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BY SCOTT T.

CUM M IN GS

Moses, cardboard hero of


Blind Summits The Table, presented
by Chicago Shakespeare Theater
as part of the inaugural
Chicago International Puppet
Theater Festival
NIGEL BEWLEY

30 AMERICANTHEATRE JULY/AUGUST1 5
the Most of the
AS TODAYS CUTTING-EDGE PUPPETEERS PEER INTO THE SOULS
Moment
OF ANIMATED OBJECTS, THEYRE SEEING THE FUTUREOR RATHER,
THE ETERNAL PRESENTOF THE THEATRE
ACCORDING TO MOSES, THE COCKY CARDBOARD television advertising, at the spectacles that open the Olympics.
hero of The Table, a production by the inventive London-based Playwrights, from Sarah Ruhl in The Oldest Boy to Robert Askins in
puppetry company Blind Summit Theatre, there are three com- Hand to God, write them into their plays as characters. They turn up
mandments of puppetry: 1) Focus guides the audience to see things more and more in opera. Late-night puppet slams are cropping up
that are not there, 2) Breathing is the key to convincing manipula- around the country. We live in what Claudia Orenstein of Hunter
tion, and 3) A fixed point gives the figure a realistic sense of weight.College calls a puppet moment, a time of sustained cultural
Is that so, Moses? The self-described funny little puppet on interest in animated objects as a form of artistic expression and a
a table discusses these trade secrets as part of a 75-minute perfor- tool of commerce and mass entertainment.
mance that is part stand-up comedy, part lecture/demonstration Puppets are also a hot topic for serious academic investigation.
Orenstein, Dassia N. Posner and John
Bell are the editors of the new Routledge
Blair Thomas, founder of Companion to Puppetry and Material
Chicago International Puppet Performance, a 2014 volume of wide-
Theater Festival
ranging essays aiming to set the agenda
for puppet scholarship for the next gen-
eration. Influenced by contemporary
thing theory and object-oriented
ontology, the book argues for a para-
digm shift from the idea of the master
puppeteer pulling all the strings to a
view of puppets as having their own life
and agency. If we will only listen, the
reasoning goes, puppets have things to
tell us about what it means to be a per-
son and what it means to be an object.
In mainstream theatre, the current
puppet moment might be traced back
to 1997 and Julie Taymors historic
production of The Lion King, which,
with well over $6 billion in revenues, is
JOE MAZZA now the most successful single show in
the history of box-office entertainment.
and part Bible story about the Old Testaments sea-parting prophet Avenue Q and War Horse have kept puppets in the spotlight, and
and the last lonely hours of his life atop Mount Nebo. What began King Kong, a blockbuster musical from Australia featuring a 20-foot
five years ago as part of an alternative Passover observance at the ape, is reportedly getting ready to take Manhattan.
Jewish Community Centre in London has become a hit wherever Are puppets on Broadway simply the novelty du jour? Or are
Blind Summit and its artistic director, Mark Down, take it. they signs of a marginalized performance practice coming into its
The metatheatricality of The Tablea puppet show about own as an art form? Is the expanding sense of what constitutes a
puppetsis emblematic of a current fascination. Puppets are puppet confusing the matter or opening up new possibilities for
everywhere these days: on Broadway, in Hollywood movies and creativity and experiment?
s

JULY/AUGUST15 AMERICANTHEATRE 31
To gain some perspective on these questions, I
traveled to two festivals earlier this yearthe first-
ever Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival
and Puppet Animation Scotlands creatively titled
Manipulate: Visual Theatre Festival #8 in Edinburgh.

FESTIVALS ARE CRUCIAL TO THE SURVIVAL


of puppet theatre companies, particularly those with
an interest in creating serious work for adult audi-
ences. Not only a source of income, they also provide
a showcase where presenters can shop for new work
and artists can exchange ideas and learn from each
other. The biennial Festival Mondial des Thtres
de Marionnettes in Charleville-Mzires, France,
is perhaps the most important, but there are dozens
more each year, mainly in Europe (such as the Puppet
is a Human too Festival in Warsaw, or the Suspense

JOE MAZZA
Puppetry Festival, presented by Londons Little Chinese Theatre Works of New Yorks
shadow-puppet play in Chicago.
Angel Theatre). In New York City in the 1990s, the
Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater
was a revelation to American practitioners and general audiences, but
since the fifth and final Henson festival in 2000, the U.S. has lacked
a major international puppet theatre festival.
Blair Thomas has set out to change that. A Chicago theatre
artist for 30 years and artistic director of his own company since
2002, Thomas saw how the international work at the Henson festi-
vals inspired the American puppet community. He also experienced
how, from 1986 to 1996, the biennial International Theatre Festival
of Chicago changed what theatre artists in Chicago were doing,
including Thomas himself (whose response to the 1988 Windy City
appearance of Barcelonas Comediants was to found Redmoon Theater

VLADIMIR TELEGIN
with choreographer Laurie Macklin).
Thomas figures that if he can establish an international puppet Theatre AHKEs
Mr. Carmen at Manipulate
festival that becomes an institutional presence in Chicago, then the
art form may be advanced around the country. And if in the process
Chicago becomes the puppet capital of the U.S., so much the better. or community-based arts. The idea was to assemble a coalition of
Thomass strategy for launching the festival was as simple as organizations, each of which would produce one or more events in
it was ambitious. Chicago is the city that collaborates, he likes keeping with their regular programming but under the festival ban-
to say, so he began pitching the idea to area institutions large and ner. So the educational center of the Art Institute could contribute
smalltheatres, museums, universities and other presentersthat a family-oriented day of workshops and puppet shows tied to their
already had an established interest in puppets, experimental theatre major James Ensor exhibit; the madcap Neo-Futurists could host the
equally zany David Commander and his toy-
theatre cast of action figures, Barbie dolls and
David Commander performs Sacrament
Burger in Chicago. plastic animals; Chicago Shakespeare Theater
could bring back Blind Summit (after a successful
visit in 2013); and Chicago Childrens Theatre
could revive Blair Thomas and Michael Smiths
popular 2008 adaptation of Oscar Wildes The
Selfish Giant. In this way, one festival would serve
multiple constituencies.
Thomas recruited Claire Geall Sutton, a
veteran of the citys Department of Cultural
Affairs and a key organizer for a 2001 citywide
event called Puppetropolis, to come on board as
managing director. The imprimatur of a gener-
ous lead grant from the MacArthur Foundation
emboldened organizers to forge ahead and reach
out to more funders and presenters.
JOE MAZZA

Chicagos packed cultural calendar in


warmer months prompted the decision to sched-
32 AMERICANTHEATRE JULY/AUGUST1 5
ule the festival in January and risk the hassle
of a winter storm. In the end, the weather
was cooperative, and over 12 temperate days
without rain or snow, the inaugural Chicago
International Puppet Theater Festival pre-
sented more than 50 artists and 80 events
most of them sold outfor a total audience
of more than 14,000.

THE SHOWS IN CHICAGO RANGED


from the kind of traditional, family-friendly
work often seen at schools, libraries and public
fairs to edgy, experimental performances more
common to galleries, lofts and tiny black-box
theatres. Veteran Dave Herzog presented
JOE MAZZA
cute, colorful, well-crafted trick marionettes
that can juggle, blow up a balloon, swing on a Kirk Murphy, Ines Zeller Bass and Eric Bass of Sandglass perform D-Generation in Chicago.

trapeze or instantly transform from a magician


into a fairy. His circus figures contrasted with THE SANDGLASS EXCLUSIVE: MIND GAMES
the mesmerizing Le Petit Cirque of Laurent The only company to appear at both the Chicago and Edinburgh festivals was the
Bigot from France, who uses a table-top toy venerable Sandglass Theater of Putney, Vt. Since 1982, co-artistic directors Eric
circus reminiscent of Alexander Calder, rigged Bass and Ines Zeller Bass have been creating puppet work for adults and children
with 16 tiny microphones to perform a con- distinguished by its precision in design and technique, its seriousness of purpose, and
cert of odd, cleverly generated sounds. New its commitment to community engagement and international collaboration. Case in
Yorks Chinese Theatre Works (inspired by point: Their next project will team Sandglass with El Salvadors Teatro Luis Poma on
the pioneering work of Kansas-born Pauline an adaptation of Nathan the Wise, G.E. Lessings 1779 verse drama about religious
Benton, who brought Chinese shadow pup- tolerance.
petry to the West in the 1920s) performed At Manipulate in Edinburgh, Eric Bass dusted off his signature work Autumn
a traditional Chinese shadow-puppet play Portraits, a solo piece created in 1980 and performed hundreds of times since then.
in the halls of the Field Museum. Contrast Each of its five vignettes presents a distinct puppet characteran Irish vaudevillian,
this with the innovative shadow theatre of an old crone, a monk from the East, a Jewish cobbler, and so oncaught in an
Chicagos own Manual Cinema [see sidebar] existential predicament.
or Canadian artist-illustrator Daniel Barrow, In Chicago, Sandglass presented its latest work, D-Generation: An Exaltation of
both of whom use multiple overhead projec- Larks, which features five autumn portraits (or a little past that): Rose, Henry, Florence,
tors (in very different ways) to create manual Elwood and Mary are all wheelchair-bound seniors living with late-stage dementia in
animation in real time. a nursing home, where they are cared for (and operated) by three puppeteers (Eric
The variety of work programmed by Bass, Ines Zeller Bass and Kirk Murphy). Directed by Roberto Salomon and based
Thomas points to a question that is fascinat- on a series of workshops Sandglass did in care facilities, D-Generation asserts the
ing artists, audiences and academics: What humanity of those whose minds are gone by inviting them to use their imaginations
constitutes a puppet, exactly? What, in other and then turning those impulses, however kooky, into a charming, loving play-within-
words, is its nature and essence? How does it a-play. The figures are sculpted with exquisite realism by Coni Richards, and digital
help us to explore and understand the larger animation by Michel Moyse and original music by Paul Dedell amplified the tender
world of what cultural anthropologist and beauty of the piece.
folklorist Frank Proschan dubbed perform- While Sandglass spends much of the year on tour, the company returns to Vermont
ing objectspuppets, masks, ritual and fetish in the summer for a two-week training intensive, and in the fall for homegrown festivals
objects, and other material things endowed they produce in alternating years. Puppets in Paradise is a family-friendly weekend of
with agency through display, manipulation, music, toy theatre and puppet shows staged in the country gardens of local landscape
storytelling or performance? architects. The more ambitious Puppets in the Green Mountains is an international
No one in the U.S. has done more to festival which, in September 15, will focus on the theme of immigration and cross-
instigate consideration of such questions border identities and feature companies from Cuba, France, Germany, Canada and the
than artist, activist and scholar John Bell, a U.S. It is all in dogged pursuit of Sandglasss civic and artistic mission to bring their
10-year veteran of Bread and Puppet Theater, puppetry to the worldand the world of puppets to their community in southern
a founding member of the theatre collective Vermont. Cummings
Great Small Works, and director of the Bal-
lard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the
University of Connecticut. Bell takes issue with those who regard puppet. The youthful giants constructed by Royal de Luxe in the
puppets as quaint, primitive or outmoded, arguing that a wide array shipyards of Nantes, Frances, the fabric crankies used by the Appa-
of forms and practices should be seen and studied as puppetry. lachian folk duo Anna & Elizabeth to illustrate their songs, even the
If a performance is mediated by focus on an object and its eight large panels made by street artist JR and carried side-by-side
manipulation, Bell says, then to my mind it is in the realm of the by New York protest marchers to create the eyes of chokehold victim
JULY/AUGUST15 AMERICANTHEATRE 33
Eric Garnerall need to be seen as puppets. For Bell, its not a matter which puppets fluctuate between the animate and the inanimateor,
of fussing about nomenclature but of taking the opportunity to better metaphorically, between life and death. Blind Summits Mark Down,
to understand contemporary culture and its values, preoccupations lead operator and voice of the puppet Moses in The Table, pointed out
and actions by looking at them in the wider context of the history of that it is not puppeteers who make puppets come alive. The puppet
performing objects. lives in the audiences imagination. We try to steer that, and perhaps
Blair Thomas sees this kind of serious thinking as crucial to persuade it to go somewhere exciting, but to be honest we dont have
the advancement of puppetry. Nothing becomes really important a huge amount of control over it.
unless there are ideas behind it, he argues. This is what I learned Dan Hurlin, creator of such stunning puppet works as Hiroshima
from working in spectaclespectacle can be fantastic experientially, Maiden and Disfarmer, extended the thought by suggesting that
but it has to be embedded with social, historical or political ideas. It spectators may identify more with puppets than live actors, because
has to have relevance, so that people outside of the form have a way they are more of a participant in pretending they are dead or alive.
to enter into it. No matter how great the performance, there is always a part of you
And so, as part of the festival, he teamed with curator and stage that knows that at the end of the show the actor is going to go out
director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig and the University of Chicagos and have a beer or a glass of wine and then go home to bed. Puppets
Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry to launch the dont do that. They only exist in the present of performance. And
Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium, a day of unexpected conversations that makes them agents of presence.
at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago between performing
artists and thinkers in other disciplines. FOR THE PAST DECADE IN EDINBURGH, SIMON HART HAS
One of those conversations focused on the peculiar ways in been pursuing a mission similar to the one adopted by Blair Thomas
in Chicago. Hart is artistic director and CEO of Puppet
Animation Scotland, an arts organization that produces
two different festivals on an annual basis. One is a series
of puppet shows and workshops for children and families
that tour to village halls and community centers all over
Scotland. Started in 1984, it has grown into the largest
performing arts event for children in the United Kingdom.
The other is Manipulate, the international visual theatre
and animation festival for adult audiences that he launched
in 2008 in an effort to nurture, promote and otherwise
instigate visual theatre culture in Scotland.
When we started, Hart explains, there were two
ideas: first, to bring great international work to Scotland
and find an audience for it; and second, through this work
and our master-class program, to encourage Scottish art-
Manual Cinemas Mementos
DREW DIR

ists to create work of a similar scale and ambition, which


Mori in Chicago.
ideally would go back and tour internationally.

MANUAL CINEMA ON THE VERGE: LIFE AND DEATH IN L.A.


ONE OF THE MORE MEMORABLE project to date. Amusing and macabre at they contributed 10 short videos to an
offerings in Chicago was the world pre- once, it tells a story about the Angel of exhibit at the Chicago History Museum on
miere of Mementos Mori by Manual Cin- Death, presented as a femme fatale, and The Secret Lives of Objects. In March,
ema, a local group that is moving into the a little girl with a Game Boy who trade they teamed up with the London group
national spotlight. The companys medium places in a way that threatens to throw off Erratica on a video opera based on the
is light and shadow, but to label them a the order of the universeor at least Los 1499 Spanish proto-novel La Celestina,
shadow-puppet theatre feels misleading. Angeles, where the action takes place. The which was presented as a site-specific
They use low-tech cardboard cutouts, piece is projected on three screens, two at installation in the Patio from the Castle of
overhead projectors and high-tech video stage level and one on a master composite Vlez Blanco at the Metropolitan Museum
cameras and sound systems to perform screen above. Part of the fun is watching of Art. And Ada Ava, their 2011 piece
silent animated films frame by frame in the dance of the performers as they about septuagenarian twin sisters moving
real time. A gaggle of actors, puppeteers, navigate a maze of cables and tech tables, between life and death, runs through July
technicians and musicians assembles the shifting from operating shadow puppets to 5 at Manhattans 3-Legged Dog Art &
show on the spot, mixing a raft of ele- being silhouetted as puppets themselves. Technology Center.
ments and special effects in surprising This is shaping up as a breakout year Manual Cinemas unique and versatile
ways. Chances are you have not seen any- for Manual Cinema, which was started aesthetic has already taken them in a lot
thing quite like it before. in 2010 by its five co-artistic directors: of directions, including into music videos
Commissioned by the Museum of Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, and movie trailers. Figuring out which
Contemporary Art Chicago, Mementos Julia Miller and Kyle Vegter. On the direction matters to them most may be
Mori is Manual Cinemas most ambitious heels of the Mementos Mori premiere, their next big challenge. Cummings

34 AMERICANTHEATRE JULY/AUGUST1 5
The first Manipulate, which took place
in Dundee, presented four companies whose
work staked out Harts territory of inter-
est: Belgiums Compagnie Mossoux-Bont,
Frances Vlo Thtre, Hollands Duda Paiva
and English marionettist Stephen Mottram.
Says Hart, The dominance of the spoken
word in theatre from Shakespeare on is so
incredibly powerful that much of this type
of work never gets to the U.K., let alone to
Scotland. The festival shifted to Edinburgh
in 2009, and since then it has been based
at the Traverse Theatre, which provides
facilities, ticketing services, technical staff

JOE MAZZA
and enthusiastic partnership in exchange Sam Deutsch in The Selfish Giant at
Chicago Childrens Theatre.
for a piece of the box office.
Over the years, the four original compa-
nies have been joined by Austrias Editta Braun Company, Germanys ment of Manipulate is that puppets are a valuable element of this
Figurentheater Tbingen, Neville Tranters Stuffed Puppet Theatre experimental traditionwitness the work of Lee Breuer and Mabou
from Amsterdam, and Londons 1927. In 2014, Joyce McMillan, Mines, from Shaggy Dog Animation (1978) to La Divina Caricatura
longtime theatre critic for The Scotsman, called Manipulate one of (2013)but are not essential to it.
the unsung miracles of the Scottish cultural scene.
Manipulate is expressly a visual theatre festival with a strong MANY OF THE ARTISTS FEATURED IN A SPECIAL SECTION
but not exclusive interest in puppets and animationthe 2015 event on puppets in the February 04 issue of this magazineBasil Twist,
included three-day professional workshops on contemporary shadow Janie Geiser, Dan Hurlin, Erik Ehn, Jon Ludwig, Sandy Spielerare
theatre by Italian master Fabrizio Montecchi and on working with still, more than a decade later, among the leading figures in the field.
objects by Polina Borisova from Russia. There was also a screening Whether that is a sign of stability or stagnation in the American pup-
of short puppet-animation films by Claire Lamond and a Snapshots petry movement is a matter for debate. Chicagos Manual Cinema
series that showcased excerpts from traditional puppet works in is on the rise, and Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sankos New York
progress. Strictly speaking, the only featured work of puppet theatre Citybased Phantom Limb Company premiered Memory Rings in
in 2015 was Autumn Portraits from Vermonts Sandglass Theater [see June in Nashville, but there is ample room in the national spotlight
sidebar], but there were solo dance pieces from Belgiums Sandman/ for a younger generation of puppet artists pushing the form in new
Sabine Molenaar and the Czech Republics Andrea Miltnerov, both directions.
of which transformed the dancers bodies into abstract forms driven Some of them, we can hope, will come through the training
by unseen forces. U.S.- based Paper Doll Militia and Edinburghs All programs led by Bart P. Roccoberton Jr. at the University of Con-
or Nothing each performed aerial dance-theatre pieces. necticut and Janie Geiser at CalArts. In New York City, the Dream
The most satisfying entries came from two well-established Music puppetry program at the performance space HERE and the
European companies whose work has been described as theatre Puppet Lab at St. Anns Warehouse continue to nurture emerging
of objects. Each combined elements of puppetry, material perfor- artists and incubate new work. And this June marks the 25th anniver-
mance, toy theatre, shadow play, physical comedy, music and design sary of the National Puppetry Conference at Connecticuts Eugene
into highly theatrical shows loosely based on mythic narrative. Vlo ONeill Theater Center as a mecca for training and experimentation;
Thtre, based in the south of France, performed And Then He Ate the 2015 conference features workshops in writing for puppets (Ron-
Me, a lyrical deconstruction of the Little Red Riding Hood tale nie Burkett), experimental puppetry (Alice Therese Gottschalk), the
refracted through the prism of Bchners drama Woyzeck. The wild body as puppet (Hugo & Ines), puppet mechanics (Jim Kroupa) and
men of Theatre AKHE, a performance collective from St. Petersburg, marionette design, construction and manipulation (Phillip Huber
performed Mr. Carmen, in which two deadpan, whiteface clowns and Jim Rose).
with scruffy beards wreak havoc as they compete for more and more In 2004, Twist argued in these pages for puppetry as its own art,
astonishing ways to write out the names Carmen and Jos (from a form of creative expression, distinct from theatre and dance, music
Mrime via Bizet) onstage. and visual art, storytelling and poetry. And he continues to pursue
Simon Hart created Manipulate so that Scottish audiences his vision of pure puppetry, most recently in the swirling, dancing
could experience a type of European theatre driven more by images, fabrics he deployed in his response to Stravinskys Rite of Spring. But
objects and movement than by text, character and plottheatre that more and more, performing objects, figurative or abstract, are being
leaves a lot of room, he says, for the individual audience members integrated with these other forms to generate new hybrid possibilities.
to join the dots in a way that is satisfying to them, and to interpret And different types of puppetsbunraku-style figures, marionettes,
something in a way that may be radically different from the person shadow puppets, toy figures, giant puppets, animationare often
beside them. In an American context, this aesthetic can be traced found in a single work. As Thomas says, Puppetry today is a mashup
back to the avant-garde impulses of Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson, of work. The field has such plurality. And audiences love that.
Richard Foreman and others once categorized by Bonnie Marranca
as theatre of images and more recently designated postdramatic Scott T. Cummings, professor of theatre at Boston College, is
theatre by Hans-Thies Lehmann and others. The implicit argu- a scholar of contemporary theatre.
JULY/AUGUST15 AMERICANTHEATRE 35
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