festival. The production was then presented at INTAR, the Hispanic Theater in New York City and toured to New York area schools under the auspices of the Lincoln Center Institute. The script for this play was written by Cherríe Moraga, with a musical score by Glen Velez. This project received funding from Opera America, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Henson Foundation.

Mettawee's 1999-2000 production of Molière's Psyche was presented at the Henson International Festival of Puppetry Arts in New York and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Funding and awards[edit]

The Mettawee River Company has received continuing funding from the National Endowment for the Arts from 1980 to the present and the New York State Council on the Arts from 1978 to the present, with additional grants from the Agostino Foundation (2000–2007), the Bickford Foundation (1991–2008), the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation (2000–2008), Meet the Composer (1984–1986, 1988), the Henson Foundation (1985, 1987, 1994, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2007), the Merck Family Fund (1986), and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (1980 and 1981). Awards to Mettawee include an OBIE, two Citations for Excellence from UNIMA-USA, the international puppetry organization and two American Theatre Wing design awards.

Work with Mayan writer's collective[edit]

At the invitation of Robert Laughlin, anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution, Ralph Lee went to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico in February, 1989 to work with the Mayan writer's collective, Sna Jtz ‘Ibajom. Lee traveled there annually for twelve years, each time creating a new theater piece with the group, drawn from their folk material or the current political situation. These works have been performed extensively over the years, within their own communities as well as throughout Mexico, in Honduras, Florida and at the Mexican Museum and Cultural Center in Chicago. In January, 2001, he directed a bi-lingual adaptation of Sna's 2000 play El Origin de Maiz, produced by the outreach program of the LaJolla Playhouse for an eight-week tour of schools and community centers throughout southern California. For his work in Mexico Mr. Lee has received grants from Fideicomiso Para la Cultura Comision Mexico/USA (1993), Arts International (1992, 2002) and DTW's Suitcase Fund (1992).


Ralph Lee has been an artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine since 1984. At the Cathedral he directed and designed the Mummer's Play for the Boar's Head Festival, directed plays for the Feast of St. Francis, provided staging for Bach's St. John Passion and the visual finale for Paul Winter's Carnival. His giant creatures rampage through the Cathedral as the finale for the annual Halloween event. The Wildman, a co-production of the Mettawee River Company and the Cathedral, was performed there in the fall of 1987.

Other artistic contributions[edit]

Mr. Lee's creations were a central part of the Bronx Zoo's annual Easter celebrations from 1980 to 1984. He created giant figures for the New Year's Eve celebrations in Central Park (1974–1980) and Fourth of July festivities on the steps of Federal Hall National Memorial in 1975. Since 1993, his masks and giant puppets have been featured at public celebrations at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, including Halloween on Haunted Walk (1993–2005) and The Little Engine That Could (1995–present).

Ralph Lee has created masks for major theater and dance companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, the New York City Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, the Phoenix Theater, the Waverly Consort, the Living Theater, Shari Lewis, the Ensemble for Early Music, the New York Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare & Company, Erick Hawkins Dance Company, Jean Erdman's Theater of the Open Eye, Saturday Night Live (He created the Land Shark.) and Yoshiko Chuma's School of Hard Knocks.


From February through May 1998, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center presented a retrospective exhibition of Mr. Lee's masks, puppets, giant figures and scenic elements, attracting record-breaking crowds to the gallery. Other exhibits have taken place at the Lower Adirondack Regional Arts Council – Glens Falls, New York (2004); The Taft School – Watertown, Connecticut (2003); the World Financial Center Gallery – NYC (1999), and the City University Graduate Center Mall – NYC (1976 and 1987).

Teaching career and residencies[edit]

Ralph Lee has taught at Amherst College, Bennington College, the Boys and Girls Republic (on the Lower East Side in New York City), Hampshire College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Smith College, Union Theological Seminary, and he has been on the faculty of New York University since 1988. In addition, he has done residencies at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Immokalee, Florida; Colgate University; Hamilton College; the Navaho Reservation in Rock Point, Arizona; the University of Rio Grande, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In 2007-08 Mr. Lee was the Jim Henson Artist-in-Residence at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Individual awards and funding[edit]

Ralph Lee's work has been acknowledged by several individual awards, including a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship, a 1996 New York State Governor's Arts Award, and a 1996 DTW Bessie Award. Individual grants include Dancing in the Streets (1996), Art Matters (1995), the Beard's Fund (1980), and a CAPS Grant (1975).


External links[edit]