From now until Aug. 17, Strathmore will be overrun by every kind of puppet you can imagine. “Puppets Take Strathmore,” a two month-long festival, will feature performances from guest puppeteering companies as well, including Nana Projects, Cashore Marionettes and Ibex Puppetry, which is run by Jim Henson’s daughter, Heather.
The event kicked off Saturday with “No Strings Attached,” an exhibit at the Mansion featuring a collection of photography, sculpture, masks and full-scale, multi-dimensional puppets, exploring the role of fine arts in their creation.
“The exhibit is about puppets as an art form and that even though you have the traditional definition of an inanimate object that someone manipulates and does something to, I think that the puppeteers … it’s sort of a right brain/left brain — I mean, the engineering that is required to make the best of the puppets not mirror but infuse our own imaginations with movements and even though they’re not saying anything, you can imagine it,” said Harriet Lesser, exhibit curator at Strathmore.
Lesser said that while a lot of the puppets are new, some are quite old, dating back more than 300 years.
“There are puppets from museums, there are puppets from local puppeteers, there are puppets from pretty well-known puppeteers,” Lesser said. “It’s a form that is often put into caricature. It’s not really looked at as an inventive form. There are lots of, if you even consider what the Ibex company has done — we have work from them here, videos as well as pieces — it goes from hand manipulation to digital invention to animation … Like everything else, it’s bursting beyond its bounds and that’s what this is about.”
Puppeteer Don Becker said he got into puppets shortly after high school.
“I was always kind of an artsy dude,” Becker said. “I was always building things — little figures and such. I met a guy named Bob Brown, who is also one of the artists there at the [exhibit], and I got a job with him coming out of high school. I just ended up working for him and learning everything from him.”
For Becker, exhibits such as the one Strathmore is putting on are a great teaching tool for those who may not know what puppeteering is all about.
“In some ways, I think people have sort of their own fixed vision of puppetry,” Becker said. “You know, they might think they look like the puppets from ‘Sound of Music’ or the Muppets or that kind of thing. That’s sort of just what they’re exposed to. When you go to a gallery like this, it’s really interesting to see the varieties of styles, things that can actually be puppets people may not even think are puppets … or the amount of skill involved in doing something like this.”
The idea for the exhibit, according to Lesser, was something that grew inside Strathmore.
“[The idea came] from the visual arts department, basically, as a concept,” Lesser said. “Then it expanded and the whole campus became interested in it. The music center became interested in it, and the performance area. So it became something where there was a puppet slam, and performances by nationally known puppeteers as well as this exhibit in the Mansion called ‘No Strings Attached.’”
Puppeteering and puppets in general have seen an increase in popularity, according to Becker. Whereas 20 years ago, some might have thought the strings were being cut, Becker said demand for puppets is on the rise.
“I would say that, certainly now, I’m seeing more and more theater companies, not strictly puppet companies, theater companies incorporating puppetry into their storytelling,” Becker said. “I’ve done more building over the last couple of years for just straight theater companies — maybe it’s the influence of them growing up with ‘Sesame Street’ with directors and producers and stuff like that [who] are now coming of age to be producing. They’re sort of learning what puppetry can do and exploring what it can do.
“So, no, I definitely don’t think it’s a dying art. I mean certain types of puppetry in some ways, like marionettes, string puppets, a lot of people don’t usually have those types of groups around. Other types of puppetry you’re definitely seeing an upshot. You know, ‘Avenue Q’ as well … ‘Lion King’ and big shows like that.”
Although the almost two month-long exhibition has the makings of being wildly popular, Lesser said there is no immediate plans for having the puppets hang around for more than one show.
“I think that, like some of the other things that we’re doing, it’s a leap into areas that don’t often have the spotlight on them,” Lesser said. “We did, our last exhibit, when we did ‘Pulse,’ for example, which had to do with medicine as an inspiration for fine art and that turned into having some wonderful and extraordinary pieces in it. Then there was ‘Skin,’ which was about body modification and tattooing and how we embellish ourselves. So I think that’s part of some of the new vocabulary that we hope exhibiting will have here, at least part of the time.
“We are going to have an exhibit in the fall about calligraphy, which is far more familiar. We’re going to have the miniature show, but also then, in addition, we are turning ourselves to more experimenting and investigating new forms and expanding on forms. So I think it’s got a pretty wide scope that will welcome new audiences. I think it will keep the people that keep coming — they seem to like what we’re doing — and they can get involved with pieces they never thought they’d see before.”
Becker said he hopes people take away from the exhibit a better appreciation for puppetry as a whole and the dedication it takes to build and become a puppeteer.
“I hope they get to a point where they get their mind opened to ‘Wow, there are a lot of different ways that you can build a puppet,’” Becker said. “There are a lot of different techniques and designs and great expressions and great variety. Also, too, some of the way puppets are built, they can practically be made out of anything. Hopefully it will inspire someone to come by and think, ‘Oh, look at what that person did with a toilet paper tube.’ Something like that.”