When CAR Theater Researcher John Carnwath went to the Nasty, Brutish & Short Puppet Cabaret at Links Hall a few months ago, he was blown away by the variety of performance styles and the creativity, thought, and meticulous preparation that went into each of the ten-minute puppet pieces.Intrigued by the vibrancy of this dedicated community, John turned to Noah Ginex for the 101 on puppetry in Chicago.
What's the puppetry scene in Chicago like?
The puppetry scene in Chicago is relatively small, compared to that of New York, where there are more puppeteers than rats. There is a Chicagoland Puppetry Guild, which in large part is made up of the older generation of puppeteers. When people think of puppetry in Chicago, they generally bring up Redmoon, which, in my opinion is more of a spectacle theater company than strictly a puppet company. There are a lot of much smaller companies in and around Chicagoland, such as Von Orthal Puppets and Sea Beast Puppetry, and then there are tons of independent puppeteers (David Herzog being the most notable one I can think of) and even more performance artists who also work with puppets. The big event on my calendar (I'm not sure about any other puppeteers) is the Nasty Brutish and Short Puppet Cabaret, which happens every couple months at Links Hall. There is also Puppet Meltdown, another cabaret (or slam, depending on who you ask), and that's run by Sea Beast Puppets.
In your estimation, is the puppet scene changing? If so, how?
I think the puppet scene is definitely changing, but that in itself is not a change. Puppetry has been around forever, so it has to keep reinventing itself. Puppet people are always working and researching to find new ways of expressing their art. Puppetry grows and shrinks in popularity, and right now it's at a fever pitch, for whatever reason. "Puppetry" is also a word that is a wide umbrella for so many different styles of performance. One that I've noticed take hold on people a lot lately is toy theater, which I have a love/hate relationship with. I've seen some toy theater pieces that are amazing and so intricate—incredible pirate ships handcrafted and built into the interior of a suitcase—and then there are some pieces that just make me want to barf with how little effort the performers put into their craftsmanship. But I think that speaks a lot to the fact that I'm more of a builder and less of a storyteller.
There's also a definite shift in media, but again, that’s nothing new. People were doing traditional proscenium work, Punch and Judy–style, even on TV, until Jim Henson took away the proscenium aspect, making the TV frame the stage. With every generation and every new advent in technology, there will always be someone there to find a way to use that technology to their advantage in puppetry. Right now there's a lot of digital media being used. Even in something as traditional as shadow puppetry, people are using digital overhead projectors, which are small and portable. And even at live performances and slams, portable projectors are being used to show digital video, which just adds another element to what's possible in live performance. If you look at things like Stuffed and Unstrung (basically, a live improvised version of an uncensored Muppet show) they're doing three shows at once. You can watch the exposed performers, the puppets they're operating, or the big screens around the theater, which show what the cameras are capturing.
That being said, as Jim Henson once said through Rowlf The Dog, "Technology will never fully replace art.” And that's definitely true. The old puppetry styles aren’t being replaced; new technologies are just aiding them in making puppetry more accessible and easier to do.
How does puppetry relate to the theater scene in Chicago?
If there's an effect that you can't accomplish with live actors or traditional effects in the theater, puppetry will be utilized. It's always been this way. Really. Take Little Shop of Horrors, for instance. When they put that show on stage, they couldn't have a huge real plant that talked, so they called Marty Robinson, and he built them a giant talking plant puppet.
Puppeteers are often also involved in other forms of theater, whether behind the scenes or onstage. I myself am a member of at least two traditional theater companies, in one case mostly as a musician and scenic painter, and in the other as a puppeteer/consultant. That latter company, Piccolo Theatre in Evanston, is known for doing commedia del arte and British panto, which they infuse with puppetry.
How does staging a puppet performance compare to staging a theater production?
The only way puppet performances differ from traditional theater performances is in the pre-production time and the rehearsal time. It takes a lot of time and effort to make puppets and puppet-sized props and costumes. And then it takes time to rehearse either lines or manipulation and just basic traffic patterns below or above the set, whatever the case may be. But once you factor that in, it just becomes part of the process. Also, sets are often a lot smaller and simpler than in stage shows.
What's the attraction of puppetry for you?
A lot of people have asked me this. I think Jim Henson said it best: “With puppetry, I can live in a world of my own creation.” There's something about taking all your energy and emotion and funneling it through your hands into a bunch of foam, or through marionette strings, or what have you, that gives you a different outlook on things. I can pretend to be a pig, or a monster, or a moose, and unlike traditional theater, where I would have to wear a costume, I can just have a puppet that is easy to remove when I want to be something else. Also, there's sometimes a shyness in puppeteers. Not all, of course. But puppetry certainly allows you to do a lot with your body and face that you might feel self-conscious about doing as yourself.
Interviewed in Summer 2012.