Shadow and light. Wood and paper. Dust and clay. Alchemy. These are the tools of Chicago’s master puppeteers. Within the implacable constraints of quarantine, they remain—as ever—monarchs of infinite space, conjuring sentience where none exists and creating vast worlds even as a pandemic walls us away in spaces that often feel small enough to be bound by a nutshell. Of all the live art forms, puppetry is arguably the one most readily adapted to the privations of lockdown.
“You don’t need special equipment. It’s about using what you already have,” says Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival founder Blair Thomas of the triptych of courses CIPTF is offering adults this month via Zoom.
Tom Lee opens the series August 1-8 with “Experiments in Light and Shadow: Shadow Puppetry.” The creator of the gorgeously contemplative “Spiral Prayer,” Lee’s been teaching remotely to students in New York City for much of the summer, although his classes also regularly draw participants from India, South Korea, and the Bahamas. Classes under COVID-19, Lee said, are unlike any others.
“I’m not out there teaching the Tom Lee shadow puppet style,” Lee said. “I’m saying, ‘If you want to make something incredible, here’s how we can start.’ You don’t have wire or an awl or X-Acto knife or needle and thread? How about bread twist ties or scissors or pushpins or dental floss? No puppet rods? The spokes of a broken umbrella are perfect for that. It’s about recyclables. Nothing that you probably can’t find in your house.”
Thomas—whose three-decade, literally storied career in Chicago includes cofounding Chicago’s late, great Redmoon Theater—teaches the August 8-15 course, “A Miniature Universe: Intro to the Toy Theater.” The final course is Myra Su’s “Playing with Crankies: Explorations in Shadows and Scrolling Panoramas,” slated for August 15-22. Each course will culminate with a student performance. The fee is $185, though some scholarships are available.
It’s not just the found-object, DIY nature of puppetry that makes the art form so suited to quarantine. Puppeteering demands that artists create their own singular characters and stories from the ground up. From concept to conclusion, puppeteers can exercise singular agency over their creations. That kind of artistic control is rare in the world of scripted (or improv for that matter) theater, let alone on a planet in the grip of a virus that sows chaos by defying control.
“With puppetry, you have agency over your own work. You don’t need a big fancy stage with lots of lights. There’s literally no barrier to doing it,” said Su.
For Lee, the autonomy of puppeteering came as a jolt decades ago, when he was an aspiring actor. He was working backstage at New York City’s La MaMa, supporting his acting career as an electrician and a carpenter. He was working on a puppet show when one of the artists suggested he try making his own work.
“I had never even thought of that,” Lee said. “I was doing this whole actor thing where you audition and then if you make it, you get to inhabit a role that’s already written. I hadn’t thought that you could make something that started with you, was all you. When I had that realization, I pretty much stopped calling my (acting) agent and started working on puppets.”
Su began in theater as well, but a junior year college course with Chicago’s Manual Cinema changed her trajectory. “I loved animation growing up, and I was always a very crafty person. That class connected the two.”
Su’s course will cover “crankies,” which are scrolls of paper or cloth that puppeteers hand-crank in order to literally unfurl stories. “Crankie” devices can be elaborately carved wooden frames or they can be repurposed cereal boxes. Su’s working on a cardboard version at present, although she’s got a wooden one that she made earlier in her career. The agility of a crankie is mesmerizingly evident in Su’s work: “Inked” shows the very act of creation as Su cranks the device’s handles while kinetic splashes and shadows clash and meld to tell a story of serendipitous art. “String of Echoes”—which debuted in February at Links Hall and also uses tabletop and miniature techniques—uses the crankie almost like a mini movie screen to follow a young boy from his home in a small fishing town into the wide, wild ocean, where he connects with his ancestors.
Beyond the act of creation, the puppetry classes have another purpose. Lee discovered it in the earliest days of teaching after COVID-19 shut the theaters. “You can feel a real hunger and relief and excitement—people realizing that there is a creative world they can build. That making art can open up the walls. And that making art is an essential part of being alive. Classes aren’t just about imparting skills,” Lee said. “It’s about contact. It’s about reaching out through the screen and connecting with other people who are isolated and together, making something that wasn’t there before.” v
For more information about the biannual Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival (next scheduled for 2021) or CIPTF’s classes in puppetry, go to chicagopuppetfest.org.