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Blind Summit's "The Table" (Photo by Lorna Palmer)
Blind Summit's "The Table" (Photo by Lorna Palmer)

Redefining Puppetry at Chicago’s International Puppet Theater Festival 

Festival founder Blair Thomas aimed to challenge the conventional notions of puppetry and maybe invent some new models along the way during this 12-day Chicago event.

CHICAGO: In Blind Summit’s The Table—an homage to Moses as crotchety prophet—there’s a remarkable, somewhat shocking moment where the show’s lone puppet is disposed of, leaving the performers to create life from just their hands and empty space. The moment emphasizes one of the show’s key messages: Puppetry is less about the puppet and more about the puppeteer.

The London-based company was one of a dozen international companies that presented shows to puppet fanatics and the puppet-curious alike at Chicago’s inaugural International Puppet Theater Festival. Chicago puppet theatre aficionado Blair Thomas conceived the event, which concluded on Sunday, as a way to both solidify the city as a puppet theatre hub and as a way to spark conversation over the nature of puppetry.

“My goal is to create a festival that redefines what puppetry is for the audiences of Chicago,” Thomas said. “Once audiences are exposed to what’s going on in the contemporary puppetry movement, they will come to want higher-quality puppetry.”

It was Chicago, Thomas points out, where the term “puppeteer” was coined. In the early 20th century, someone who operated puppets would have been called a “showman,” but the word was limiting to Ellen Van Volkenburg, a stage director who came up with the term “puppeteer” in 1912. She based the name on logic that someone who drives a mule was a muleteer; hence, one who “drives” a puppet should be a puppeteer.

The 12-day festival was the result of a drive from the theatrical community and support from local foundations. The fest’s managing director, Claire Geall Sutton, was the director of theatre for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs for 18 years, and both Sutton and Thomas were integral to coordinating programming for a 2001 Chicago puppet fest called Puppetropolis. In addition to efforts from Sutton and Thomas, companies like Chicago Shakespeare, Neo-Futurists and Second City provided performance space for the more than 50 shows presented at the fest.

For Thomas, the puppet fest is also a response to the loss of another festival, Chicago’s International Theater Festival, which began in 1986 and ended in 1994 due to financial troubles. In its eight-year run, the fest exposed Chicagoans to theatre from Lithuania, Ireland and South Africa and featured performances from the likes of Kenneth Branagh and Ian McKellen.

It was during this fest that Thomas would see the Barcelona-based puppet company El Comidience, which would inspire him to eventually cofound Chicago’s Redmoon Theater in 1990.

Thomas’s eagerness to showcase those on the fringe of puppetry allowed the fest to reachout to artists like David Commander of New York-based experimental performance ensemble Big Art Group, who creates live-action film using action figures and barbies, and Canada’s Daniel Barrow, whose performance work utilizes layered drawings and multiple projectors.

Daniel Barrow
Daniel Barrow

Shoshana Currier, a former New York City producer and current director of performing arts for Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs, pushed to get Barrow’s work in the fest.

“Maybe some people would find it a stretch, but when you’re operating an object of any sort, even if it’s a two-dimensional object, outside of your own body, then it can be classified as puppetry,” Currier said.

The fest marks the second time Barrow’s work has been presented as a form of puppetry.

“I love puppetry, but I have no training as a puppeteer,” confessed Barrow. “So I feel very lucky that in this way, my work can sort of transition from audience to audience.”

For Thomas, incorporating performances like Barrow’s is a natural next step to continuing the dialogue around the very meaning of puppetry. He intends to break down the misconception that the art is inherently a childish one.

Thomas picked up his first puppets, a gift of marionettes, as a 10-year-old growing up in Jacksonville, Ala. After graduating college and arriving in Chicago, he initially intended to focus on straight theatre. Instead, after cofounding Redmoon, he eventually left in 1998 and went on to start his own group, the puppet-focused Blair Thomas and Company, in 2002.

For an artist like Mike Oleon, co-curator of short-form cabaret Nasty, Brutish and Short, the visibility provided by Thomas’s efforts with the fest has been invaluable.

“People spend so much time thinking you’re creeps that jiggle around dolls, and then they come and see this and they see that it’s awesome to jiggle around dolls,” said Oleon.

Brutish and Short audiences were treated to a veritable mélange of adult puppetry, including sadistic clowning from Vanessa Valliere, Rough House Theater’s nightmarish shadow puppetry and Michael Montenegro’s magical use of puppetry slight of hand.

Vanessa Valliere (Photo by  CB Lindsey)
Vanessa Valliere (Photo by CB Lindsey)

In Montenegro’s case, as with many of the fest’s other acts, sold-out performances led to last minute additional shows, with an estimated 9,000 attendees over the 12-day event.

The fest capped with a day-long symposium, acting as a kind of podium for the all important puppetry dialogue Thomas wants to facilitate. Moderated by 500 Clown’s Leslie Danzig, the symposium’s panelists included the puppet-oriented, like Blind Summit artistic director Mark Down, puppeteer Dan Hurlin, and Craig Stephens, actor and associate director of the England-based Stan’s Cafe Theater Company, as well as academics like Timothy Harrison, assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago and Jesse Soodalter, director of the Living Mortal Project at the University of Chicago.

Topics ranged from robotics and virtual reality to broader issues of life and death in relation to puppetry. For Thomas, puppets – and the life we project onto them – aid greatly in fueling a discourse around these most fundamentally human questions.

“That’s what I’ve been so astounded by seeing the work of the festival—being in the presence of the wisdom of an object that’s conveying something human beings can’t convey,” Thomas said. “When you go to the theatre and the collective attention of a full house of people is focused on a very small gesture made by a puppet, that tells us something about being a human being.”

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