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Make way for the puppets.

International Puppet Theater Festival headed to Chicago in 2015
by Hedy Weiss

The inaugural Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival will be heading to town January 16-25, 2015. Designed to showcase the full breadth of the art of contemporary puppetry by means of an international pageant of top puppets and puppet artists from Chicago, the U.S. and around the world, this new 10-day, citywide event promises to bring an added dimension to the city’s cultural landscape.

Of course the art of puppetry is nothing new to Chicago. Burr Tillstrom pioneered the use of puppets on television with his popular “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” show that aired from 1947-57, and was watched by more adults than children. In more recent decades, such puppet masters as Blair Thomas, Frank Maugeri and Redmoon Theatre, Michael Montenegro, Manual Cinema and Cynthia Von Orthal, among many others, have explored the art in countless ways. And visits by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa (the artists behind “War Horse”), Blind Summit of Britain’s “The Table (recently presented by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater), Basil Twist and Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King” have all added to the awareness of an ancient form that has been reborn in countless imaginative ways.

The new festival, founded as a way of establishing Chicago as a center for the advancement of the art of puppetry, will present an eclectic array of international puppet styles including marionettes, shadow puppets, Bunraku puppets, tiny toy puppets, and distinctive, innovative styles of contemporary puppetry.

Festival events will be presented by some of the city’s top cultural institutions including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Humanities Festival, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, The Second City, the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, The Field Museum, Links Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Theater and Performance Studies Program at the University of Chicago, and the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. In addition to public performances, visiting artists from around the globe will lead free, hands-on workshops, panel discussions and special presentations on the history and craft of puppetry.

The festival also will host a concurrent scholarly conference for artists and scholars devoted to advancing scholarship and research in the field of puppetry.

In a prepared statement, Blair Thomas, founder and artistic director of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival observed: “Puppetry is growing in American theater today. It is frequently employed in both musicals and dramas, and is increasingly viewed as a contemporary art form that crosses the spectrum of audiences from young to old. Yet there is currently no major international puppet theater festival offered in any other U.S. city. Chicago is ripe to be positioned as a leader in the current renaissance of the art of puppetry. Our city is well-known for having an indigenous theater audience that not only attends performances but supports new works and champions the creation of new art forms.”

The current budget for the festival is $350,000, with funders and donors still being brought on board. And to ensure the existence and sustainability of the festival as a major bi-annual event, it will collaborate with established local presenters. A curatorial committee made up of representatives from these institutions will select the festival productions, and each institution in turn will cover the cost for the shows presented at their venues.

This new Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival is a direct descendent of several previous festivals held in Chicago, including a School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Performing Arts Chicago collaboration in 2000, curated by Susan Lipman and Blair Thomas, and Puppetropolis, a 10-day citywide festival sponsored in 2001 by the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the Mayor’s Office of Special Events.

The inaugural 2015 festival line-up will be announced in June. In the meantime, for information and updates visit: Facebook.com/ChicagoInternationalPuppetTheaterFestival or follow the festival on Twitter,@ChiPuppetFest.

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