Chicago puppet festival brings unique voices, experiences to venues across city

Chicago-based puppeteer Jerrell L. Henderson performs “I Am the Bear” for an audience at Navy Pier on Jan. 22 as part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival’s Neighborhood Tour. (Sean Rhomberg/Medill)

By Sean Rhomberg
Medill Reports

Showcasing a wide range of intricate storytelling and complex puppetry, the fourth Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival featured more than 100 unique performances at dozens of venues throughout the city this winter.

After a year off due to pandemic-related challenges and shutdowns, the festival returned to Chicago from Jan. 20 to Jan. 30, highlighting artists and puppeteers through performances, hands-on workshops and round-table discussions.

“Puppetry is such a vast art form, so showing kids and people all over the city the diversity of the form itself is really important,” said Taylor Bibat, a puppeteer and festival and education coordinator.

The performances included the Free Neighborhood Tour, designed to bring three family-friendly shows to audiences around the city “where people may not have the chance to see puppetry very often,” according to the festival website.

Chicago-based puppeteer and theater director Jerrell L. Henderson performed “I Am the Bear” as part of the tour. The performance is based on Henderson’s experience of being racially profiled by police while walking to work roughly six years ago in Wilmette on Chicago’s North Shore.

“I don’t know why my subconscious compelled me to go in that direction,” Henderson said about his inspiration to use a bear to tell his story. “I just followed it.”

"I Am the Bear" by Jerrell L. Henderson
Chicago-based puppeteer and theater director Jerrell L. Henderson performed his piece entitled “I Am the Bear” as part of the tour. (Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival)

The tour, which Henderson called “a testament to the city of Chicago,” was designed to highlight the wide range of emotion and storytelling puppetry has to offer.

The tour also featured Ojibwe and Oneida Nations performance artist Ty Defoe’s “Eagle Dance.” Defoe’s dance is “inspired by the wisdom gained from eagles,” according to an event preview.

In addition, “The Joshua Show” stars New York based puppeteers Joshua Holden and Jeb Cowell who spread messages of joy and positivity through puppeteering, the lively mood commanded in their performance on the Neighborhood Tour.

"The Joshua Show" featuring Joshua Holden and Jeb Cowell
“The Joshua Show” featuring Joshua Holden (right) and Jeb Cowell (left) is a traveling show that uses music, audience participation and puppeteering to promote joy. (Richard Termine, with permission from Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival)

Henderson said he began experimenting with puppetry when the pandemic first shut theaters down, and that “I Am the Bear” has been developing over the course of the past five years in various forms and exists as it does now after the bear hand puppet was designed and created by a local puppeteer.

“Every one of us as human beings who know how to use a language, knows what it feels like to run up against a wall with language,” Henderson said. “Puppetry allows another way in.”

The conviction and passion with which both Henderson and Bibat talk about puppeteering and art as a whole are telling of the impact it has on those it reaches. Both said its ability to communicate feelings and emotions is a large part of what makes puppetry so compelling.

The festival, founded in 2015 by award-winning puppeteer Blair Thomas, has plans to keep growing and expand as it becomes an annual event in the coming years, with hopes of continuing to “create puppet lovers” across the city, according to Bibat.

“It’s amazing how the festival has created a puppet-going community in Chicago,” Bibat said. “A lot of people here hadn’t seen puppetry, and now it’s a regular thing.”

As for Henderson’s future, he said he hopes to continue working in both theater and puppetry separately while looking for opportunities to merge the two together.

“It is the best of who we are as a country, especially in a time like this where we are (constantly) reminded of how different we are,” Henderson said. “We all have to work twice as hard to remind ourselves of how much we have in common.”


Sean Rhomberg is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @seanrhomberg.