by Kerry Reid
Puppets have been around for centuries. But Blair Thomas, the artistic director of the brand-new Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, points out the term “puppeteer” only came into existence about 100 years ago, when Ellen Van Volkenburg of Chicago’s groundbreaking Little Theater coined it for a marionette production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Before then, puppet performers were simply known as “showmen.”
The festival, running Jan. 14-25 with more than 50 perfomances at 13 venues throughout the city, draws inspiration from a number of other made-in-Chicago pioneers — including, Thomas says, the International Theatre Festival of Chicago, which brought global artists to the city from 1986 to 1994, and the city-sponsored Puppetropolis festival in 2001. Thomas also cites the now-defunct Henson International Festival of Puppet Theatre, which ran in New York City from 1992 to 2000 and was named for Muppet creator Jim Henson.
One significant difference for this festival is that it’s a collaborative effort involving cultural organizations with a track record of presenting puppetry. For example, Chicago Shakespeare will present an encore run of “The Table” by London’s Blind Summit (Jan. 14-25), which had a successful run at Navy Pier in 2013. “No single organization is bearing the sole burden of making the festival,” says Thomas, adding “It’s a unique environment in Chicago that people are willing to collaborate that way.”
As a founder of Redmoon and his own Blair Thomas & Company, Thomas has been one of the prime forces in moving puppet arts to the center of Chicago culture.
“We’re at the crest of a wave of the renaissance of puppetry, so it’s become an active idiom in the language of the theater,” says Thomas. “People are not surprised to see a puppet moment in an opera or theater production.” Still, he says, “The goal of the festival is to redefine what puppetry is. Because the general audience has a very limited view of what puppetry can be.” He points to Netherlands-based artist Nick Steur’s “Freeze!” (Jan. 14-25, Chicago Shakespeare), which involves nothing more than Steur artfully manipulating a pile of rocks to demonstrate harmony and balance, as an example of boundary-pushing work in the festival.
Chicago’s Manual Cinema, which has been winning acclaim for its mix of shadow puppets, overhead projectors and live music since 2010, premieres “Mementos Mori” at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Jan. 15-18). Co-creators Julia Miller and Sarah Fornace cite a number of influences for this meditation on death and technology, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.”
Unlike past Manual Cinema shows, Miller notes that “Mementos Mori,” created through a residency at the MCA, “flips” the stage so that the performers, rather than hiding behind screens, are clearly visible. “It was a great way to make our work more theatrical.” Fornace adds that, while past pieces such as 2011’s “Ada/Ava” were “single-protagonist driven,” the new work is “an ensemble character story.”Breaking the usual frames associated with puppetry also guides “The Cardinals” (Jan. 22-24), a production from Stan’s Cafe in Birmingham, England, making its Chicago debut at the MCA in the festival. “It’s far from a purist puppet piece,” says artistic director James Yarker. “In many ways, the actors themselves are the puppets in the show. They perform within a small puppet setting.” In “Cardinals,” a trio of the titular religious eminences attempt to illustrate the Bible with puppets — only to find themselves becoming the performers when the puppets are lost. Their young female Muslim stage manager works with them from “backstage” and illustrates the common threads connecting Christianity and Islam.
“It’s largely to do with the notion of framing,” says Yarker. “If you look at a very standard Marxist interpretation of religion, it’s a means of how power is brokered or how people are kept under control. Religion is how you frame the world. And once you get into that notion, then you have a very straightforward parallel with a theatrical world where the world is framed — who sits in the frame and who is outside the frame.” However, Yarker adds, “Watching these three late-middle-aged guys running around making this quite naive puppet show and making a hash of a lot of it is very amusing. But their earnestness of intent is very seductive and their show is weirdly moving.”
Chicago-based Stephanie Diaz, the creator of “Mariposa Nocturna: A Puppet Triptych” (running Jan. 14-15 at Free Street Theatre in the Pulaski Park field house), is also inspired by religious iconography and lore. Her show draws on a little-known Guatemalan folk saint, San Pascualito Rey, a patron saint of illness and death. Installations of folk altars play a role in creating the environment, along with puppetry, music and film. One section of the triptych involves a surreal story about bird-headed spinsters caring for a large egg.
Diaz, who trained as a dancer and actor before adding puppetry to her resume, says that she finds puppet arts “a natural synthesis of dance and acting.” She adds “One of my goals was to provide just enough narrative so that the audience would create their own narrative about what was happening.”
Complex narratives can find natural expression through puppets. In Sandglass Theater’s “D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks,” (Jan. 16-17, Dance Center of Columbia College), the real stories of people with late-stage dementia take center stage, along with those of their caregivers. Eric Bass, co-founder/artistic director of the Vermont-based company, says, “People with late-stage dementia are much less linear and much more associative in the way they perceive and communicate and create. And puppets — well, their strength is not in linear storytelling. Their strength is in evocation, in metaphor, in reflection.” The troupe used TimeSlips, a storytelling technique for people with memory loss pioneered by theater educator Anne Basting, to facilitate the story collection process.
“Our job was to walk that very fine line where we didn’t make light of the terror, but we didn’t overshadow the play with darkness, either,” says Bass.
That interplay between light and darkness, sacred and profane, continues to fascinate Thomas. “One of the strengths of puppet theater is its alliance with the nonrational,” he says. “I actually think that is one of the principal reasons puppetry has flourished to the extent that it has. There’s not a place for the nonrational in our world. So it seeks it out. There’s a wisdom in the object world.”
Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival runs Jan. 14-25 at various venues. See complete schedule at chicagopuppetfest.org.
Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune