Ralph Lee: Artistic Director

Ralph & Audience, Gurney Lane Park, 1997

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 with the Open Theatre. During that period he started creating masks, unusual props, puppets and larger-than-life figures for theater and dance companies, including the New York Shakespeare Festival, Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre, the Living Theatre, the Erick Hawkins Dance Company, Shari Lewis and Saturday Night Live (he created the Land Shark).

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. That same year he organized the first Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, which he directed through 1985. For his work on the parade Mr. Lee received a 1975 Village Voice OBIE Award, a 1985 Citation from the Municipal Arts Society, and in 1993 he was inducted into the CityLore People’s Hall of Fame.

Ralph Lee and MasksIn 1976 Ralph Lee became Artistic Director of the Mettawee River Theatre Company, which has been a center of his creative activity ever since. Mettawee’s productions are based on creation myths, trickster tales, Sufi stories, legends and folklore from the world’s many cultures. In addition to annual tours to rural communities, Mettawee has presented Ralph Lee’s work at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the New York Botanical Garden, Provincetown Playhouse, the Henson Foundation’s International Festival of Puppet Theater, LaMama E.T.C., INTAR, Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, Central Park Summerstage, The Bowery Poetry Club, and many other locations.

Ralph Lee is the recipient of a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship in Drama. Two of Ralph Lee’s Mettawee productions have been honored with American Theatre Wing Design Awards: The Popol Vuh in 1995 and Wichikapache Goes Walking in 1992. Under Mr. Lee’s direction, Mettawee has also received a 1991 Village Voice OBIE Award and two Citations for Excellence from UNIMA, the international puppetry organization. Additional awards to Mr. Lee include a 1996 Dance Theatre Workshop Bessie Award for “sustained achievement as a mask maker and theatre designer without equal” and a 1996 New York State Governor’s Arts Award in recognition of his many contributions to the artistic and cultural life of New York State. In 1999 Ralph received an award for “excellence in theater” from the New England Theater Conference.

From 1989 to 2000 Ralph Lee made annual trips to San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, to develop plays and a performing ensemble with the Mayan writers group Sna Jtz’ Ibajom. He is an artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where he has staged special events with masks and giant puppets since 1984. In addition, he has produced parades and pageants featuring his giant figures for celebrations in Central Park, the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Garden, the Ringling Museums in Sarasota, Florida and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut.

From February through May, 1998, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center presented a retrospective exhibition of Ralph Lee’s work that attracted record-breaking crowds to the gallery. As part of the Henson Foundation’s International Festival of Puppet Theater, the Children’s Museum of the Arts featured an exhibition entitled “The Masks and Magic of Ralph Lee” in September, 1998. Over the course of 2000 there were three exhibits in New York City featuring creations designed by Ralph Lee for Mettawee productions. Masks and puppets from THE WOMAN WHO FELL FROM THE SKY were on exhibit in the ambulatory of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; an array of giant figures were display in the Courtyard Gallery of the World Financial Center, and an exhibit of sketches and models were in the gallery of The Kitchen. Many of Ralph Lee’s puppets were featured at the Museum of the City of New York and The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center in New York City 2021-2022, in conjunction with the International Puppet Fringe Festival. In 2023, the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry presented the retrospective exhibition “Myths, Legends, and Spectacle: Masks and Puppets of Ralph Lee.”

Mr. Lee has taught at Amherst College, Smith College, Bennington College, Hampshire College, Hamilton College, Colgate University, the University of Rio Grande, the University of North Carolina and the Boys and Girls Republic on New York’s Lower East Side. He was on the faculty of New York University for over twenty years.