It used to be that puppet theatre was relegated to a small, out-of-the way black box space in some sleepy neighborhood and attended mainly by children.
Not anymore. Over the past few years, puppetry, in one way or another, has sneaked on to center stage. Set designer David Gallo's fantastical, 12-foot creations were one of the most praised aspects of Jackie, the Broadway comedy that played the Belasco last fall. Downtown, Basil Twist's Symphonie Fantastique, an underwater ballet of silk and feathers, is on its way to becoming the most successful show in the history of HERE. Recently, Side Show composer Henry Krieger turned his attentions to composing a score for a bunch of dancing clothespins in the New York Theatre Workshop's Love's Fowl. And, of course, there's a little show called The Lion King, which won a 1998 Tony Award for costume design that included puppets of many shapes and descriptions.
The time seems ideal for the arrival of the International Festival of Puppet Theater, which starts pulling strings in New York City Sept. 9-27. This is not the first such festival -- three earlier ones have preceded it. But because of the successes of Julie Taymor et al, it may be the most anticipated and heavily attended to date.
"I think that the popular awareness of puppet theatre has been greatly increased by the success of Lion King," said Cheryl Henson, executive producer of the festival and daughter of puppetry innovator Jim Henson. "But even that work is the product of many productions [Taymor] has done over the years. It didn't come out of thin air." Indeed, like most overnight successes, America's puppet renaissance was long in the making. "I think there been a real groundswell of interest in puppetry," asserted Henson. "It started 10, 12 years ago. The artists have been creating more work and more interesting work, and with the better work, comes more interest. It's now just hitting the public consciousness and reaching critical mass.
The reasons for the revolution, Henson believes, are manyfold. "It has ties to something that is going on in our society," she theorized. "It's tied into theatre communicating visually, and young people getting involved in theatre and using the visual techniques they get from watching film and TV work. There's also the aspect of the cheap and intimate theatre that can be done with puppets." Henson believes the festival has assisted in this puppet revival. The Jim Henson Foundation, which presents the event, has been helping out puppet artists since 1982, getting their work seen and funded. The money involved is not enormous, but it helps the artists secure additional funding from other institutions. (Taymor was never in a festival, but she did receive a grant from the foundation.)
The festival, which features 28 troupes on 17 stages, illustrates that there are as many subjects for puppet theatre as there are for straight drama. The companies comes from Peru, South Africa, Germany, Wales, Columbia and, of course, America. The productions derive their inspirations from such disparate and lofty sources as Alfred Jarry, Christopher Marlowe, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
Many shows take on unmistakably adult topics. The Handspring Puppet Theatre of South Africa, for instance, tackles the history of apartheid in Ubu and the Truth Commission. The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater's The Golem is based on a 16th-century legend of a giant, robot-like clay creature which is brought to life to protect the citizens of Jewish ghetto in Prague. Golem is the biggest production the praised Czech group has yet attempted.
Another foreign troupe, Figuren Theater Tubingen of Germany, offers Flamingo Bar, a wordless piece which references Giacometti's art and Lichtenberg's philosophy of the Human Comedy. And from the Netherlands comes Salome, a piece by the Stuffed Puppet Theatre based on the biblical tale. Cautioned as "for adults only," the work of solo puppet theatre promises to be "outrageous and sometimes offensive."
Of special interest to puppet fanatics is Late Night at P.S. 122, an evening showcase in which emerging artists and veterans alike bring out their latest creations.
Though one might think so, once you have seen one puppet show, you have not seen them all. Anyone who has laid eyes on both Taymor's giraffes and Twist's dancing handkerchiefs can attest to that. The festival's puppets come in a variety of forms. There are the familiar hand puppets and marionettes. There are the body puppets, such as Taymor employs, which are worn by actors. Puppets can be gigantic or pint-size. They are jerked by rods attached to their top and bottom or manipulated by up to three, black-clad performers.
So, what, then, is a puppet? "It's impossible to sharply define a puppet," said Henson. "But we loosely define a puppet as when you take an inanimate object and you move it so it tricks you into thinking it has life. The core of puppetry is the semblance of life."
By that thinking, puppetry is no different from any other sort the theatre. It is all, in the end, an imitation of life.
The fourth biennial International Festival of Puppet Theatre is held at various locations throughout New York City Sept. 9-27. Tickets are now on sale and range from $10 to $30. For information, call (212) 279-4200, or check out the web site at www.henson.com/festival.
-- By Robert Simonson