By Edward Medina and Nate Hinkle
Recently New York City served as host to the first ever International Puppet Fringe Festival and it was a remarkable theatrical happening. Five full days saw over fifty national and international puppeteers descend on the Big Apple. They brought over two hundred puppets with them to provide over forty performances. These gifted brethren were not only here to entertain but to hold symposiums, give artist talks, have film screenings, provide family friendly performances and adult evening cabarets. They were also here to honor their own and their craft with various art exhibitions, and displays.
Their home for all the revelry was the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center which provided three indoor stage venues, an outdoor performance area, three exhibit areas, even a puppet lounge and bar. Their welcoming hosts were organizer and fellow puppeteer Manuel Moran and the theatrical troupe Teatro SEA.
The festivities began on the first evening with a most unusual celebrity red carpet. A promenade of cloth, wood, cardboard, and string in which performers and artists introduced and paraded their puppet stars to the delight and applause of the downtown crowd. What followed were days and nights filled with some of the finest, unique, dramatic, humorous, heartfelt, and truly artistic presentations that the visiting companies could muster and the city of New York was just a bit more splendid for having them visit.
My Grandfather’s Prayers, performed by the three ladies of Red Herring (USA) is an exemplary biographical narrative. The remarkable true story of famous cantor Izso Glickstein is lovingly told by his granddaughter and lead puppeteer Lisa Sturz. This production includes an astonishing variety of puppet forms including shadow puppets, marionettes, large scale props, lighting elements, multimedia projections, and video segments. All of this is seamlessly executed by the performers who blend all these forms into one epic tale of an artist and his life well lived. The story begins with Sturz standing center stage holding a Torah. Once opened and unrolled it becomes the background on which the story unfolds. From that moment you know you’re in for a very special experience.
Three puppeteers, a narrator, an overhead projector, a laptop computer, an ancient story updated for the modern world, and colorful ninety-year-old shadow rod puppets and backgrounds brought Chinese Theatre Works (USA) Tiger Tales to life in a fanciful and visually splendid way. This award-winning production, which has toured America, Europe, and Asia, is a witty, wise, and beautifully presented production. Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow is once again brought to life in shadows and light by the performance artists of Drama of Works (USA). Complete with a dramatic soundtrack this six-member team is obviously well versed in their puppetry skills and flawlessly executed a grand cinematic experience.
Imagination and all the fun that comes with it is at the core of Paper Heart Puppets (USA), Cardboard Explosion and puppeteer Brad Shur is the heart of this delightful, engaging, and comical tour de force. Shur leads the audience and some very lucky volunteers through four stories filled with cardboard cities, dragons, pets, and giant babies. He uses the magic of cardboard to not only show that anything is possible, with just a hint of creativity, but to also remind everyone that art always saves the day.
Not a single word is spoken during Nana Ruiz because it is intended to be first enjoyed by infants and the rest of us after that. Compania la Bicicleta (Costa Rica) has created and crafted an adorable and touching work for the entire family that uses traditional music to tell the tale of a baby who cannot sleep and the magical world that is created around that. In the endearing Fox Fables a fox has lost his tail and himself in the process. He then begins a journey to be reunited with his missing appendage. This sweet little adventure, a mix of ancient fables, is wonderfully performed by the members of WonderSpark Puppets (USA) and is not without its lessons in self-worth and anti-bullying.
The very real post Hurricane Maria world of Puerto Rico gave birth to Corazon de Papel: A Hurricane Story. The company of Agua, Sol y Sereno (Puerto Rico) use both puppets and human storytellers as vehicles to deliver their message. Seven suitcases, each carrying a story to tell, and large sheets of paper, with the force of sound that comes with them as they’re folded, crunched, and molded into various forms, punctuates this dramatic, powerful, and heart breaking experimental production. Created after touring the hurricane ravaged island and gathering more and more stories as they traveled helped to mold this exceptional piece.
Paper also features at the center of Le Cri Quotidien, but this time it’s an oversized newspaper that’s springs to life. With the turn of every page in this Les Anges au Plafond (France) production the puppeteer brings people and places to the surface of the torn pages. This critically acclaimed show made its American debut during the festival. Described as an ode to creation Le Grand Oeuvre presented by La Tortue Noire (Canada) is another production without words but this time with a more adult message. A monk like wizard sits alone thinking and creating. His contemplations play out directly on top of and above his head. They are reflections of life on earth and come with a cautionary message. It is black screen puppetry at its finest.
Everywhere one went there was an unmistakable feeling of good will and genuine curiosity between those attending and those they came to see. This camaraderie came in many forms. Puppeteers and puppet artisans themselves were more than happy to engage in conversations about their work and the work of others they admired. Guests to the festival could be seen between shows chatting away with performers who were more than happy to meet and greet the curious.
Taking advantage of such a large gathering the United States chapter of UNIMA, the Union Internationale de la Marionnette, an organization whose members worldwide contribute to the development of the art of puppetry, not only held their Annual Membership Meeting but they also held a symposium on Global Puppetry and how UNIMA can further contribute as a catalyst in that enterprise. Members and guests were equally invited to both meetings and based on the enthusiastic attendance and group discussions one wonders if given the chance might puppeteers actually have the talents to solve some of the problems plaguing our world.
Evenings provided even better opportunities for mutual admiration. Puppet fans and festival goers were able to hang with puppeteers as they let loose with their fellow artists at two nighttime cabarets. The first, complete with a spaghetti dinner, was hosted by Great Small Works. The brassy music of New Orleans filled the air and some highly entertaining puppet performances came with it. The Puppetry Guild of Greater New York hosted the second cabaret which presented NYC Woman of Puppetry. This was an exceptional evening highlighting some very talented woman of the arts. Both of these companies should seriously consider making these cabarets a regular New York entertainment.
One of the many sponsors for the event was The Jim Henson Foundation. Truthfully his energy could be felt everywhere throughout all the performances and venues. No more so than when viewing some of the many films screened for the festival. Heather Henson, daughter of the iconic puppeteer and an exceptional puppeteer and creative soul herself, showed selections of her UNIMA award winning series of short films. Handmade Puppet Dreams produced by Ibex Puppetry and directed by various artists showcases independent puppeteers who embrace the medium of film to advance their creative vision.
Also part of the films showing was the ACE award winning series of shorts produced and directed by the multi-talented Manuel Moran titled Titeres en el Caribe Hispano. These films introduced puppeteers and their work from the Caribbean islands of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. All these films served to exemplify the worldly nature of this craft and were a further reminder that the reach of puppetry extended far beyond the festival and even New York City.
Several art exhibitions cleverly awaited festival guests outside of all the performance venues. Los Manos de un Titiritero celebrated the forty years of work by Puerto Rican puppet master Jose Lopez. The entire festival was dedicated to Mr. Lopez and the honor was well deserved. Also on display were the stunning photographs of Cuba Season of Light: A Whole Country in Puppets. The images, all photographed by the gifted Sonia Almaguer were both beautiful and enlightening. The SEA Artists Exhibition featured exquisite sculptures, masks, and puppets of artists Daisy Payero, Ingrid Harris, Lucrecia Novoa, Dimitri Saari, Luis Villafane, and Nester Carrillo. Even Teatro SEA’s was represented by to displaying their own expansive private World Puppet Collection of glorious figures and artwork.
Each of the five nights closed with a performance of Sueno: A Latino Take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The crown jewel of the festival, presented by host company Teatro SEA (USA/Puerto Rico), was held outdoors and free to all who attended and to those who lived in the neighborhood. Sueno is a lush extravaganza of the highest order featuring musicians, singers, dancers, puppeteers, and puppets galore. Twenty performers made full use of the forty carnival puppets which included masks as puppets, full body puppets, hand and rod puppets by twenty performers. Sueno is a glorious spectacle and unique Afro-Caribbean take that breathes fresh rhythmic life and passion into an already poetic work of the highest order. This was a fitting way to end each day and the festival itself.
The International Puppet Fringe Festival was principally conceived, assembled, and guided by filmmaker, theatrical director, producer, and puppeteer Manuel Moran along with his company The Moran Group. All in all, there were some twenty-five sponsors and countless volunteers and staff that came together over what was sure to be endless nights and days in order to make the festival possible. Every person responsible for this event, including all the performers and puppeteers, should be proud of themselves and this monumental accomplishment. An undertaking of this magnitude is no easy task. Perhaps that’s why they’re making us wait until 2020 for the next one. It’ll most certainly be worth the wait.
Edward Medina is an active member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) and welcomes comments at EdwardMedinaAuthor@gmail.com.