‘Puppetry in Contemporary American Theater’ Panel at Strathmore by Yvonne French

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The Muppets are making fun of us according to a panel of experts at Strathmore.

“People don’t really know what to expect with a puppet,” said Molly Ross, founder of Nana Projects, a multidisciplinary company known for work in parades and shadow puppetry.

Ross and three other puppet experts said that puppetry is flowering in America, in part from a major power-up with the advent of videogames.

They discussed the art of puppetry, including hand puppets, marionettes, rod puppets, shadow puppets, and digital puppetry.

Most of the people in the audience grew up in the 1950s and 60s and readily agreed that members of the current generation called digital natives blur the line between live and recorded art.  When older people watch a puppet show in which magical things happen, like marionettes soaring above the stage, they say to themselves, ‘I wish I could do that.’ one panelist said. When young people see it, they say, ‘That’s exactly what I can do [in my video games].’

“[Puppets] move in a different way. Their energy is beyond our capability,” said Ross, whose Baltimore company is shutting down this month. “They can swivel their ears and do all sorts of things,” agreed panelist Blair Thomas, an award-winning puppeteer who teaches puppetry at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A librarian once told him that she used puppets when reading to children. “She said ‘The puppets said things I would never say,’” he recalled.

“They can say things that we can’t.”

A member of the audience recalled a British humor show called Splitting Image that performed “An Audience with Ronald Reagan,” which featured a puppet of an aging Ronald Regan deflecting questions. The Bread and Puppet Theatre made a puppet of the Statue of Liberty for the Occupy Movement.

A name that frequently arose was that of Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets. He made their forerunners as a freshman at University of Maryland. The panelists said that the Muppets were absolutely subversive and making fun of us the whole time.

Eliot Pfanstiehl, CEO and founder of Strathmore Hall Foundation, Inc., vowed to go home and watch them in a whole new light. “Puppetry may be the most truthful medium available to us.”

Puppetry, the panelists agreed, is a form of fine art. Paul Brohan, director of Artistic Initiatives for the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at University of Maryland, called it “a creative form of expression that lends itself to all other aspects of theater.” It has become collaboration among artists and dramatists that starts early in the production cycle.

Another name that kept coming up was that of Basil Twist, whom Brohan brought to the Washington, DC, area for performances of Symphonie Fantastique, a puppet show that took place mostly under water. Twist also uses wind and smoke to animate his puppets.

Coletter Searls.
Coletter Searls.

Video game creators and Hollywood studios record people clad in special bodysuits to capture movements in order to create a realistic armature around which to style computer animation. At Disney World, a digital puppet of a turtle from Finding Nemo operated with joysticks talks with the audience through mirror projection, said moderator Colette Searls, a stage director and associate professor of theatre at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She is currently leading a team of animators and programmers to design a digital puppet for use on tablets. The University of Connecticut offers Bachelor and Master’s degrees in fine arts for puppetry. Unfortunately a similar program in California just ceased. The Czech Republic is noted for its puppetry, with marionettes being a specialty in Prague. Mary Robinette Kowal of Other Hand Productions has listed many post-secondary courses of study in puppetry on her website.

Panelists and members of the audience alike seemed to agree the puppetry is an ideal teaching tool for kindergarten through high school settings because it can encompass many subject areas. They said that it is also be good for people with mental, emotional or other disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia because it is a form of expression that is not necessarily sequential or grounded in time—it can be like a dream sequence and thus more accessible to people who think differently than the majority.

Coincidentally, when I got home from this fantastic panel, my son was loading the role-playing game Skyrim, which was created in Bethesda, not five miles away from Strathmore. I don’t know if they used human puppets in electronic bodysuits to craft it, but the huge number of self-styled characters certainly had a diverse array of extremely realistic body language in their torsos. Their legs were a little stiff though. Maybe this is the future of puppetry. Let the games begin! Or continue. Or whatever, just more puppets, please. As Kermit the Frog would sing, “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending . . . “

Puppetry in Contemporary American Theater was held one time only as part of Puppets Take Strathmore, a series of performances and workshops. An art exhibit continues to August 17th and the gift store is stocked with puppet merchandise. There are two puppet shows left.

Running Time: 75 minutes.

Blair Thomas and his puppet friends in 'Hard Headed Heart.' Photo by Kipling Swehla.
Blair Thomas and his puppet friends in ‘Hard Headed Heart.’ Photo by Kipling Swehla.

Hard Headed Heart by Blair Thomas & Company will take place TODAY at 1 and 4 p.m. at Strathmore Mansion – 10701 Rockville Pike, in North Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 581-5100, or buy them online.


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