Blair Thomas, one of the earliest forces in Chicago’s impressive community of contemporary puppetry masters, recalls where his fascination with the art form began.
“I grew up in a small town in Alabama where there was nothing to do, so as a kid I created my own puppet theater,” said Thomas. “I tied strings to my Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls and stuffed animals, and used a window sill with a curtain as a stage. Gradually, things got more elaborate, and I performed my shows — most of which were reinterpretations of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — at birthday parties and in churches.”
Now, years after he helped found Redmoon, and subsequently went off to create his own company, Thomas has become founder and artistic director of the 2015 Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. from Jan. 14-25, the event will bring 20 different productions by a wide array of artists — local, national and international — to a dozen different stages citywide.
Puppetry is an ancient art form believe to have originated some 3000 years ago — possibly predating the use of live actors. Puppets made of clay and ivory have been found in Egyptian tombs and might have been used for religious dramas. And there are written records of puppets being used in ancient Greece, as far back as the 5th century BC.
Ironically enough, puppetry also is a vibrantly new art form that goes far beyond The Muppets, the alter egos of the characters in “Avenue Q,” or the magisterial creatures in Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King.” Contemporary puppet artists sometimes incorporate new technology, but often they draw on classic forms, from shadow puppets and hand puppets to marionettes, infusing their work with storytelling that draws on the old and new. And they speak to audiences of adults perhaps even more than those filled with children.
“The media culture dominates our lives now, so puppetry is a bit on the periphery of things,” said Thomas. “But if you look at the many different productions coming to this festival, you will discover the intriguing relationship between humans and puppets and how this mirrors contemporary life.”
For example, Chicago-based Manual Cinema (the only U.S. participant in the 2014 Tehran International Puppet Festival in Iran), combines shadow puppetry and cinematic motifs, and the use of overhead projectors, multiple screens, paper puppets, live actors, live feed cameras and music for its altogether magical work, “Mementos Mori.” The work (at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre) totally exposes the machinations of the puppeteers to create a dual show — the story being told, as well as the actual manipulation of objects that is making it all possible.
“We worked on this piece over the course of a year,” said Sarah Fornace, who co-directs the Manual Cinema collaborative with Drew Dir. “And we only began performing in front of our shadow puppet screen when we needed to fill a larger stage space, and then realized it gave the whole thing the feeling of being both inside a movie and part of a live experience. The audience sees everything we do.”
“We all watch a lot of movies and talk about them together,” said Fornace, whose grandfather, a doctor, practiced puppetry as a sideline. “This piece draws on the recent Italian film, ‘The Great Beauty,’ Ingmar Bergman’s classic, ‘The Seventh Seal,’ and Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Magnolia.’ As for the allure of our shadow puppetry, I think there is a blankness to the silhouettes created by that style that asks the audience to do more work, yet at the same time gives their imaginations more space.”
Another Chicago-based master, Michael Montenegro, creates haunting puppets whose over, mask-like heads possess a haunting beauty. Growing up with parents who were artists, he still remembers how his brother and mother created a pirate figure by attaching a large head to the top of a bottle.
For the Festival, Montenegro is presenting “Drunken Half-Angel” (staged at Links Hall), a collection of shorter pieces he describes as “visual poems interwoven with the sounds of three live musicians on percussion, horn, electric bass, steel string guitar, accordion and keyboard.” He describes the title work as “a metaphor for a person who is essentially a very good human being, but who becomes very bitter through his recognition of worldly things. But I think we are all drunken half-angels, both light and dark in our souls, and drunk on life.”
David Commander, a Philadelphia-bred, New York-based artist, spent a decade doing traditional theater but the expense of touring shows became prohibitive, so, as he put it: “I just decided to boil down my larger ideas so they could be realized by just me and some objects.” The result is his Modern Toy Theatre, which, he quips “is pretty much what I did at age five when I put my little action figures on the ‘stage’ of my mom’s sewing machine and added voices.” The two works he is bringing to the Festival (at the Neo-Futurists) are “In Flight,” about passengers on a plane that is about to crash who are distracted by the items they see in their Sky Mall magazines, and “Sacrament Burger,” a riff on our current restaurant culture and the waste it engenders.
Headed to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Upstairs stage is a reprise of “The Table,” the hilarious and brilliant study of the Old Testament’s Moses (in the form of a cardboard puppet manipulated by three puppeteers with amazing dancing-acting-improv skills). A hit in its earlier engagement at CST, this work by Britain’s Blind Summit troupe is a must-see.
Among other notable shows are: “Mariposa Nocturna: A Puppet Triptych,” the magnificently crafted work of Chicago-based Stephanie Diaz and Company (Free Street Theater at the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse), in which a child makes a wish to a Guatemalan folk saint to grant her dying grandmother “a happy sleep”; “Le Petit Cirque” (at Vittum Theater), the creation of French electro-acoustic musican Laurent Bigot, who sets salvaged material and cheap gadgets in motion on a circus-like tabletop installation; and “Mortal City,” a layered soundscape capturing the pulse of a city, devised by Minneapolis-based In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre.
“The beauty of this biennial Festival, and the thing I believe will assure its continuance, is the fact that many different presenting entities have a stake in the game, rather than one producer being responsible for the whole undertaking,” explained Thomas, whose Blair Thomas & Co. will present ‘The Selfish Giant,” his charming piece for children, with live accompaniment by Chicago folk legend Michael Smith. “And of course Chicago doesn’t depend on a tourist audience; it’s got a robust and varied indigenous theater audience that will be able to choose among wonderfully varied work.”
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