Festival Archive: Nick Lehane

Nick Lehane: Chimpanzee

January 22-24, 2022

Presented by Instituto Cervantes Chicago & Chicago Puppet Fest

Nick Lehane’s hour-long tabletop puppet play, Chimpanzee, was performed at the 4th Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. It played at Instituto Cervantes of Chicago from January 22nd-24th, 2022. On this page you will find resources related to the inspiration, programming, and academic inquiry into this work. Part I includes articles, reviews, and videos from past performances, Part II contains media, reviews, and more information about the Chicago performance, Part III has info and videos from Nick's 2021 showcase as part of The Living Room Tour, Part IV contains his talk from the Ellen Van Volkenburg Symposium, and Part V offers further reading and scholarly materials. Enjoy!


Pre-Festival Reviews, Articles, and Other Resources

“Chimpanzee”— climb[s] into our hearts.

The New York Times


Performance at the 2022 Chicago Puppet Fest

“Quote could go here from one of the Chicago Reviews. Quote here from Chicago Review.”

Chicago Magazine

About the Performance

Instituto Cervantes Chicago & Chicago Puppet Fest present:


January 22-24, 2022
Instituto Cervantes of Chicago
31 W. Ohio St., Chicago, IL

From award-winning, Brooklyn-based puppet artist and theater maker, Nick Lehane, comes the heartfelt, poignant, and stranger-than-fiction story of a chimpanzee raised as a child in a human home in a cross-fostering experiment conducted in the United States. An exquisite bunraku style puppetry performance breathes in life and illuminates the need for humanity.


Created and Directed by Nick Lehane

Puppeteers: Rowan Magee, Andy Manjuck, and Emma Wiseman

Lighting Designer and Associate Set Designer: Marika Kent

Associate Lighting Designer: Ayumu “Poe” Saegusa

Sound Designer: Kate Marvin

Associate Sound Designer: Avery Orvis

Puppet and Set Designer: Nick Lehane

Chimpanzee was made possible by HERE Arts Center’s Dream Music Puppetry Program, The Jim Henson Foundation and Cheryl Henson


People are Hungry for Puppetry” by Neil Steinberg, Chicago SunTimes 

Philosophical ‘Pooh’ will be just what we need in March by Julian J. Frazin, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin

Now in Chicago by Kacie Whitman in Chicago Magazine

Catch Your Breath by Ted C. Fishman in New City


Performance at the Fall 2021 Living Room Tour

Always a wonderful time, each of these intimate fundraisers takes place at a special location with unique food, drink and performance. 

The Living Room Tour

The fall prior to the 2022 Festival, Chimpanzee played the Fall Living Room Tour along with Cabinet of Curiosity and Vanessa Valliere at the following homes:

  • Jes & Leesa Sherborne at their home, a gracious 1870’s lakefront residence, renovated in the 1930’s to the Italianate Victorian style.
  • Hosted by Cheryl Lynn Bruce & Kerry James Marshall at their home, a surprisingly contemporary and totally rebuilt 1883 Victorian in the heart of Chicago’s historic Bronzeville neighborhood.
  • Hosted at Manual Cinema at their new studio; originally a machine shop, now a refurbished, heavy timber industrial building, home to Chicago’s shadow puppetry masters and recent Candyman film collaborators. Co-hosted by Kim Ohms & Joe Novelli, Jordan Shields & Sarah Donovan

Enjoy images and video from their appearance at the home of Cheryl Lynn Bruce & Kerry  James Marshall. Thanks to Sandra and Michael Perlow for providing special support for the Living Room Tour.


Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium

On Saturday, January 22, 2022, Nick Lehane was a speaker at The Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium session entitled “Staging the Non-Human Character; Animal, Alien, or Architecture.”

The event was co-hosted by The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, moderated by Dr. Paulette Richards, and held online through Howlround. Below, find a video of Nick’s presentation of Chimpanzee which includes a 5 minute clip of Chimpanzee, a transcript of his talk, and a link to the entirety of the symposia held at the 4th Chicago Puppet Festival.

Transcript of Nick Presentation

Good morning, all. My name is Nick Lehane. It is such a pleasure and an honor to be with you today, albeit digitally. I wish our time could be in person, but I am grateful that this virtual medium makes this talk more accessible. I am going to assume that on the other side of this screen, is some combination of professional puppeteers and diehard puppetry fans, as well as folks who may have never seen a puppet show. So, first of all, what exactly is puppetry?

Puppetry is the use of movement to bring objects to life in the mind of an audience. It’s a broad umbrella term, like dance or music, that encompasses a wide range of traditions and styles and historic functions. There is archaeological evidence that suggests puppets may predate human actors in theater. There are puppets described in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. There are written records of shadow puppetry dating back 3000 years in China, of string puppets 5000 years ago Egypt, the giant puppets used in contemporary Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations have their roots are not only in medieval European pageantry, but also the habitable statues found in central Africa where manipulators work from within the interior of gigantic figures. There are puppets described in the sacred Hindu text, the Mahabharata. There are dolls with poseable thumbs and fingers used in funerary rights in Pre-columbian central Mexico. The list goes on and on. This ubiquity of puppet and puppet adjacent activities across continents and cultures suggest that our earliest human ancestors shared this strange impulse to animate the inanimate.

And perhaps, more controversially, this impulse appears to have been shared by our pre-human ancestors as well. The peer-reviewed journal Current Biology published in 2010 observations of infant chimpanzees in the wild, caring for sticks and rocks, in ways that appeared similar to the ways human children care for dolls. Puppets indeed come from a very early time, historically. Puppets also reflect a very early time in humans developmentally. They are linked to our early childhood impulses to play, and to what the British psychoanalyst DW Winnecott called transitional objects, like blankies and teddy bears. The first “not me” possessions of the child. And this space between subject and object, between “me” and “not me,” is one of the many ways in which puppets exist between worlds. They are able to live in and bridge gaps. They hover at a threshold– a threshold of the subject and the object, of waking and dreaming, of the conscious and the unconscious, of the sacred and the profane, of the religious and the secular, and germane to this talk, the human and the not human.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, there were a series of experiments in the US where Chimpanzees were raised as children in human homes. They were called cross-fostering experiments, and they are conducted to see how much human language these chimps would acquire, and more broadly, how human they would become. The chimps were raised with American Sign Language, and they learned hundreds of signs. They had access to human toys and picture books, which they would play with much the way human children play. They bonded with their human parents and their siblings, eating meals with their human families at the dinner table. Many enjoyed human so-called “vices” like alcohol and tobacco. One was baptized. And when these chimps matured, they became too powerful or sexual for their humans to handle. Or when funding for these cross-fostering experiments dried up, some of these chimps went on to live as test subjects in a radically different area of scientific research. Pathogen Studies, performed in biomedical facilities. And many were infected with Hepatitis C or HIV, or they underwent surgical procedures to study and change their brains. Most of these chimps were completely physically isolated from all other chimpanzees and humans, locked away with no natural light. The standard cage in a biomedical facility is 5×5 feet. And hundreds of chimpanzees remain warehoused in labs to this day.

I am struck by these stories. Because chimpanzees are, as you probably know, the nonhuman animal closest to humans genetically. And cross fostered chimpanzees are the most culturally human chimps. So that makes these chimps as close as possible to the divide we’ve constructed between human and not human. They straddle the world between us and them. Hovering right in this liminal space between the two. In a single lifetime, some of these chimps experienced inclusion in the sphere of our concern. They were part of the human family. Literally, and metaphorically. And then total exclusion– relegated to the realm of disposable objects. They pass between the container of the suburban family home to the container of the cage. And so, moved by these stories and ideas, and with a team of brilliant collaborators and literally years of support from various artist residencies, and the unwavering support of the Jim Henson Foundation and Cheryl Henson, I created a puppet play called Chimpanzee. And Chimpanzee the play is an hour in a theater, a day in a biomedical facility, and a lifetime in the mind of a chimpanzee. I would like to share excerpts of the piece now. It is about five-minutes long, and it comes towards the beginning of the piece.

(5 minute excerpt of Chimpanzee)

Chimpanzee premiered in New York City in 2019. Thanks to Basil Twist’s HERE Music Puppetry Program. During the run, I met one of the folks who was raised alongside chimpanzees. His name is Joshua Fouts. He is the son of Roger Fouts, the primatologist who wrote the book that originally inspired this project – Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees. And Joshua put us in touch with Dr. Mary Lee Jensvold who runs the Fauna Foundation, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Montréal that cares for chimpanzees who have been retired from research facilities. They strive to give these retired chimps as peaceful, supported, and independent an existence as possible, given their circumstances. And it’s not a zoo. So it’s not open to the general public. And when we toured chimpanzee in Montréal, my collaborators and I were given special permission to visit, and many of these chimps had lived lives that directly paralleled the lives of our protagonist. Some of them I had already read about in my research. The show was based on some of these beings. One chimpanzee, named Rachel, was clutching a small stuffed gorilla which she cared for. And Rachel’s nails were painted because it was one of her favorite pastimes. Rachel was on antipsychotic drugs because of the self harm she would inflict as a result of what Dr. Jensvold described as PTSD. I wasn’t familiar with Rachel’s story in particular because she hadn’t been raised in the chimp language experiment, but she had been raised by a human being who considered Rachel her daughter. Until, like so many chimps like her, she grew up and was purchased by a lab, where she spent decades in isolation.

And I think puppetry is a powerful medium to tell these stories because the power of puppetry at its core is the power of empathy. Breaking down and problematizing the barriers and rigid thinking that divides us and them gives us a chance to cross the threshold into another’s experience. Just to follow along with the puppet show, to know what a puppet’s thinking, or feeling, is a massive empathetic leap. And saliently, it is an automatic, largely effortless one. And I think this says something really profound about us– That we can see the world through another being’s eyes by offering our attention. By breathing along with another. Thanks for listening.


Further Scholarly Material

“It’s long been a scientific taboo to endow animals with human emotion but if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental about both animals and us.”

-Frans de Waal