Join us for the next Festival: January 15-26, 2025

by Web Behrens

Chicago International Puppet Theater Fest has something for all ages, but not every show is rated G.

Blair Thomas has ambitious plans for the inaugural Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. “Our festival is going to redefine what the word ‘puppetry’ means to audiences,” he said. “We see it as a dynamic tool to create engaging theater.”

Although many associate puppets with young audiences, 75 percent of the festival’s programming is geared to either adults only, or adults and older kids. Just one-quarter of the events — totaling more than 50 performances at a dozen venues around the city — are geared to all ages, including younger children.

But that quarter matters. After all, Thomas’ childhood exposure to the art form influenced his career. “I had a little puppet/marionette company when I was a kid that played at birthday parties and churches, which I had left behind when I went to high school,” says the award-winning artist, who grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

He moved to Chicago in 1985 but soon became disillusioned with conventional actors’ theater, so he co-founded Redmoon, which he left in 1998 after nine years. Eventually he formed his own company to create a wide range of shows, including “The Selfish Giant,” a kid-friendly production commissioned by Chicago Children’s Theatre several years ago and revived just in time for the puppet fest.

Thomas recruited multiple collaborators for this latest project. “We have museums; we have colleges and universities; we have theater companies involved,” he said. “And they all have an interest in puppetry. It’s a field that’s broad enough to reach the Field Museum as well as Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Links Hall and the Logan Center.”

The Chicago International Puppet Festival runs through Jan. 25. For a schedule of performances and a map of venues, click here. Kid-friendly festival highlights include these:

•The Art Institute has its own exhibit, “Puppets!” which runs into June and offers additional fest programming this week. You can catch a free screening of the Jim Henson-Frank Oz masterpiece “The Dark Crystal” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the museum’s Fullerton Hall (111 S. Michigan Ave.). On Saturday, the museum’s Ryan Education Center (159 E. Monroe St.) hosts an all-ages festival from 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m., with puppet-making crafts for kids and two Bullooney Puppetworks performances of “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” all free.

•Chicago Children’s Theatre plugs in with Blair Thomas & Co.’s “The Selfish Giant,” opening Jan. 23 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn Ave. (It’s the one show that will continue running beyond the festival’s conclusion, by nearly a month.) An inventive musical adaptation of an Oscar Wilde story about a giant who learns a few things after banishing children from his garden, the show features a lone puppeteer weaving the tale with Chicago folk musician Michael Smith. Tickets are $38 for adults, $28 kids. Puppet fest-goers get $5 off with promo code: PUPPET.

•The Field Museum hosts a drop-in “open mic” for puppeteers 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday (free with museum admission).

•Links Hall (3111 N. Western Ave.) will feature performances of the Muppets-style variety show “Snorf” on Saturday; Dave Herzog’s Marionettes on Sunday and “The Joshua Show,” featuring some clever sock puppetry from Joshua Holden, on Jan. 24. Costs vary.

•The Logan Center’s family day is noon to 5 p.m. Jan. 24 and will include interactive workshops and performances. The Logan Center is at 915 E. 60th St. Cost: $5, $20 for family of five-plus.

Unlike Puppetropolis, the 2001 endeavor that brought international acts to Chicago, the current 12-day festival is not intended to be a one-time event. Thomas hopes to see it return every other year.

“Our nation has had only one major international puppet theater festival,” he said (the one run by the Jim Henson Foundation in New York, which ended in 2000). “In Europe, you trip over them wherever you go. So my goal is to have Chicago be the center of that kind of activity.”

This story has been updated to correct details about the Logan Center’s Family Day.