Jim Henson

South Africa’s Handspring Puppets

Center for Puppetry Arts

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This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

September 9, 1998. All rights reserved.

Puppets: Out of the Box

A performer slips a glove-like covering over his hand,

his nimble thumb and forefinger begin to move, and suddenly we see

a character come to life. Another performer pulls a few strings to

animate his creation, while another propels his characters with what

look like oversize chopsticks. And still others keep their elegant,

hinged creations forever in the shadows. Sometimes stepping into the

light, at other times staying in the dark, sometimes cloaked or

hooded,

seen or unseen, these are the puppeteers, practitioners of a

theatrical

art form that reaches back thousands of years to earliest dramatic

arts.

After centuries basking in guarded traditions and time-honored roots,

puppetry in the late 20th century appears to be bursting out of its

shell, rebelling against formal boundaries, extending its reach and

artistic influence. Judging by the offerings of the International

Festival of Puppet Theater, sponsored in New York by the Jim Henson

Foundation, puppetry is in the throes of an almost rowdy renaissance.

The fourth biennial festival comprises 28 puppet troupes from 16

countries,

presented on 17 stages around New York City, beginning Wednesday,

September 9, through Sunday, September 27.

Rather than being promoted as the long-overdue resurrection of a

classical

art and craft, puppetry is being fostered by risk-taking individual

artists and groups of emerging artists who see themselves as much

more than keepers of an ancient flame. This does not mean that

contemporary

artists ignore the echoes and resonance of the ancient masters, but

rather that they are intent on constructing works built upon the

form’s

remarkable communion of dance, acting, music, mime, the fine arts,

and language. These are artists sparked by a passion to hear new

voices,

venture into new directions, nurture the experimental, and provide

space for the provocative.

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Jim Henson

In the townhouse on New York’s East Side that is headquarters for

the Jim Henson Foundation, whimsical, inanimate puppet figures are

notably accommodated. Here Cheryl Henson, the daughter of the late

Muppet creator Jim Henson, recently provided the press with an

opportunity

to meet four artists who make, direct, and perform with puppets.

Henson,

president of the foundation since her father’s death and an esteemed

mask and puppet builder in her own right, continues in her capacity

as executive producer of the International Festival of Puppet Theater,

an epic gathering presented every two years since 1992. With her

mission

to extol and promote puppetry in the United States through the

foundation’s

worldwide search for extraordinary acts, Henson’s enthusiasm is as

enlivening as it is contagious.

Objects that move, with apologies to those within earshot — Miss

Piggy, Big Bird, and Kermit, among them — have traditionally

served

to mirror their society and their cultures. Puppetry, in its various

functions through the ages, has been one of the most fundamental

channels

through which artists express their thoughts, emotions, and their

vision of the world and worlds beyond.

Serving as an informed guide into a mysterious and often

misunderstood world of puppets is Leslee Asch, Henson’s collaborator

and festival producing director who also enjoys an international

reputation

as a designer, producer and administrator. Henson and Asch seem as

excited as a pair of grade school kids talking about the festival

that will showcase the largest assemblage of puppet troupes ever

presented

in New York. However, they stress that while many of shows are for

kids, others are specifically designed for the mature adult. These

R- and X-rated puppet shows are not for children.

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South Africa’s Handspring Puppets

The puppet repertoire for adults is, if nothing else, eye-opening.

It should stir the interest of even the most sophisticated and

skeptical

among us. South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company is presenting

"Ubu

and the Truth Commission," about the South African apartheid

regime,

which combines animation, live actors, puppetry, and documentary

footage.

Giocometti’s art and Lichenberg’s philosophy are in the mix of

figures,

fans, shoes, and movie seats in a black comedy from Germany’s Figuren

Theater’s "Flamingo Bar." The 16th-century Czech legend of

"The Golem" should frighten you as much as it does the Jewish

citizens of the Prague ghetto in this musical play created by the

Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater. From Los Angeles, Paul

Zaloom’s

"The House of Horror" tells of a dream house that turns to

disaster.

Wales’ Green Ginger company notes that its "Slap Head: Demon

Barber,"

about that notorious Fleet Street barber, is recommended for those

over 12 years old. And New York’s Cosmic Bicycle Theater would welcome

anyone over 10 years old to its science fiction space opera, "Dr.

Kronopolis and the Timekeeper Chronicles."

Specifically designated for younger kids is Italy’s Shadow Theater,

which is presenting a new production of the Stravinsky classic,

"The

Firebird." Both Seattle’s Carter Family Marionettes evening of

African folk tales and, from Spain, Los Titiriteros’ "The Fable

of the Fox," are shows that the companies say would even appeal

to children as young as four. Is anyone too old or too young to see

what the UK’s solo-puppeteer Stephen Tiplady has up his sleeve in

his fresh approach to "Pinocchio"?

There can be no doubt that Cheryl Henson is committed to nurturing

contemporary puppetry in the United States. Notwithstanding the 166

artists pulling the strings, Henson is probably delighted that she

doesn’t have to secure hotel rooms for the 498 puppets they’ll bring

along. (This also helps keep festival ticket prices low.) Meeting

the press at Henson’s townhouse are four festival participants: Basil

Twist, Theodora Skipitares, Ping Chong, and Janie Geiser, names that

you many already recognize as innovators in media and visual arts.

San Francisco-based Twist, who recently scored success with his

Off-Broadway

show "Symphony Fantastique," is one of the few American

puppeteers

who claim a three-generation family tradition. Twist confides that

puppetry was the perfect outlet for someone who loved theater and

wanted to perform, but was too shy to be seen. Starting as a solo,

Twist liked the advantage of one person being the designer, director,

and performer. But Twist, like many artists whose work evolves through

venturing into unknown uncharted territory, says he enjoyed working

collaboratively with such companies as Theatre Couture and the Maboo

Mines’ "Peter and Wendy." It makes sense that it is virtually

impossible to do it all by one’s self when special effects and complex

design elements are employed.

Ping Chong, the director and choreographer also known for his

collaborations with Meredith Monk, proudly announces that he is making

his puppet theater debut. With a background in film and visual arts,

Chong adds that he, like Twist, is the third generation in the same

field. Both his father and grandfather produced and directed Chinese

opera. Known for its rigid traditions, where every single gesture

is codified, Chinese opera, as well as the Kabuki that came out of

a puppet form, have left their impressions on Chong, who claims he

did not see Western theater until he was 17. Chong says that, unlike

people, objects and figures in puppetry can easily change scale. This

has to be appealing to this theatrical innovator.

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Center for Puppetry Arts

Chong is the director of Atlanta-based Center for

Puppetry

Arts production of "Kwaidan," a series of ghost stories based

on the translations of American journalist Lafcadio Hearn. Chong says

he has found in puppetry all the elements of mystery, transcendence,

and wonder of theater. "Puppetry has brought magic back,"

he says. Interestingly, Chong admits that he rarely goes to the

theater,

but gets most of his ideas from literature and travel and what he

expresses as "cultural influences."

Particularly fascinated by how traditional art forms influence

contemporary

artists, the multi-media artist and sculptor Skipitares calls this

the "golden age of puppetry." With years spent as a solo

performance

artist who arrived on the first wave of that form, Skipitares’ work

was autobiographical at first. She used her own body intuitively in

the Bunraku style. The next step took Skipitares directly into the

puppet world when she constructed 50 cardboard "Theodora"

self-portraits to tell her story.

"Suddenly I was a director and I had my cast of characters,"

she says. "I’m glad that puppetry is not viewed as closely as

other art forms. Yet because puppetry’s `cute’ label has rendered

it a safe haven, I worry whether artists can continue to be free to

be controversial." Without a doubt, Skipitares’ "A Harlot’s

Progress," a ribald spoof of the world depicted in William

Hogarth’s

"Rake’s Progress," is sure to be controversial.

Theater artist, film-maker, and educator Janie Geiser, the co-curator

with Dan Hurlin of what began in 1992 as a renegade festival within

the puppet festival, Late Night at P.S. 122, encourages cutting-edge

and experimental puppetry from both established and emerging artists.

I hope I heard right about a nude "Hamlet," in which the

figures

are drawn on the performer’s body. Anyway, Late Night shows are always

a hot ticket and you should plan ahead.

Although revered, cherished, and enjoyed by virtually every ancient

and contemporary civilization in the world, puppetry in American has

long been designated as children’s entertainment. Yet there is a

general

consensus at this gathering that there is something real, human, and

essential in puppet shows, and that because of its intimacy the

audience

willingly connects. From Eastern Shamanistic rites to Western Punch

and Judy shows, from the church to the secular, from private

ceremonies

to public exhibitions of folklore, myth, history, and new tales,

puppets

have been used to satirize, educate, and entertain.

There is little dispute that puppetry is wide open and

ever widening blend of art and craft that is not academically based.

"Because puppetry has not been defined by academic considerations,

it comes from real life. That gives it a lot of power," says

Chong.

The question of how puppeteers survive economically in this tiny

fringe

area of theater gets a ready response from Skipitares. For her it

is a fairly fragile combination of funding from different places and

teaching residencies, but definitely not from tours, which, she

admits,

keep her "at zero level." Twist says when he isn’t working

on his own shows he uses his different skills that include performing

and building puppets for others. The one aspect that all puppeteers

seem to share is their ability to function inclusively as performer,

costume and set designer, director, sound technician, and general

manager.

Many of us in the United States grew up thinking that puppetry was

exclusively a children’s thing. Now, thanks to the work of the

pro-puppet

Jim Henson Foundation — funded by the enormous success of those

Muppet communicators — and the artists involved in its outreach,

we can have an increased awareness of puppetry as an all-encompassing,

unrestricted, and even revolutionary theatrical platform created by

multi-cultural artists for people of all ages, everywhere.

— Simon Saltzman

International Festival of Puppet Theater box office is

at 416 West 42 Street, New York, or call Ticket Central, 212-279-4200.

Tickets range from $10 to $30.

An audience of more than 100,000 is expected to attend the events

at the Public theater, P.S. 122, La MaMa E.T.C., the New Victory

Theater,

Dance Theater Workshop, and other locations citywide. The festival

is more than the sum of its 191 performances.

There will be five exhibitions: "Puppet Inspiration" at the

Snug Harbor Cultural Center (now through October 18), "Puppet

Inspiration Part II" at Dance Theater Workshop (now through

October

2), "Toy Theater" at Los Kabayitos Puppet Theater (September

9 to 27), "The Puppet Photography of Richard Termine" at the

Public Theater (September 9 to 20), and "The Masks and Magic of

Ralph Lee" at the Children’s Museum of the Arts (September 9 to

27). Other programming includes symposia sessions at the Public

Theater

and a three-week film series held at the Guggenheim Museum. The

complete

schedule can be accessed at www.henson.com/festival.


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