New Roles for Puppets in the Arts

Robert Smythe, Festival Director, Puppeteers of America

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Adventure of a Boy and His Dog on the High Seas -Mum Puppet Theatre

Adventure of a Boy and His Dog on the High Seas: Mum Puppet Theatre

As with many artistic fields, the world of puppetry is seeing a lot of change. Performers are facing new challenges in an increasingly complex marketplace, but there are new opportunities for crossover in the arts as well.  This month, more than 500 puppeteers came from across the U.S. to participate in Puppet Festival (r)Evolution, hosted at Swarthmore College and organized by Robert Smythe, this year’s festival director for The Puppeteers of America.

Today, puppets, are finding their way into an increasing number of arts disciplines and Smythe believes this reflects a growing understanding that puppets can play a unique role that goes beyond special effects or standing in for human characters. “People engage differently with puppets, because puppets represent an alternate type of reality, and so require a person to suspend disbelief and be willing to connect with the character differently than we would with one portrayed by a person,” says Smythe. “What you realize once you’ve worked with puppets, is that they broaden the range of possibilities for telling a story. For example, in theater, you normally have to allow time for action to shift – whether that involves making a scenery change, or having characters move in or out of the action. With puppets, you’re working in an alternate reality, so they can say and do things the people can’t, they can appear and disappear instantly, and exist in a fantasy world.

“The integration of puppetry with other fields such as theater, music and dance, reflects a larger trend in puppetry, which is that it’s become a much more collaborative art form than it’s traditionally been which I believe is a good thing. In the past, if you wanted to do your art, you’d hire staff you’d teach your methods to, and then you’d focus on having the group create your vision. Now, people in the field are much more specialized, and no one’s expected to do everything. As a result, you gain the benefit of having a group of individuals with specific talents, training and expertise, come together to produce a great performance.

“The Internet has also had a big impact, and we’ve seen that effect even in the make up of our conference. It used to be that the people who attended were primarily coming to learn how to build and operate puppets. Now, anyone can learn that online. So, we shifted our focus to be more about what you’d do after that, so our focus is on storytelling, performance and about the business of puppetry. Our organization also wants to create a place for people to connect and to learn from each other.”

Not surprisingly, technology is also a driving factor in change. There are many new things possible and at the same time, new questions are arising about what puppets even are. Some practitioners would prefer to see that answered in the purist, traditional form; but others see a lot of overlap with disciplines like robotics, animatronics, and even with computers, which is why one of the festival workshops was about creating digital puppets.

Robert Smythe has been working with puppets for about 45 years. He is the Director of Writing for The Puppet Theater at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and the Director of the 2013 National Festival of the Puppeteers of America. He was also founder of Mum Puppettheatre, which ran in Philadelphia for more than twenty years.

For more information, visit The Puppeteers of America.

Arts to Market celebrates the work of artists, innovators and arts organizations and shares advice on balancing the creative life with arts marketing and business development.

 

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Arts Funding Cuts May Push Growth to the Fringe (Festival)

Leila Ghaznavi, Founder, Pantea Productions

13 Silken Veils-Leila

Silken Veils, Pantea Productions
performed at Edinburgh & Philadelphia Fringe Festivals

As organizations and artists gird for another round of cuts to arts funding, communities may want to take a page from cities like Cincinnati, Rochester and Wilmington where the arts get a boost from city fringe festivals. Financed by the participants, fringe festivals provide the added benefit of supporting Main Street and the larger community, and bringing visibility to area artists.

Many rightly associate the fringe with the granddaddy of them all, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which began in the late 1940s. But today, there are an increasing number of festivals throughout the country and internationally. The United States Association of Fringe Festivals lists more than twenty. Some of the best known are the New York International Fringe Festival, the Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival,  and the more recent Hollywood Fringe Festival. There are also the London Festival Fringe, the Toronto Fringe Festival , and the Adelaide Fringe Festival

“The value of the fringe is that it can provide ready-made audiences for artists and companies that might not be able to attract high-volume crowds on their own, “says Leila Ghaznavi, Founder of Pantea Productions, a multi-disciplinary theater company. Ghaznavi’s taken her own productions, including Silken Veils and Beyond the Light, to fringe festivals and has advised individuals and organizations on how to successfully market their performances at the festivals. She also helps groups evaluate whether the fringe can be a good fit for their needs.

“Many kinds of performances can work in a fringe environment, and it’s excellent for collaborating across disciplines. So you can mix dance with theater and spoken word, or music and performance art with videography. It’s about having quality over quantity, doing experimentation and looking for new ways to engage.

“The more innovative the show is the better because that’s what the audience at a fringe expects. There are performances done in short bursts, at non-traditional venues, and also as site-specific work, where the audience moves from place to place following a narrative as part of experiencing the event. Events can range from a fully cast play at a large performance venue , or I’ve seen a performance where the it was done in an elevator with the elevator going up and down.

“I advise people to think carefully about what they want to gain from being part of a fringe. Some want to test new work and get audience feedback. Others are further along and are prepared to make a big splash. When someone wants to make a splash, I tell them to bring their “A” game and plan to do a lot of advance marketing.

“You need to do more than just the basics – giving out postcards, posters, fliers, and local advertising –to get noticed. You also need to find ways to get directly to consumers; everything from walking the streets in costume to offering creative prize promotions and giveaways – anything to help you stand out from the crowd.

“I remind them of the old marketing adage about the ‘Rule of 7,’ which says that a prospect must hear your message seven times before they’ll buy or take action.”

Leila Ghaznavi who recently spoke at the Puppet Festival R(e)volution conference, is an Iranian-American playwright, actor, puppeteer and the founder of Pantea Productions. Her father immigrated to the U.S. from the village of Rahaghi with fifty dollars and a prayer rug. Her mother grew up in West Virginia and is a daughter of the American Revolution. She has an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, a B.A. from Bryn Mawr College in music composition and is a graduate of the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater. Much of her work explores the rights and roles of women across the globe. Her other talents include acting, directing, writing, aerial acrobatics, puppetry and clowning.

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Championing Chinese Shadow Puppetry – Annie Rollins

Annie Rollins, Puppeteer and recent Fulbright Fellow in Chinese Shadow Puppetry

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/41524173 w=500&h=281]

How did you get involved with Chinese Shadow Puppetry?

Chinese shadow puppetry is the sum of all my independent interests and, of course, so much more.  As a part-Asian puppet lover with a penchant for the historical, Chinese shadow puppetry has sustained my interest in all of those things and continues to inform my personal and professional life.

How does shadow puppetry differ from other performance arts in its approach?

It is similar to other folk art performance forms in that its main purpose is to transmit oral history to a largely illiterate class and to educate and community build through entertainment and a collective experience. It differs from other traditions insofar as its incredible artistry has really pushed boundaries both with the figures themselves and performance techniques.

What about this art form is important to the heritage of China and to yourself?

Chinese shadow puppetry is an amalgamation of Chinese culture in both content and aesthetics as seen from the masses. While most elite and upper class art forms are well documented and preserved, Chinese shadow puppetry is lesser known and understood but more informative as to the majority’s ideology and beliefs at any given time. In a broader context, this is Chinese shadow puppetry’s most important heritage.

I consider it a high art form in its own right, with regional differences in nearly every province that reflect a rich inheritance of idiosyncratic tradition and craft.  My particular focus is practice-led research in traditional shadow puppet making methods in the three main regional styles and that has remained largely uncovered in research both in China and internationally.  Because the methods and aesthetic significance was largely overlooked until recently, many of the remaining masters have passed already with no apprentices in place and many others threaten the same scenario.

How does this influence your artwork?

My research and creative work have a symbiotic relationship – both inform the other and not necessarily in any particular order. Through research I find questions that can only be explored through creation and vice versa. Currently, my work is almost wholly focused on both Chinese shadow puppetry and how that learning is processed through me as an artist with a very different background than the traditional learner. With permission from my masters, I’m creating my own pathway to modernizing the form that fits within my understanding of how best to honor the tradition.

How is shadow puppetry being preserved in China?

Other than commercial endeavors, little has been done to preserve the form in China. With the official induction into UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage project in 2011, there is much more attention and support currently being focused on traditional Chinese shadow puppetry, but the long-term results remain to be seen. Little, if any, funding is being given to two designated members of a nominated troupe (equal to a peasants’ monthly wages) and no funding or support for students or apprentices. And, while this greatly eases the stress for shadow puppet artists in the aging stages of their lives, it does little to answer the more imperative questions about lack of students to carry the tradition through to the next generation.

Some people have criticized China for their lack of effort to preserve this and many other dying traditions as their country races towards a progressive modern future, but I find that they are doing what all countries have done at one point or another – prioritizing.  Folk art forms are in this position worldwide.

Are there any schools or programs that specialize in Chinese Shadow Puppetry?

Sadly, there are no formal institutions that teach Chinese shadow puppetry, save a workshop here or there.  The masters who are still working are very open to students – even foreign ones – who show an interest. Because it is a folk art form it is unlikely that Chinese shadow play education would become formalized anytime soon.The hope is that the form will garner more support to continue teaching as they always have – through hands and hearts.

If anyone has interest and will be traveling to China shortly, feel free to contact me for connections. Additional puppetry information is at: http://annierollins.wordpress.com/links.

Annie Rollins is a puppeteer and recent Fulbright Fellow in Chinese Shadow Puppetry. She has a MFA in theater design from the University of Minnesota and has been studying traditional Chinese Shadow Puppetry in different regions of China for the past year. Annie considers herself an artist first, creating experimental puppet shows, design and teaching workshops when she isn’t studying puppetry in China. Recently, she was invited to speak at the Chinese Shadow Puppetry Symposium at the Ballard Institute & Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut.

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