Adventures of a Semi-Wild Animal Tamer

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Great Regional Puppet Festival Report

Thu, Aug 18th, 2016 at 12:00 AM

This year through fate and circumstance, I decided to try attending the regional festival for the mid-western region of the Puppeteers of America: the Great Regional Puppet Festival (GRPF) in Saint Louis, Missouri. This was my first regional outside of the southeast region, and I thought it would be a nice change of pace to meet puppeteers from outside of my region in a casual kind of festival environment. National festivals are great for meeting a wide range of people, but I find regionals are better for actually getting to know people.

The GRPF was held at a variety of venues, including the Kranzberg Art Center, The Stage at KDHX, and the performing arts theatre at Saint Louis University, but the festival's home base was its conference hotel located right next to Forest Park, home of the highly acclaimed Saint Louis Zoo. It was an interesting experience arriving at the conference hotel to check in for Thursday's events, as I quickly realized that there was hardly anyone in attendance whom I actually recognized, although there were a lot of names that I knew from places like the Puptcrit mailing list and the Puppetry Journal. I kept seeing people whom I thought I knew at first glance, only to see their name badge and realize they were actually someone else – I guess there must be more than a few doppelgangers in the puppetry world. Thus, it was kind of a surprise when I saw someone from a distance whom I thought was Aretta Baumgartner from my home puppetry guild in Atlanta, and it really was her!

Thursday's events kicked off with an intriguing performance of Carnival of the Animals by Tom Bonham using a cast of found-object puppet characters made from a wide assortment of plastic household cleaner bottles, cleaning brushes, and other similar odds and ends. Personally, I've always greatly admired found object art, as it takes a very special mind to look over an assortment of odds and ends and see the creature potential in them. Tom definitely has this gift and it was amazing to see how many different creatures he had been able to make out of such basic household materials.

After a pizza dinner, Paul Mesner treated us to a slide show of his trip to India to do puppetry in a festival and several schools there. This was followed by a performance of the show he took to India, Little Red Riding Hood, which livens up the classic fairy tale by giving the characters more modern personalities. Little Red, for example, sings a hip pop-style song as she walks to grandma's house, and she has taken a women's self-defense class, much to the chagrin of the wolf. The wolf is completely classic, though, and an absolutely gorgeous puppet.

Friday and Saturday started off with workshops, but I only managed to get to one of them other than the one that I led on Secrets of Costume Puppet Characters, where I presented about a variety of popular costume (body) puppet characters and used costume puppets of my own creation to demonstrate many of the common design and performance techniques for these characters.

The one workshop that I attended was Puppets in Motion, where Rebecca Muzzarelli, a completely deaf puppeteer, shared some of the techniques she uses to perform her shows in spite of her disability. It was quite inspiring to see what she has accomplished and how successful she has been with her puppetry work. One of the most interesting tidbits she shared with us is that deaf people actually do enjoy music – just not the same way that hearing people do. They 'listen' to the vibrations in the music, which they can feel even if they are completely deaf.

Friday's shows were held at the Kranzberg theater, which is a restored Woolworth's store located in what is now considered to be the Saint Louis arts district. We shared the space with a local theatrical group doing performances of Into the Woods on the main stage, while we saw our shows in the smaller studio theater. Both stages share the same lobby space, so we had a great opportunity to do some impromptu sharing of puppetry with Into the Woods patrons as they were coming and going throughout the day.

The first Friday show was Great Arizona Puppet Theatre's The Monkey and the Pirate, a comical glove puppet show about a lone monkey on an island trying to protect his precious banana tree from a rather unusual pirate. Performed by Gwen Bonar, this wonderful family-centric show had plenty of elements to entertain a young audience: silly chase scenes that get the audience involved, an unconventionally sensitive pirate, and an adorably cute but clever little monkey. I think someone once said that any story gets better if you add a monkey to it, and this one is no exception.

The next show was Tommy's Space Adventure, a glove and mouth puppet show by Art Grun of the Puppet Art Theater Company. Tommy is a young mouse whose wish to meet a space alien actually comes true. Clever sound effects, a really cool space ship, a deplorable villain, and a lovable hero will surely make this show a big hit with any family audience. At the end of the show, Art showed us the programmable foot pedal device that he uses in the show, which lets him add echo and other effects to his voice with just the tap of his foot. This device is definitely worth considering if you perform shows regularly with live voices.

After the dinner break, we saw our last show at the Kranzberg, Mother Goose's Neighborhood by Angela Polowy. While Angela has worked as a puppeteer for a number of years with Eulenspiegel Puppets, this was the first show that she designed and built herself. Angela was abounding with energy and excitement about the show, in which she portrays Mother Goose's daughter who is trying to set up a birthday party for her mother. Unfortunately, Mrs. Goose doesn't like parties, so she's hiding somewhere, and her daughter has to travel all over the neighborhood looking for her. She meets up with many popular Mother Goose characters along the way and gathers food for the party on each stop. Most clever was the large box that initially showed us the name of the show, but then repeatedly transformed into set pieces for half a dozen different nursery rhymes. This was a great technique for providing multiple backdrops in one compact and relatively portable unit.

The late evening activities on Friday were held at The Stage at KDHX and began with a wonderful tale of plants and worms called A Doubtful Sprout by Liz Joyce of A Couple of Puppets. This mesmerizing story follows a little bean sprout who severely doubts her ability to survive in the world. Shortly after sprouting, she is taken on a journey deep underground by a helpful worm who shows her how plants get everything they need from the soil, and at the same time give back to the soil, which helps all of the other organisms that live in it. The adorably cute sprout puppets (there are over half a dozen versions, many of which literally pop-up out of the set during the show) perfectly capture the personality of the character, and the transforming set and unique underground dwellers do a great job of explaining how the world beneath our feet works. A most ingenious design trick in this show is the use of a Brio toy wooden railway to allow ants and other insects (attached to battery powered train engines) to move around the set in a large arc while the puppeteer is simultaneously operating sprout and worm puppets.

Following the last show Friday came a puppet festival favorite: Potpourri and the Puppet Slam. The fifteen pieces in this combined event ran the gamut from political satire to musicals to religious sack-rilige. Okay, a word of explanation on that last one: Mike Horner shared with us an utterly hilarious piece called Grocery Store Gospel, where he retold the gospel story of Jesus using just everyday food and home products that you would typically buy at the grocery store. As an example, Jesus was represented by a box of Cheezits (say it aloud a few times and you'll get the idea), the virgin Mary by a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, and Joseph (a carpenter) by a bottle of Elmer's glue. If this wasn't the fan favorite of the night, it certainly had to come close.

All of the other potpourri and slam performers did a great job as well, and I would humbly say that included myself, as I did a potpourri piece that, in true professional puppeteer fashion, I wrote on the way to the festival ;-). In light of the unique turn of events in this year's presidential election, I had my Savannah Fox, a southern belle vixen, declare her candidacy for president of the United States, running on a platform of sensibility, grace, and good southern manners. For a piece that I wrote in one night and very quickly revised the next night, I think it did fairly well and it definitely gave the audience a few good laughs.

Thursday, I overslept and missed the first workshop of the day (okay, I'm not as young as I used to be), but I did make it out to Bob Kramer's Marionette Theater for his Summer Follies show. Bob, a veteran marionette builder, is known for hand carving all of his marionettes, and he does top-notch work in that area. What really intrigued me was that the show seemed to captivate the young kids in attendance, even though much of the music and the character look-alikes were old enough that some of the kids' parents might not even be familiar with them. I think a lot of that captivation simply comes from the larger-than-life puppets and the three puppeteers who really put their heart and soul into the show (Bob, Dug Feltch, and their current intern).

After a BBQ lunch and a short National Puppeteers of America meeting at the hotel, we were down at the performing arts building of Saint Louis University (abbreviated SLU and pronounced "slew" by the locals). The rest of the festival was held here, starting with Still Life by Matt Sandbank's Shadow Factory. This was the one shadow puppet show of the festival, and I had been wondering what it would be like. I hate sounding negative, but after nearly fourteen years in the world of puppetry I've found that shadow puppet shows tend to either be really good or really bad – there just doesn't seem to be much middle ground. Fortunately, Still Life was definitely one of the really good shows that leave you wanting just a little bit more. I liked the clean transitions between each of the half-dozen vignettes, done by switching from an behind-screen light to an outside light each time so that you don't see any trace of the breakdown and setup process. Each time the inside light was brought up, you were immediately taken into a new world where just about anything was possible. A mirror image escapes and entraps its real-life counterpart; a pinata takes revenge on a player; two astronauts fight for the right to claim a new planet; the truth gets revealed about how alternative artists get their start. All in all, this was a great look at the odder side of life.

Now, every festival seems to have an unofficial theme in my experience. While the official theme for this festival was "Out of the Box", the unofficial theme would have been "Go with the Flow and Don't Sweat the Little Stuff". There were a variety of problems that popped up throughout the festival, from typos in the printed schedule and confusion about workshop locations to several cases of puppeteers discovering something not placed where it was supposed to be and having to ad-lib around the issue (and doing so rather openly as can be done when performing for one's peers who readily understand the challenges of performing a live show.) Matt's show proved to be no exception to the rule when his iPad died in the middle of the show, taking all of his music with it. Fortunately, after a few minutes and a full reboot, he was able to revive it and finish the show to a grand ovation. This seemed to be the common thread of the festival: a caring attitude, willingness to go the extra mile, and good flexibility on the part of both the festival staff and attendees led to a very enjoyable event in spite of minor difficulties along the way.

The next show was a full-length version of Mike Horner's crazy comical genius called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Death Star. This hilarious spoof of Star Wars IV, A New Hope, imagines what it would be like if George Lucas decided to turn the story into a musical. Mike's puppets are perfectly complemented by his great array of character voices and wacky original songs set to popular show tune melodies. A particularly memorable and humorous moment was when Darth Vader was interrogating Princess Leia and she says "besides, you can't tell me what to do – you're not my father!". Mike drew this out perfectly by turning Vader toward the audience slowly with just a slight tilt to the head, giving us that "you know" kind of look that elicited lots of laughter.

After Death Star, the crowd moved down the hall to the black box theater to watch Immigrant Stew from Eulenspiegel Puppets (pronounced "oil-n-speegel"). This was a very unique piece in that it was designed for community supported performances, and in that spirit attendees of the festival were recruited to be performers and trained in three rehearsal sessions during the festival. Monica Leo of Eulenspiegel performed the lead, an old lady who is about to sell her cafe while at the same time fretting over her daughter declaring she is going to marry a Mexican boy. As the story unfolds, the old lady begins reminiscing about her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who led many different kinds of lives. As she realizes how many of them were themselves immigrants, she starts to realize the folly in her reaction to her daughter's fiance. While Monica performs with a mask, other current-day characters are presented as rod puppets and ancestors are presented through flat puppets, all of which show up either above the set piece or in one of the windows of the cafe.

During the dinner break Saturday after Immigrant Stew, attendees were able to visit a nicely assembled puppet exhibit and browse through a puppet flea market for useful items. They also had the chance to meet my costume (body) puppet Ornithomimus dinosaur character, Orville, who made a few appearances at the flea market and in the hallways outside the main theater.

The final show of the festival was The Toad Prince by Peter Zapplatel's Puppet Arts Theatre of Mississippi, and I would dare say that the festival saved the best for last (with no offense meant to anyone else - all the festival performers did a great job in my opinion). The story is best described as a Chinese version of Beauty and the Beast, and is presented by three puppeteers using beautiful paper mache head rod puppets on a large, well-decorated stage. The focal point is Indri, who has inherited his father's ugliness, personified by his looking like a toad. Indri's mother tells him that to change physically, he must live with someone virtuous for nine days and nights and become virtuous himself, but this is far easier said than done. Only with the help of the greedy mayor's beautiful daughter does Indri find the true meaning of virtue.

After a jam packed two-and-a-half days, the festival was now almost over, but not before the parade puppet workshop group gave us a nighttime parade with the many puppets they had built during the festival. On a moonless night, the large figures seemed almost ghostly floating about the walkways in front of the performing arts building, and were the perfect ending to an incredibly memorable festival.

Mood: cheerful