If anybody knows puppets—like really knows puppets—it’s Blair Thomas, founder and artistic director of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and codirector of the Chicago Puppet Studio. And yet, if you ask him about the artists who are most attracted to the form, his answer is entertainingly vague.
“They’re . . . weirdos,” he says with a laugh, “but I don’t know in particular what kind of way. Most all of them are some kind of musician, some kind of writer. They sing. They can dance. It may not be any good, but they can do it.”
Long before becoming one of the world’s go-to weirdos for top-tier puppetry, the tall, grey-bearded, Alabama-born artist was a recent graduate of Oberlin College who had moved to Chicago in 1986 to begin his career as a directing intern under Robert Falls at the Wisdom Bridge Theatre. At that time, the city had a thriving and dynamic theater scene, but to Thomas, most all of it fell within the direct, text-based actors’ theater epitomized by companies like Steppenwolf.
“The undergraduate school is this machine that just angles everything toward interpreting the playwright,” says Thomas. Although he’d studied English literature in college, he was oppositely drawn early in his career to visual and nonverbal storytelling and alternative playwrights whose work wasn’t based in naturalist drama, such as the Cuban-American avant gardist María Irene Fornés.
“Chicago could boast over 150 companies in town,” Thomas continues, “but the aesthetic was of a very narrow palette.” So what changed? For him—and also for much of the city’s theater community, he believes—it started with a festival.
The International Theatre Festival of Chicago, which ran from 1986 to 1996, brought in companies “that completely shocked the community in town in terms of what was happening onstage,” says Thomas. “The State Theatre of Lithuania, with their production of Uncle Vanya, as an example, was unlike anything anyone had ever seen or even considered doing [here.]”
Although it’s been decades, images from the play remain fresh in his mind: Yelena defiantly staring down a room full of men while wearing a hat full of perfume that streams down her face; a family singing a requiem from a Verdi opera while posing for a portrait; servants hunched over in a surreal ballet, carrying around heated kettle ball-like weights to be placed under wealthy womens’ dresses, an image that silently reinforced the oppressive Russian cold from which they needed to be protected. “These techniques of using nonverbal performance, of using stuff that’s based in the object world to tell the story—to tell the nuance of relationships—to me was astounding,” he says. “I’ll never forget that production.”
To this day, Thomas can still pinpoint 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, conducted a workshop at the Park West. Els Comediants, says Thomas, exhibited a pageantry in its performances that was unusual in Chicago at the time.
“The members of the company who were leading [the workshop] said, ‘OK, here’s our story,’ like a paragraph long. ‘And we’re going to take this story, and we’re going to build the puppets and the set pieces and the things for the story, and we’re going to rehearse it, and then before this workshop is done, we’re going to go out onto the street and perform it.’ And I was just 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 literal trash out of cans in the alley, Thomas and his peers whipped together a castle set and dragon puppets for a medieval fantasy story, complete with improvised percussion instruments. “It put me on fire,” Thomas remembers now. “I was so excited about that. It took one day for me to have that influence. One exposure.”
The revelation that there were radically different ways to tell stories broadly influenced Thomas’s aesthetic and his various professional projects. In 1990, he and choreographer Lauri Macklin founded Redmoon Theater, which became known for staging elaborate productions outdoors and in other nontraditional spaces that combined storytelling, live music, puppetry, acrobatics, and a great deal of pageantry. After his departure from Redmoon in 1998, Thomas created a series of solo stage works, which he took on tour to venues such as the Museum of Contemporary Art and universities around the country, then began working on ensemble pieces including an adaptation of Moby Dick and a staging of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.
Today, Thomas is on a mission to inspire and catalyze another renaissance (a word he uses constantly) in puppetry, showing off new styles and applications at the massive biannual Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, which began in 2015 and wrapped up its third edition this past January. In response to an increase in requests from theater companies to provide consulting and puppet design and fabrication for their new works, Thomas, who also teaches at the School of the Art Institute, co-founded the Chicago Puppet Studio in 2017 with acclaimed puppeteer and director Tom Lee, whose resume includes the original Broadway production of War Horse and the Metropolitan Opera’s Madama Butterfly. “I was like, ‘I can’t do that on my own,'” says Thomas. “If [Tom] was not around, I would not have started that.”
Last winter’s spectacular The Steadfast Tin 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 nearly wordless pantomime featured a parade of breathtaking puppet designs, including a toddler who takes various forms throughout the play: a massive, cloud-like head and hands and an uncanny, life-size clackity wooden boy in the style of Japanese bunraku puppetry.
“[Thomas] is a beautiful artist,” says Zimmerman, “and the expression of the [wooden boy]—which feels designed but undesigned at the same time—you could project on it, and yet it does seem to have character. That’s the genius of someone who spends their life in that.” Even when they’re not being operated, the studio’s creations exude personality. “When you’re leaving at night and [the bun- raku boy] is sitting backstage, you feel so sorry for it. It’s a very uncanny effect.”
When collaborating with companies, factoring in the learning curve for each puppet is an essential component to Thomas and the studio’s design process, something he learned during Redmoon’s annual winter pageants. These featured elaborate puppets, including a caterpillar that transformed into a butterfly and required 14 trained performers to operate. But the events also had a high level of audience interaction, which necessitated that puppets with “foolproof” operational designs, like a simple trigger, be handed off to untrained spectators. (Even professional actors sometimes need foolproof designs. One of Thomas’s favorites is the single-hand operated tail- and head-wagging poodle manipulated by Patti LuPone in the Chicago production of War Paint at the Goodman Theatre in 2016. The puppet was a compromise between LuPone’s desire for a live dog and the producers’ for a stuffed animal.)
But even for seasoned performers, the act of transmitting one’s presence through an inanimate object can be difficult. “The last thing an actor is trained to do is to be uninteresting,” notes Zimmerman. Lee and Thomas’s reputation for working with a range of actor experience levels, as well as for creating beautiful and innovatively designed puppets, were what encouraged House Theatre company member Chris Mathews to cold-call Thomas for insight after he received the assignment to direct the theater’s upcoming production of Pinocchio—a play Mathews suspects is the Hamlet of the puppet world. “I don’t want to put anyone else down,” says Mathews, “but if you’re doing something associated with puppetry in Chicago, you have to think about Blair. He’s an institution.”
Thomas has assisted Mathews and his team with solving various challenges, like how to stage the surprising shark attack (something along the lines of a hidden floor “bear trap,” thinks Thomas), and making sure actor Sean Garratt is able to operate the slightly smaller-than-life-size boy puppet without overexerting 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 fests. The details are in flux now, but he’s considering a monthly showcase in his and Lee’s new Fine Arts Building space, which acts as a local home for the festival office and as a satellite workshop of Thomas’s larger workshop in a barn in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
As for Chicago evolving into a major center for innovation in puppetry, Thomas is optimistic: all of the vital components are here, ready to be assembled. “Within the strata of the culture in Chicago, we have the support system,” says Thomas. “This is the renaissance that we’re in.” v
Upcoming productions featuring work by the Chicago Puppet Studio
Pinocchio Through 5/19: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM, Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, 773-769-3832, thehousetheatre.com, $30.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 5/8-8/4: Wed-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan, 312-337-0665, lookingglasstheatre.org, $45-$65.
Cluck Cluck Cabaret Sat 5/18, 7:30 PM, Tiny Tempest Farm, W4355 Mohawk Rd., Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, 262-374-4903, tinytempestfarm.com, $5.