Puppetry moves closer to centre stage in US

Arson and internal torment are ideas expressed in Norwegian director Yngvild Aspeli’s Cendres, in which life-size puppets are used.
Arson and internal torment are ideas expressed in Norwegian director Yngvild Aspeli’s Cendres, in which life-size puppets are used.PHOTO: NYTIMES

CHICAGO • A shop vacuum became a lover; suction was involved. Feet turned into faces. A great fanged creature appeared with a man inside. Ghostly villagers assembled, silent and wreathed with smoke as their buildings burned and burned.

It was a puppet invasion - all part of the 11-day Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival - and the latest proof that puppetry, a delicate and mysterious art so often restricted in this country to the children's table, or relegated to fringe productions, has claimed a spot closer to the centre.

In an age when we seek relief from the relentless barrage of technology, this low-technology, handmade form provides it.

A city where the dominant stage aesthetic for years was a kind of red-meat realism - think Steppenwolf Theater Company, which unleashed John Malkovich on the world - might not seem to be a place where puppetry would flourish. Yet the very existence of last month's festival, and the eagerness with which dozens of institutions across Chicago have embraced it since its start in 2015, is emblematic of a development long in the making on stages in the United States.

It is not so much that puppetry is having an evanescent moment as that it has reached critical mass and settled in, cherished by grown-up audiences raised on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show who have had their hunger stoked by landmark puppet productions on Broadway: The Lion King, Avenue Q, War Horse, with its magnificent steeds.

If, in theatre - as in opera and dance, where it has also been making inroads - puppetry most often plays a supporting rather than starring role, it has a much greater presence than it once did.

"Infiltration is welcome," said puppeteer Blair Thomas, the festival's founder and artistic director, who made a dog puppet for Patti LuPone's character in the Broadway-bound musical War Paint when it ran in Chicago last summer.

"The doors have been opened."

And the puppets are marching right through.

You can see the shift in The New York Times, with mention of puppets now commonplace in theatre reviews. But then, New York is the puppetry capital of America, where boundary-pushing directors, such as Lee Breuer and Julie Taymor, have spent decades harnessing that hybrid art - part visual, part performance - to create fantastical worlds heavily influenced by foreign traditions.

The best shows I saw over a weekend at the Chicago festival did come from other countries. One was Norwegian director Yngvild Aspeli's Cendres, a haunted, mesmerising piece about arson and internal torment, full of life-size puppets and miniature blazing buildings, from the French-Norwegian company Plexus Polaire.

Exposing Chicago artists to international work is part of the impetus for the festival.

Thomas, 54, intends to fill some of the void left by the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater, which ran in New York from 1992 to 2000, and the International Theater Festival of Chicago, which ignited his love of puppetry in the late 1980s with a visit from a Barcelona company. That event changed Chicago, Thomas said, by showing artists and audiences what the standard was elsewhere.

He laments the advantage European puppet artists have in the opportunities for their productions to be staged.

But Ms Cheryl Henson - a daughter of Muppets creator Jim Henson and the president of the Jim Henson Foundation, a major force in contemporary puppet theatre - said US puppeteers had caught up to the European standard of the craft.

"They're not second-class anymore," she said from Britain, where she was attending the London International Mime Festival, which routinely also includes puppetry.

Pure puppetry is the ideal for people in the puppet world. That is the sticking point in any argument about the art form being on the rise because, however many gains it makes inside other disciplines, puppets are rarely the point of the show.

One exception on the horizon: Top Puppet, a reality competition special that NBC recently ordered from the Jim Henson Co and a producer of The Voice.

Ms Henson did note that more artists are working in the form these days and that, thanks to Avenue Q and War Horse, many actors have gained experience as puppeteers.

Last year, when the Henson Foundation raised its grant levels, applications rose about 80 per cent. Meanwhile, Ms Henson said, puppeteers have a better shot at getting financial support from arts funders and at being included in performance festivals than they used to.

All of that suggests a heightened respect and a sturdier infrastructure, as does the 2015 MacArthur Fellowship for puppeteer Basil Twist, who runs the Dream Music Puppetry programme at the Here arts centre in New York. He regards the prominence of puppetry in theatre today as temporary.

But he did acknowledge "a cumulative effect" of The Lion King, Avenue Q, War Horse and the Henson festival in shaping public perception - persuading adults that puppetry is not just kid stuff.

"Made In China could not have played in the same way 25 years ago," he said, referring to a show from the troupe Wakka Wakka that is aimed at grown-ups.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2017, with the headline 'Puppetry moves closer to centre stage in US'. Print Edition | Subscribe