by Neil Steinberg
Were I to live my life again, I’d be a puppeteer.
My puppet theater would be called Punch & Judy’s. It would be semi-legendary in Wicker Park, a modest hall, wide-slat wood floors, elaborate gilded stage with a red velvet curtain. The line would stretch out the door, the long tables, groaning with ale and spiced meat pies. Once an hour, a bell rings, the curtain flies up, and for 10 minutes Mr. Punch, with his pointed chin and jester’s hat is once again locked in eternal battle with wife Judy, the shrieks and whistles and rude jokes, the baby ejected from the stage as if shot from a cannon, the crowd, red-faced and roaring while I sit on a stool in my admiral’s hat, counting the gate, greedily fingering the thick rolls of wet bills.
Alas, I’m stuck doing this.
But I can admire those who do devote their lives to puppetry, that eternally low-rent art form whose rare splashes of success — the Muppets, Avenue Q, “Being John Malkovich” — only mock the shabby desuetude of of the art form in general.
Not to be a downer at the advent of the first International Chicago Puppet Theater Festival, which began Wednesday and runs until Jan. 25. If it weren’t so obscure, I wouldn’t care about it. Video games do far, far better than puppetry, but don’t expect a lot of updates on them here.
The festival is the hard-earned brainchild of Chicago puppeteer Blair Thomas.
“It’s true, it’s been a lot of work, a lot of great things happening,” he said. “There is not a major international puppet theater festival.”
Well, there is now, or could be, if this catches on. What does he hope to accomplish with his festival?
“One thing I’m interested in, as a puppeteer, is to advance the form,” he said. “One of best ways to do that is to get the audiences to see what is going on in the contemporary puppetry movement. Once they see that, they will be astounded.”
I told him that the “Theater” in his festival name struck me as a stab distancing itself from the grim 4th birthday party machinations that come to mind for many at mention of “puppetry,” and a grab at Steppenwolf-ish respect.
“We are in a way attempting to align ourselves with that, rather than a lesser form of puppet theater,” he said. “My goal is to redefine what puppet theater is for Chicago audiences.”
For me, puppet theater is the thing I never go to. I admire puppets as lovely, often strange objects, and puppetry as a concept, perhaps because it’s the rare profession even more ill-favored than my own. But the last puppet show I attended was while herding a pair of toddlers. What advantages, I asked Thomas, does puppetry bring to a dramatic effort?
“I think of puppetry as being a form of performance using sculpture and performance together in a unique way,” he said. “You’re watching material objects. It looks like a human but it’s not, and ends up being able to do things a human being can’t. A human being can’t come apart, but a puppet can literally come apart in front of you. Fantastical things like that. In puppetry, the fantastical is normal.”
I told him there was a bit of synergy, his festival arriving right after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in France.
“[Puppetry is] extremely good at mocking authority, because authority is the humans, in terms of shows in the festival actually doing that . . . we don’t have anyone doing that directly.”
I told Thomas I didn’t think that puppetry could ever be popular again, assuming it once was. That puppets are like hats; their renaissance is constantly being announced without ever actually arriving.
“You can open up a puppetry journal from 1930, and they’re like, ‘Puppetry is having a renaissance!’ ” Thomas said. “The reality is puppetry always exists on periphery of dominant culture. It’s an amalgam form, not a pure form like poetry or playing the piano. This position on the periphery allows it to comment. That’s why puppetry lends itself to satire. It can mock. A puppet itself mocks being human, appears to be alive, but can’t be alive. We’re the people who’re alive. That’s really a disturbing thing, when it’s really well done, it’s shocking, that uncanny thing . . . taps into our reptilian brain, and we think this is a real thing. That’s actually a thrilling place to be, sweeping us away with its wonder and otherworldliness. This is what I think contemporary puppetry is. Hardly anyone know this.”
The secret’s out now. I’ve got tickets to a production Friday night — you kind of have to. I’m hoping that it’s wonderful.
” ‘The Table’ is a great introduction,” he said. “Really funny and good theater too.”
You can learn about the festival at chicagopuppetfest.org.
By the way, in that alternate world, after the crowd at “Punch & Judy’s” drains their beers and staggers out the door, after the lights are turned up, showing horribly the swill and God-knows-what-else soaked sawdust on the floor, I stand, let out a long sigh, set my admiral’s hat on the stool, put on my jacket, look at the empty puppet palace and think, “I devoted my life to this? I could have been a newspaper columnist …”
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