Cost of Creativity: Jen Murphy on the Street Creature Puppet Collective’s latest show

TRIPLE VIRGO: When it comes to managing a large cast of puppeteers, local artist Jen Murphy credits the stars, moon and sun. “I'm a triple Virgo and love lists,” she says with a laugh. Her group, the Street Creature Puppet Collective, will present its latest show, 'The Earth Is Alive!' on Saturday, July 23, at Jubilee! Community. Photo by 7 Doves Photography

For Jen Murphy, a founding member of the Street Creature Puppet Collective, her interest in gardening and foraging has often influenced her work. Such is the case for the collective’s latest production, The Earth Is Alive!, a family musical and puppet show celebrating the medicine and magic of Appalachian plants.

Written by Josh Fox and produced by Murphy, The Earth Is Alive! first premiered at the spring 2022 LEAF Festival. On Saturday, July 23, at 4 p.m, the collective offers audiences an encore performance at Jubilee! Community, a venue Murphy and her fellow Street Creature puppeteers have called home since May 2021.

“It’s a good fit, as [Jubilee! has] a strong environmental and social justice approach and an appreciation of the arts,” she says. “Our Puppet Clubhouse is located in their lower level, alongside their new JAMS microshelter for unhoused women.”

Xpress, as part of its ongoing “Cost of Creativity” series, spoke with Murphy about the inspiration and associated costs of her group’s latest production, the importance of creating from a place of love and how telling healing and empowering stories helps brings us together.

This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.

What is the story behind how The Earth Is Alive! production came to be?

I first met Josh Fox, the songwriter for The Earth Is Alive!, years ago when he was making music and stilt walking with The Faerie Kin [a local stilt-walking troupe]. Street Creature Puppet Collective … developed alongside The Faerie Kin, with lots of crossover of people, ideas and puppets. The Faerie Kin has been mostly on hiatus for the past few years, but last spring the tribes came together to create Ancestor Forest, an eco-fable for Earth Day, written and produced by Mica Sun. It was quite an endeavor, with a cast of 30, many new puppets, sets and props, with a tiny budget at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre.

There was one song in particular that moved me to tears, called “The Earth Is Alive!” It’s a joyful song about the turning of the seasons of our bioregion, naming dozens of plants and trees in the order that they flower and fruit. The music reflects the spinning cycles and bounty of life in these mountains. The Ancestor Forest audience responded powerfully to the song, jumping up to dance with the performers.

So, I started to talking with Josh, who is an herbalist and acupuncturist, about doing a puppet video for just that song, with a crankie [rolling paper storytelling scroll]. Instead, over the last summer, fall and winter, it developed into a one-hour family show anchored around songs Josh has written over the last decade. These songs are inspired by his relationship with each of the plants, many of which can be found on his album called Spells Cast by Rain.

The songs inspired me, as well as my own love of our plant kin. I also wanted Street Creature to stretch our scope and abilities, to tell a longer story, to move beyond the momentary interaction of a parade to being on a stage, but still interactive.

How do you manage a project with so many components and dozens of people?

I’m a triple Virgo and love lists. Also, I had lots and lots of help. I’ve learned from managing the Puppet Clubhouse for years how to use good organization, delegation and communication to keep projects going. Being willing to listen helps — to let go of control as much as possible but still guide things toward being the best quality we could achieve. Always remembering that this is community art is also significant, meaning the process is as important as the product and everyone’s contribution is valuable.

Working with so many puppeteers creating such large pieces, I imagine materials are also costly. How do you reduce costs?

Street Creature has always tried to make most of our costumes and puppets out of upcycled junk and donated supplies. We first became known for our giant dragon made out of Ingles bags. This is a budgetary choice but also a political one. We like to demonstrate that people can make really cool stuff from trash, without supporting sweatshops and creating more plastic garbage.

For The Earth Is Alive! the dandelion heads were made of packing materials. The pinwheels are from an old dictionary. Papier-mâché is newspaper and cornstarch paste and costs just a buck a box.

For folks interested in community art, are there any other cost-effective ways to manage the day-to-day expenses associated with production?

Since Street Creature operates under the umbrella of the Asheville Puppetry Alliance, a 501(c)(3), we get donations from our Patreon every month and inherited a little nest egg from the previous incarnation of APA [which Murphy and fellow Street Creature members took over from the original board in 2018]. Between those and Jubilee’s generosity, it keeps us stocked in cornstarch.

Also, all of the Street Creatures are willing to work just for the love and fun of it. We are privileged in various degrees to be able to do that, though none of us are rich. We make the choice to spend our free time making spectacles. But we operate in a capitalist system that tends to ignore the value of this work.

We’ve gotten a few small grants, but it’s a catch-22. To get a big enough grant to pay for a market-rate studio, we would need to have a bigger budget. We don’t want to spend all of our time fundraising or finding paid gigs. We already have a full calendar of things we love to do that give back to the community. We are happy to operate as volunteers on a shoestring and concentrate on being creative.

What are some of the other challenges, opportunities and benefits of community-based arts?

The biggest cost of community-based arts is the space. If you’ve tried to find an affordable workspace, you will know it’s as scarce as hen’s teeth around here. Having a place to come together weekly, store puppets and supplies is vital. It makes everything we do possible. Losing our longtime home in the North Asheville Rec Center two years ago due to COVID changes was a rude awakening to the state of commercial real estate in Asheville.

Artists have to pay their rent, medical bills, car repair, etc., too, and can’t do that with bags of kale or leftover paint. Personally, I’d like to see more government support for small arts organizations and would like to see the city do more to mitigate these problems. There are so many buildings standing empty for years, while artists and arts orgs struggle. … Street Creatures is doing what we can, in part, because our group is resourceful and engaged in ongoing mutual aid.

Building community is vital for life in these times. Imagining a better world and telling healing and empowering stories is what we need. The benefits are big — goodwill, creative growth, pleasure and community connections.

Jubilee! Community is at 46 Wall St. To learn more about the upcoming performance, visit


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One thought on “Cost of Creativity: Jen Murphy on the Street Creature Puppet Collective’s latest show

  1. Gael Murphy

    Gen, I am so proud of you!
    I, too, am very interested in the edible native plants in my area. I had an excellent book to help identify edible native plants in Florida. Unfortunately, it was stolen.
    There are several edible types of wild plants in my large yard. This property has been allowed to foster any native plants that thrive. From the road, my property looks like a jungle with only a small swath of mown “lawn” (wild grasses).
    The birds, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, doves, cardinals, blue jays, nut hatches, woodpeckers………………love it, and my supplemental seed.
    Meanwhile my neighbors are cutting down all the oak trees and native flora leaving little food or shelter for wild creatures. It is sad.

    Thank you for so lovingly teaching respect for nature and the animals with whom we share it!

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