The primary Stages Off-Broadway Oral history Project

Celebrating the visionaries who created New York's vibrant Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater.

Ralph Lee

Ralph Lee

Actor, Designer, Puppeteer

Interviewed on: Thursday, September 22, 2016
Location: at His Home
Interviewed by: Sally Plass
Interview #79
"I had never seen these things I’d made outdoors. And I found that they took on a kind of life outdoors that had so much more vitality in it… There’s something about a natural setting and this bizarre, man-made artifact in that setting that sets up some kind of an energy that’s really exciting."
Ralph Lee Highlights
Video Length: 5 Minutes, 6 Seconds
Ralph Lee Interview Part One
Video Length: 1 Hour, 51 Minutes
Ralph Lee Interview Part Two
Video Length: 1 Hour, 36 Minutes

Ralph Lee is an actor, designer, and puppeteer who is perhaps best known for his creation of the Village Halloween Parade, an annual NYC event that began in 1974 as a procession of his masks and giant puppets and has grown into a massive event with hundreds of puppets and thousands of participants. Lee is also the Artistic Director of the Mettawee River Theater Company, of which his wife, Casey Compton, is a Founding Member. Mettawee performs outdoor shows, usually based on various mythologies, in small towns in upstate New York and New England that do not have regular access to theatre. Each season ends with a short run at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where Lee is an Artist-in-Residence. Prior to his work with Mettawee and the Parade, Lee worked as a designer Off-Broadway with such companies as The Living Theatre, The Public Theater, Theater of the Open Eye, The APA Phoenix and LaMama E.T.C. His puppets, masks, and eccentric props  were seen in THE APPLE (1961), OH DAD, POOR DAD, MAMA’S HUNG YOU IN THE CLOSET AND I’M FEELIN’ SO SAD (1962), MAD DOG BLUES (1971), BACK BOG BEAST BAIT (1971), COWBOY MOUTH (1971), MOON MYSTERIES (1972, for Theatre of the Open Eye), and PLAINS DAYBREAK (1979). He is the recipient of many awards, including two American Theater Wing Design Awards, two OBIE Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Bessie Award, and a New York State Governor’s Arts Award.

Lee was born and raised in Middlebury, Vermont. After attending Amherst College, he received a Fulbright to study mime in France and acted at The London Academy of Dramatic Art. In New York he studied dance with Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Jose Limon, and Lucas Hoving and acting with Michael Howard. He was a performer with Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater and Theatre Genesis where he also designed masks and costumes for Sam Shepard’s plays, among others. For a span of twenty years he worked with Erick Hawkins creating masks for seven ballets. His associations with Hawkins, Chaikin and Howard influenced him greatly. In addition to his work in the US, Lee spent 12 years working with a Mayan community in Mexico, creating theatre based on their traditional stories.

Mentioned in Interview

Sam Shepard, Bob Glaudini, Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Lucas Hoving, Hanya Holm, Jean Erdman, Erick Hawkins, Joseph Chaikin, Walter Hadler, Andre Bishop, Andre Gregory, Jerome Robbins, Austin Pendleton, Doris Humphrey, Casey Compton, St. John The Divine, The Open Theater, The Living Theatre, Theatre Genesis, Theatre of the Open Eye, American Place Theater, INTAR, NYSF/The Public, APA Phoenix Theatre, Theater for the New City, The Village Halloween Parade, OH DAD, POOR DAD, MAMA’S HUNG YOU IN THE CLOSET AND I’M FEELIN’ SO SAD, MAD DOG BLUES, COWBOY MOUTH, BACK BOG BEAST BAIT, TERMINAL, THE SERPENT, POPOL VUH