Chimpanzee, created by Nick Lehane, gets a sneak peek in the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival's Living Room Tour November 11-13. It runs as part of the festival in January 2022. Credit: Richard Termine

In July, as COVID-19 restrictions began to lift and the Chicago performing arts geared themselves up to resurrect, the Rough House Theater Co. headquarters at coartistic directors Claire Saxe and Mike Oleon’s home in Humboldt Park morphed into a puppet rehearsal palace.

Rough House’s anthology production House of the Exquisite Corpse wouldn’t be opening at the Chopin Theatre for another three months, but there was plenty to do. Lighting designer Connor Sale was in the attic studio with a mock-up of a puppet booth, experimenting. Grace Needlman, as what Saxe calls the show’s “puppet consultant,” crisscrossed the yard tinkering with prototypes. Joey Meland, a musician friend working with puppets for the first time, had the use of Saxe and Oleon’s apartment on the second floor to play around with speakers and contact microphones. Oleon spent the day building ghouls and monsters in the property’s dedicated puppet garage. “It was the dream fully realized,” Oleon says.

Claire Saxe with one of the creations for Rough House Theater Co.’s House of the Exquisite Corpse. Courtesy Evan Barr.

Over in the South Loop, at about the same time, Blair Thomas, doyen of Chicago puppetry, was realizing his own dream: opening the new offices of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival inside the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. The Festival and its workshop, the Chicago Puppet Lab, took up their new permanent residence this summer in the same building—and possibly the same set of rooms—where, in 1916, the Little Theatre under Ellen Van Volkenburg first performed its landmark all-marionette A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s believed that Van Volkenburg coined the word “puppeteer” in her program notes to that staging.

Brimming with energy after a long pandemic hiatus, Chicago puppet theater is undergoing a time of transition. For years a small, close-knit community, the scene is concentrated on the inclusion of new voices and perspectives while at the same time upping the bar of quality and codifying itself into an ever more professional art form.

For the Rough House folks, the project of inclusion starts with technical decisions having to do with craft. Saxe and Oleon subscribe to a notion of puppetry that doesn’t conceal its inner workings from the viewer, equating transparency in performance with access at the level of community. 

“Every puppeteer has their own choice about how they deal with the fact of the puppeteer onstage,” Saxe says. “We feel like the puppet magic comes from seeing how it all works.” 

“Anybody can make a good puppet show if they’re just provided the time and the space and the resources to be able to do it,” Oleon adds.

Sorting through objects with me in the puppet garage, Oleon demonstrates this principle using a puppet arm from Exquisite Corpse. “You think, ‘Oh my god, it’s got a radius and an ulna, it’s got five moving parts to it.’ But it’s basically a grabber; the audience-brain assigns life to it.” 

“Imaginations are strong,” says Saxe.

Simple, transparent machinery complements the outreach Rough House practices through their winter puppet cabaret Nasty, Brutish & Short at Links Hall. Widening the circle of puppetry is crucial to Thomas as well, who has taught puppeteering and design at the School of the Art Institute for 30 years. In devising and building puppet elements for playwright/director Mary Zimmerman and Lookingglass Theatre, Thomas makes use of a method known in-house as “open hand,” which is about laying bare the mechanism in real time behind spectacular creations like the giant squid in 2018’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, or the massive boar—made of aluminum, very thin plywood, and a skin of mesh—and diminutive puppet of the female character Thomas built for a 20-minute scene of dialogue in Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth at Lookingglass, written by ensemble member Doug Hara. “I like the exposure of the artifice, because it allows the audience to either watch how the thing is done or forget how the thing is done, and sometimes move back and forth between them,” Thomas says.

Blair Thomas Courtesy Saverio Truglia

These goals for the art form coexist in Thomas’s mind with aspirations to see puppetry enter the same rarified spheres of culture as ballet, opera, and the symphony. Founded in 2015, the Puppet Festival is an 11-day, city-wide event dedicated to, in Thomas’s words, “raising the bar for the art,” where local practitioners (including Rough House, who will remount their Invitation to a Beheading at next year’s installment, scheduled for January 20-30) can exchange ideas with guests like Phillip Huber, who designed the marionettes for the film Being John Malkovich. Evening-length works of puppet theater are hard to come by, but Thomas hopes to see the festival become a breeding ground for puppet plays that are long-form, elegant, and sophisticated. (The Puppet Festival presents the Living Room Tour, a series of benefit performances in venues in Evanston, Bronzeville, and West Pilsen, November 11-13. Visit chicagopuppetfest.org for information.)

“What it takes is the time for people to slow down and look at what the performing object has the capacity to tell us. What is the wisdom in the material world? And when people start to understand that and they start to be responsive to that in performance, then things start to emerge—the work starts to emerge,” Thomas says. He recognizes the tension between democratizing the form and refining it at the same time, but says he’s not daunted by that. “I find it very easy to engage people with the art form,” he says. “It just takes a generosity of spirit to find their contributions inspiring and lead them to the next step.”

Still from Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol, returning as a digital production November 26-January 3. Courtesy Manual Cinema

For many artisanally minded puppeteers, both the expansion of puppetry’s reach and its elevation as an institution are questions of technique. Elsewhere in Chicago, practitioners are finding their way into new territory by focusing on storytelling. Manual Cinema, who combine shadow puppetry with camerawork and live orchestration to dazzling effect, headed to Cal Performances in Berkeley last week for their first show with a live audience since the pandemic started, performing Frankenstein, which toured previously in Chile and the Yukon. “We think a lot about story,” says coartistic director Sarah Fornace. “When we’re pushing into new techniques, we think of different styles of story. How does this technique push the story forward?” 

Still from Chicago Children’s Theatre’s The Relocation of Nokwsi. Courtesy CCT

Will Bishop, director of production at Chicago Children’s Theatre, also foregrounds story in his puppet adaptations of books like Leo Lionni’s Frederick and Brian Selznick’s Doll Face Has a Party! for younger audiences. “What are these tales, and how can we transmit them in as clear and concise a form to young people as possible?” he asks. Still, one of the lessons of the pandemic was in the virtues of stripped-down presentation, as Bishop cobbled together online content in his kitchen using printed cardstock. “We made the first Frederick video in two weeks. It was so fast and crazy.” Since those frenzied days, thinking about access at the material level has already yielded new opportunities for collaboration at CCT, like The Relocation of Nokwsi, written and narrated by Indigenous playwright Robert Hicks Jr.

For the puppet community, access takes many forms, depending on who you ask. Sometimes, it’s about paring the medium down to its barest mechanisms. Other times, it’s about getting as many people as you can into colorful animal heads and parading them down Upper Wacker on Halloween, rain or shine. Frank Maugeri, founder of Cabinet of Curiosity, is of the latter persuasion. Many of the artists in Chicago puppetry were students and apprentices of his and Blair Thomas’s at Redmoon Theater. The prevailing approach among that scene today, whether at the storefronts or the larger houses, is intimate and indoor. Maugeri’s shows hew more toward a puppetry of pageant and spectacle. When we connected, he was with his collaborator Jack Dwyer in an improvised work garage on loan from the city downtown, applying finishing touches to an oversize light-up owl mask and a bubble-machine tricycle that runs on a car battery.

Puppetry “is a fascinating, powerful, adult medium when constructed and developed by those who understand it,” Maugeri says, “and the country—Jack, do you need scissors or something?—the country has wrestled with maturing the medium for some time.”

Masks for Cabinet of Curiosity’s Arts in the Dark. Courtesy Cabinet of Curiosity

We talked puppet history and design as Maugeri geared up for Arts in the Dark festivities, but he was especially eager to have me meet the group of high school students, from the organization Teen Artists’ Creative Oasis (TACO), that would be wearing his colossal owl, lion, and bunny heads during a brief puppet “interruption” at the Palmer House the following night. I followed the parade there and met Annabelle Tuma, Iggy Torres, and Josh Priester, juniors and seniors at The Chicago High School for the Arts and Lane Tech College Prep, still out of breath from carousing across the ballroom in full puppet gear. It was a thrilling experience for them. 

“I think Cabinet of Curiosity does such amazing work,” Tuma says. 

“In a way you have to respect the power of objects,” Priester adds. “You have to understand it as an extension of yourself.” 

Torres, an artist, shared a similar experience. “You have to relearn how to maneuver your whole body. When you do it right, you really feel the movements with the object you have.”

Maugeri corralled the ensemble and Dwyer toward the buffet and out the door. Sweaty and inspired, these newly minted puppeteers squeezed their masks into the elevator, waved goodbye, and headed home for the night.