News Column

Puppeteers of America festival in Swarthmore: It's puppet central

August 2, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 02--When puppeteers get together, which they do now and then, there are certain things that generally happen.

You hear the phrase "totally amazing!" a totally amazing number of times.

You hear lots and lots of laughter.

You hear talk of "the tribe" and "the community."

And if it's a national puppet conclave, full of workshops and talks and performances attended by hundreds of tribe members, you will witness a creative outpouring that will, in all probability, smother every remaining enfeebled image of the 1950s TV show Kukla, Fran and Ollie hobbling about your antiquated brain.

"Puppet Festival (r)Evolution," the 2013 National Festival of the Puppeteers of America, ought to do the trick many times over. It encompasses six days of mind-popping, imagination-bending puppetry, beginning Tuesday at multiple venues in and around Swarthmore College. On the final day, Aug. 10, puppet performances will break out hourly and bounce their way through the entire tweedy and usually sedate Borough of Swarthmore, with alfresco and town-based activities, a parade, and an evening of films on the Swarthmore campus lawn.

"It's going to be very exciting," said Aaron Cromie, a multitalented puppet and mask maker, writer, director, designer, and musician. "It will be a very large group of enthusiastic fans and practitioners of puppetry."

Cromie, 40, based in Philadelphia, and well known to audiences at Arden Theatre Company, Walnut Street Theatre, Mum Puppettheatre, and the Studio, Wilma, Lantern, and Shakespeare theaters, will be conducting one professional workshop Thursday morning, "Creating Character Through Multiple Masks."

Robert Smythe, the puppet master behind Philadelphia's late and much-lamented Mum Puppettheatre, which closed in 2008 after 25 years, convinced the national Puppeteers of America that this year's festival should be in the area (he lives in Swarthmore) and should open its doors and invite the public in.

"For 75 years or so, the festivals have really represented a community of puppeteers who are almost like family," Smythe said. "But in the public imagination, puppetry has now exploded" and is everywhere -- on Broadway, in films, on stages.

"I started Mum Puppettheatre with the mission of getting puppets on every stage in Philadelphia," he said. "Now puppets are everywhere. It's now possible to make a living as a puppet wrangler."

That would be someone who looks after the puppets used in the making of films and videos.

"There is so much incredible puppetry in the world," said Smythe, "I wanted people to see it."

(Smythe's Mum Puppettheatre will make a reappearance Aug. 10 at 10 a.m. at the Swarthmore Borough Town Center with a revival of 2001's The Adventures of a Boy and His Dog on the High Seas.)

The festival -- most of which is open to the public, with performances and workshops at multiple venues and multiple times every day -- features everything from variations on Balinese shadow puppets to a documentary about the life and times of Wayne White, whose sets and puppets for CBS-TV's Pee-wee's Playhouse won three Emmys.

White will be in Swarthmore on Wednesday for a little audience interaction after the 8 p.m. screening of his Beauty Is Embarrassing, at the college's Pearson Hall Theater.

(There are so many events at the festival, it is essential to visit its website at http://www.puppetfestivalrevolution.org for times and ticket availability.)

Every afternoon there will be a series of performances and events.

For instance, on Thursday at 1:30 p.m., you can choose from Billy the Liar by Toybox Theatre & Cripps Puppets in Tarble Hall; Life in Motion by the Cashore Marionettes in Lang Concert Hall; Lunatic Cunning by James Godwin in Troy Dance Studio, and The Struggle for Justice by Red String Wayang Theatre in Frear Ensemble Theatre.

What to do?

Well, said Smythe, Godwin is "jaw-droppingly wonderful." His "puppets are incredible," and "the man is insane." In short, "it's a little bit like being inside somebody's brain that's not your brain."

And then there's The Struggle for Justice by Red String Wayang Theatre, the brainchild of Alabama-based Michael Richardson, who is inspired by traditional Indonesian shadow puppets. But instead of dipping into ancient Javanese mythology to explain the way things are or might be, Smythe said, Richardson "tells stories of American history."

"He uses that [Indonesian] idea to tell America about itself," said Smythe, in this case exploring the struggle for civil rights.

"It's totally amazing."

And a long way from Miss Piggy.

Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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