If anyone knows about puppets, like really knows puppets â that’s Blair Thomas, founder and artistic director of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and co-director of the Chicago Puppet Studio. And yet, if you ask him about which artists are most drawn to form, his answer is oddly vague.
“They are. . . weird, he laughs, but I don’t particularly know how. Most of them are kind of a musician, kind of a writer. They sing. They can dance. It might not be good, but they can do it.
Long before he became one of the world’s greatest weirdos for top-level puppetry, the tall, gray-bearded Alabama-born artist was a recent Oberlin College graduate who moved to Chicago in 1986 to begin his career. of internship in staging. under Robert Falls at the Wisdom Bridge Theater. At that time the city had a thriving and vibrant theatrical scene, but for Thomas most of it was direct, text-based actor theater played by companies like Steppenwolf.
âThe undergraduate school is that machine that shifts everything towards the playwright’s interpretation,â explains Thomas. Although he studied English Literature in college, he was drawn early in his career to visual and non-verbal storytelling and alternative playwrights whose work was not based on naturalistic drama, such as the Cuban-American avant-garde MarÃa Irene FornÃ©s.
âChicago could boast of over 150 businesses in the city,â Thomas continues, âbut the aesthetic was on a very narrow palette.â So what has changed? For him – and also for much of the city’s theater community, he believes – it started with a festival.
The Chicago International Theater Festival, which ran from 1986 to 1996, attracted companies “that completely shocked the city community in terms of what was going on on stage,” says Thomas. âThe Lithuanian State Theater, with its production of Uncle Vanya, for example, was unlike anything anyone had ever seen or even considered doing [here.]”
Even though it’s been decades, the images of the room remain fresh in her mind: Yelena defiantly gazes at a room full of men while wearing a hat full of perfume flowing down her face; a family singing a requiem from a Verdi opera while posing for a portrait; servants leaned into a surreal ballet, carrying heated weights resembling iron balls to be placed under the dresses of wealthy women, an image that silently reinforced the oppressive Russian cold they needed to be protected. “These techniques of using non-verbal performance, of using things based on the object world to tell the story – to tell the nuance of relationships – were amazing to me,” he says. “I will never forget this production.”
To this day, Thomas can still identify the exact moment during those ITFC years that inspired him to pursue puppetry as a serious art form. In 1988, Els Comediants, the Barcelona-based circus collective, hosted a workshop at Park West. Els Comediants, Thomas says, featured a pageantry in his performances that was unusual in Chicago at the time.
“The members of the company who managed [the workshop] said, âOK, here’s our story,â like a long paragraph. “And we’re going to take this story, and we’re going to build the puppets and the sets and things for the story, and we’re going to rehearse it, and then before this workshop is over, we’re” going to go out on the street and there. ‘run. And I was like. . . ‘What are you talking about? I don’t even know who you are.
Over the course of three hours, using basic building materials provided by the company and waste cans in the lane, Thomas and his peers assembled a castle set and dragon puppets for a completed medieval fantasy story by improvised percussion instruments. “It set me on fire,” Thomas remembers now. âI was so excited about it. It took me a day to have that influence. An exhibition.
The revelation that there are radically different ways of telling stories has largely influenced Thomas’ aesthetic and his various professional endeavors. In 1990, he and choreographer Lauri Macklin founded the Redmoon Theater, which became known for staging elaborate productions outdoors and in other non-traditional spaces that combined storytelling, live music, puppets, acrobatics and a lot of pageantry. After leaving Redmoon in 1998, Thomas created a series of solo scenic works, which he took on tour to places such as the Museum of Contemporary Art and universities across the country, and then began to work on overall parts, including an adaptation of Moby dick and directed by Arnold Schoenberg Lunar Pierrot.
Today, Thomas is on a mission to inspire and catalyze another renaissance (a word he constantly uses) in puppetry, presenting new styles and applications at the massive Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, which started in 2015 and concluded its third edition this past January. In response to an increase in requests from theater companies to provide consulting, design and puppet-making services for their new works, Thomas, who also teaches at the School of the Art Institute, co-founded the Chicago Puppet Studio in 2017. with the famous puppeteer and director. Tom Lee, whose resume includes the original Broadway production of Battle horse and the Metropolitan Opera Madame Papillon. âI was like, ‘I can’t do this on my own,’â Thomas says. “Yes [Tom] wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have started this.
The spectacular of last winter The unwavering toy soldier at Lookingglass, created and directed by Mary Zimmerman, was the studio’s inaugural project. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Christmas short story, the almost wordless pantomime featured a parade of jaw-dropping puppet designs, including a toddler taking various forms throughout the play: a massive head and hands. resembling clouds and a strange wood and life-size boy in the style of Japanese bunraku puppets.
“[Thomas] is a fine artist, “says Zimmerman,” and the expression of [wooden boy]- which seems designed but not designed at the same time – you can project yourself into it, and yet it seems to have character. It’s the genius of someone who spends their life in it. Even when left unused, the studio’s designs exude personality. “When you go at night and [the bun-
raku boy] is sitting backstage, you feel so sorry for that. It is a very strange effect.
When working with companies, taking into account each puppet’s learning curve is an essential part of Thomas and the studio’s design process, something he learned during the annual winter competitions of Redmoon. These featured elaborate puppets, including a caterpillar that turned into a butterfly and required 14 skilled performers to perform. But the events also had a high level of interaction with the audience, which necessitated puppets with âbulletproofâ operational designs, like a simple trigger, to be handed out to untrained spectators. (Even professional actors sometimes need foolproof designs. One of Thomas’ favorites is the one-handed, head-and-tail wagging poodle, manipulated by Patti LuPone in the Chicago production of War paint at the Goodman Theater in 2016. The puppet was a compromise between LuPone’s desire for a living dog and the producers’ desire for a stuffed animal.)
But even for seasoned performers, the act of conveying one’s presence through an inanimate object can be difficult. âThe last thing an actor is trained to be uninteresting,â Zimmerman notes. Lee and Thomas’ reputation for working with a range of levels of acting experience, as well as creating beautiful puppets with innovative designs, encouraged House Theater Company member Chris Mathews to call Thomas for a preview. after having received the mission of directing the theater. upcoming production of Pinocchio– a piece that Mathews suspects to be the Hamlet from the world of puppets. âI don’t want to belittle anyone else,â says Mathews, âbut if you’re doing something associated with puppetry in Chicago, you’ve got to think of Blair. It is an institution.
Thomas helped Mathews and his team solve various challenges, such as how to stage the surprising shark attack (something like a ‘bear trap’ hidden on the ground, âThomas thinks), and making sure that actor Sean Garratt is able to lightly tap the smaller-than-life boy puppet without overworking himself.
The next big challenge for the newly formed studio, says Thomas, is figuring out how to maintain a sense of continuity and presence between international puppet theater festivals. Details are changing, but he is considering a monthly showcase in his and Lee’s new space, which serves as the local home for the festival office and as a satellite workshop for Thomas’ largest workshop in a barn on Lake Geneva. , Wisconsin.
As for Chicago becoming a great center of puppetry innovation, Thomas is optimistic: all the vital pieces are there, ready to be put together. âWithin the culture strata in Chicago, we have the support system,â says Thomas. âThis is the renaissance we are in. ” v
Upcoming productions featuring work from the Chicago Puppet Studio
Pinocchio Until 05/19: Thu-Sat 8 p.m., Sun 7 p.m., Chopin Theater, 1543 West Division, 773-769-3832, thehousetheatre.com, $ 30.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley 5 / 8-8 / 4: Wed-Sat 7:30 p.m., Sun 3:00 p.m., Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan, 312-337-0665, lookglasstheatre.org, $ 45 to $ 65.
Coc Coc Cabaret Sat 5/18, 7:30 p.m., Tiny Tempest Farm, W4355 Mohawk Rd., Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, 262-374-4903, minusculetempestfarm.com, $ 5.