Chimpanzee, created by Nick Lehane, gets a sneak peek in the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival’s Living Room Tour November 11-13. It runs as part of the festival in January 2022. Credit: Richard Termine

In July, as COVID-19 restrictions began to lift and the Chicago performing arts geared themselves up to resurrect, the Rough House Theater Co. headquarters at coartistic directors Claire Saxe and Mike Oleon’s home in Humboldt Park morphed into a puppet rehearsal palace.

Rough House’s anthology production House of the Exquisite Corpse wouldn’t be opening at the Chopin Theatre for another three months, but there was plenty to do. Lighting designer Connor Sale was in the attic studio with a mock-up of a puppet booth, experimenting. Grace Needlman, as what Saxe calls the show’s “puppet consultant,” crisscrossed the yard tinkering with prototypes. Joey Meland, a musician friend working with puppets for the first time, had the use of Saxe and Oleon’s apartment on the second floor to play around with speakers and contact microphones. Oleon spent the day building ghouls and monsters in the property’s dedicated puppet garage. “It was the dream fully realized,” Oleon says.

Claire Saxe with one of the creations for Rough House Theater Co.’s House of the Exquisite Corpse. Courtesy Evan Barr.

Over in the South Loop, at about the same time, Blair Thomas, doyen of Chicago puppetry, was realizing his own dream: opening the new offices of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival inside the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. The Festival and its workshop, the Chicago Puppet Lab, took up their new permanent residence this summer in the same building—and possibly the same set of rooms—where, in 1916, the Little Theatre under Ellen Van Volkenburg first performed its landmark all-marionette A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s believed that Van Volkenburg coined the word “puppeteer” in her program notes to that staging.

Brimming with energy after a long pandemic hiatus, Chicago puppet theater is undergoing a time of transition. For years a small, close-knit community, the scene is concentrated on the inclusion of new voices and perspectives while at the same time upping the bar of quality and codifying itself into an ever more professional art form.For the Rough House folks, the project of inclusion starts with technical decisions having to do with craft. Saxe and Oleon subscribe to a notion of puppetry that doesn’t conceal its inner workings from the viewer, equating transparency in performance with access at the level of community.

“Every puppeteer has their own choice about how they deal with the fact of the puppeteer onstage,” Saxe says. “We feel like the puppet magic comes from seeing how it all works.”

“Anybody can make a good puppet show if they’re just provided the time and the space and the resources to be able to do it,” Oleon adds.

Sorting through objects with me in the puppet garage, Oleon demonstrates this principle using a puppet arm from Exquisite Corpse. “You think, ‘Oh my god, it’s got a radius and an ulna, it’s got five moving parts to it.’ But it’s basically a grabber; the audience-brain assigns life to it.”

“Imaginations are strong,” says Saxe.

Simple, transparent machinery complements the outreach Rough House practices through their winter puppet cabaret Nasty, Brutish & Short at Links Hall. Widening the circle of puppetry is crucial to Thomas as well, who has taught puppeteering and design at the School of the Art Institute for 30 years. In devising and building puppet elements for playwright/director Mary Zimmerman and Lookingglass Theatre, Thomas makes use of a method known in-house as “open hand,” which is about laying bare the mechanism in real time behind spectacular creations like the giant squid in 2018’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, or the massive boar—made of aluminum, very thin plywood, and a skin of mesh—and diminutive puppet of the female character Thomas built for a 20-minute scene of dialogue in Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth at Lookingglass, written by ensemble member Doug Hara. “I like the exposure of the artifice, because it allows the audience to either watch how the thing is done or forget how the thing is done, and sometimes move back and forth between them,” Thomas says.

Blair Thomas Courtesy Saverio Truglia

These goals for the art form coexist in Thomas’s mind with aspirations to see puppetry enter the same rarified spheres of culture as ballet, opera, and the symphony. Founded in 2015, the Puppet Festival is an 11-day, city-wide event dedicated to, in Thomas’s words, “raising the bar for the art,” where local practitioners (including Rough House, who will remount their Invitation to a Beheading at next year’s installment, scheduled for January 20-30) can exchange ideas with guests like Phillip Huber, who designed the marionettes for the film Being John Malkovich. Evening-length works of puppet theater are hard to come by, but Thomas hopes to see the festival become a breeding ground for puppet plays that are long-form, elegant, and sophisticated. (The Puppet Festival presents the Living Room Tour, a series of benefit performances in venues in Evanston, Bronzeville, and West Pilsen, November 11-13. Visit chicagopuppetfest.org for information.)

“What it takes is the time for people to slow down and look at what the performing object has the capacity to tell us. What is the wisdom in the material world? And when people start to understand that and they start to be responsive to that in performance, then things start to emerge—the work starts to emerge,” Thomas says. He recognizes the tension between democratizing the form and refining it at the same time, but says he’s not daunted by that. “I find it very easy to engage people with the art form,” he says. “It just takes a generosity of spirit to find their contributions inspiring and lead them to the next step.”

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