Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival Returns

The stages of local theaters are soon to be populated by puppets.

The Chicago International Puppet Festival returns for 10 days, and Thursday is opening night. We spoke with Blair Thomas, the behind-the-scenes puppet master who pulled a lot of strings to keep this festival on the calendar.

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Marc Vitali: At rehearsal, a puppeteer’s handmade Paul Bunyan marionette swings his ax.

And a Bigfoot puppet, made of redwood, walks among the trees.              

In the Fine Arts Building, The Chicago Puppet Studio is a space to rehearse, teach, and create.

It’s also home to the Chicago International Puppet Festival.

Blair Thomas, Chicago International Puppet Festival: Puppetry goes back to ritual roots in ancient cultures. Today we see it in secular form, but a puppet when it appears on the stage, it’s very simple what it’s doing. It enchants us in its believability and the skill of the puppeteers to breathe life into the puppet. You understand it’s not real, but it represents it so well that you can enter into the experience of the puppet.           

Vitali: Due to travel restrictions, the focus of the fest this year is mostly on artists from the U.S.

Although the lineup does include puppetry by South African artist Janni Younge in an adaptation of Tony Morrison’s novel, “The Bluest Eye.”

That will be performed live at the DuSable Museum.

At the Chopin Theatre, there are shows by Josh Holden, who toured with “Avenue Q” and has worked with the Jim Henson Company on “Sesame Street.”

And at the Wrigley Building, a pop-up storefront is home to puppets who live in an imitation grocery store where everything is made of plastic.

Thomas: We have a whole variety of puppets. One of the most important ones is called bunraku where there’s a doll, like that Pinocchio here on the chair, where people operate all its arms and legs. And we have giant puppets, the Bread and Puppet Theater, a very famous company from Vermont with their pageant work.

Bringing all of this together was no small task.

There were myriads of challenges. It was astounding. All of the things you can imagine. There’s an ecosystem that creates the arts and there were cracks and breaks in it everywhere we looked. But it’s been exciting, and we have formidable artists who are rising to the occasion and making their productions happen.

This time now, where people’s lives have been at stake, when our ways of life have changed so radically, we start to understand how much comfort we can take in the arts themselves. We turn to music; we turn to storytelling. And puppetry is an art form that uses many different modes of expression, from storytelling to live music to the sculptural forms of the puppets. And to be in the room with the work, it’s like when you go to the museum, and you stand in front of a Monet and you’ve never seen it in person. It’s so different. It’s live and in front of you.

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The Chicago Puppet Festival opens Thursday and runs for 10 days. Some shows are free, some are ticketed. Please be aware that while much of the work is family-friendly, other shows are for mature audiences. 

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