Puppets — not just Muppets

Nasty, Brutish and Short experiments with various puppetry techniques.
In a scene from A Puppet Cabaret, screens are used alongside human actors and puppets. (Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival.)

By Jessica T. Gable

On Jan. 22, a crowd descended on a small, intimate theater in Links Hall, a shabby studio caught halfway between Lakeview and Logan Square. They encountered a tiny bar complete with worn wooden countertops and rickety stools inviting them to indulge in a libation before the performance. And when the lights rose in this warm and fuzzy atmosphere, the definition of puppetry was challenged and expanded.

Nasty Brutish and Short Puppet Cabaret held several shows as part of the festival.
Vanessa Valiere performs during Nasty Brutish and Short’s Puppet Cabaret. PHOTO: Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival


Poduced by Nasty, Brutish and Short, a puppetry company born of and bred for Chicago, “A Puppet Cabaret Program B” took the audience on a somewhat dreamy, psychedelic ride through various worlds. In this case, however, as in many productions that were part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival which ran Jan. 14-25, the term “puppet” is applied liberally.

“The definition of puppetry is way broader than anybody gives it credit for,” Mike Oleon, the show’s co-curator, said. “It’s not just marionettes, it’s not just Muppets, I mean there was supposed to be a dude stacking rocks. Like, the whole performance was stacking rocks. I don’t know what that means, but it’s puppetry.”

This year marked the first installation of the biennial Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, which offered puppeteers from nearly 50 companies the chance to sample each other’s work in a concentrated, festival format. They also connected with the puppetry community in Chicago and those who traveled from outside the city to perform.

“As far as puppetry communities go, it’s huge,” Oleon said, laughing. “As far as any other community goes, it’s very intimate. It’s my hope that this festival will raise awareness that there’s phenomenal puppet work happening in Chicago and that there are several incredibly talented potential collaborators who are already doing great puppetry.”

The idea for the festival came to its artistic director, Blair Thomas, because there was no major puppet theater festival in the U.S., let alone Chicago, despite the city’s distinguished history in puppetry. In the early days of TV, Chicago’s “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” show featuring a full cast of puppets drew huge audiences. Thomas had been a fixture in the Chicago puppetry community for three decades, and he founded his own puppetry company, Blair Thomas & Co. in 2002. With the Chicago Puppet Fest, Thomas said he hoped to capture the atmosphere of the Chicago International Theater Festival, which began in 1988 and ended in 1998. According to Thomas, it “changed the face of Chicago theater.”

Blair Thomas founded the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival.
The Festival’s founder, Blair Thomas, hoped it would give puppetry communities a chance to explore and sample each other’s work. PHOTO: Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

Similarly, Thomas hoped the festival’s various performances and symposiums would expand the horizons of not just the audience, but also the puppeteers, themselves.

“There’s a language of the puppet that is the connection from shadow puppetry to performance with a mask to traditional hand puppetry. The language is reliant on objects,” Thomas said. “It’s an object-centered world rather than a human-centered world.”

In Nasty, Brutish and Short’s production, those objects included extra limbs for the puppeteers, projected images and screens lit from behind to create shadows. Performers not only controlled their puppets, but they also interacted with them as actors. It was far from children’s puppet theater, and definitely a far cry from the Muppets. But, for Oleon, the techniques are nothing new.

“It’s the same thing,” he said. “It’s been the same thing since forever, which is exciting because it’s such a relatively small thing. When people discover it, it feels like they’re discovering something completely new.”

The festival ran from Jan. 14-25 and featured nearly 50 performances across Chicago.

Photo at Top: In a scene from A Puppet Cabaret, screens are used alongside human actors and puppets. (PHOTO: Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival.)