Corrections or additions?
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
seen or unseen, these are the puppeteers, practitioners of a
art form that reaches back thousands of years to earliest dramatic
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
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
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
artists ignore the echoes and resonance of the ancient masters, but
rather that they are intent on constructing works built upon the
remarkable communion of dance, acting, music, mime, the fine arts,
and language. These are artists sparked by a passion to hear new
venture into new directions, nurture the experimental, and provide
space for the provocative.
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
to meet four artists who make, direct, and perform with puppets.
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
to extol and promote puppetry in the United States through the
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
to mirror their society and their cultures. Puppetry, in its various
functions through the ages, has been one of the most fundamental
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
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
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.
The puppet repertoire for adults is, if nothing else, eye-opening.
It should stir the interest of even the most sophisticated and
among us. South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company is presenting
and the Truth Commission," about the South African apartheid
which combines animation, live actors, puppetry, and documentary
Giocometti’s art and Lichenberg’s philosophy are in the mix of
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
"The House of Horror" tells of a dream house that turns to
Wales’ Green Ginger company notes that its "Slap Head: Demon
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,
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
show "Symphony Fantastique," is one of the few American
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.
Chong is the director of Atlanta-based Center for
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
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
artists, the multi-media artist and sculptor Skipitares calls this
the "golden age of puppetry." With years spent as a solo
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
"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
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
consensus at this gathering that there is something real, human, and
essential in puppet shows, and that because of its intimacy the
willingly connects. From Eastern Shamanistic rites to Western Punch
and Judy shows, from the church to the secular, from private
to public exhibitions of folklore, myth, history, and new tales,
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
The question of how puppeteers survive economically in this tiny
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
and a three-week film series held at the Guggenheim Museum. The
schedule can be accessed at www.henson.com/festival.
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