The News & Observer
Orla Swift, Staff Writer
August, 2006

Not your parents' puppets

A festival this week shows the power -- and potential protest -- in the hands of its creators
From a giant Buddha to a U.S. soldier and an ivory-billed woodpecker, Paperhand Puppet Intervention has created a civilization's worth of creatures in its seven years on Triangle stages.

But the puppet universe is bigger still, and it's thriving.

With the first annual RadiCackaLacky Puppet Convergence, which comes to Chapel Hill and Carrboro this week, Paperhand aims to show how vast and varied puppetry can be.

RadiCackaLacky will feature puppet artists from the U.S. and Canada, performing Wednesday through Sept. 3. The acts are non-juried and range from whimsical tales to sober or risque adult fare, as well as old-style, scrolled "cantastorias" from Vermont's famed Bread & Puppet Theater, whose political puppetry has inspired developing artists since the early 1960s.

"There's definitely a renaissance of puppetry happening in America," says Donovan Zimmerman, 36, an Ohio native who founded the locally based Paperhand with fellow artist Jan Burger. "The more I get involved, the more I realize how many people of my age or of my generation are applying themselves to it."

Puppets are everywhere. They're the main characters in the 2004 cult hit "Team America: World Police" by "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They help bring to life the villainous Doc Ock's tentacles in "Spider-Man 2," which won an Oscar for visual effects. And on Broadway, the Tony-winning "The Lion King" and "Avenue Q" use puppets, as did off-Broadway's recent avant-garde hit "Shockheaded Peter: A Junk Opera."

NBC's "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" features Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a puppet that has its own CD. Puppeteers Tim Lagasse and Jim Napolitano create mock newscasts with puppets at their Web site, And earlier this year, after a New York theater canceled a controversial drama about Rachel Corrie, a young American activist killed during a protest in the Gaza Strip, Bread & Puppet told Corrie's tale through a puppet oratorio in Seattle.

Paperhand's performances draw thousands of fans, who revere the troupe for its artistry and for its socially conscious themes. About 8,000 people saw Paperhand's 2005 show, compared to 1,000 its first season in 2000, Zimmerman says. Its current show, "As the Crow Flies: Tales from Four Directions" -- which features, among other stories, a tale set in Iraq during the 2003 U.S. invasion -- drew record numbers to its opening weekend at Chapel Hill's Forest Theatre, where it will continue its performances as part of RadiCackaLacky.

Outspoken for ages

For people raised on a puppet diet of "Captain Kangaroo" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," all this may sound like a revolution. But puppets have been carrying heavy loads for centuries, says Morgan F.P. Andrews, 35, a Philadelphia-based artist whose multi-troupe Puppet Uprisings led to the offshoot RadiCackaLacky.

Traveling puppeteers in sixth-century India used fire-illuminated scrolls to tell stories of the gods, Andrews says. Italians incorporated puppetry in their improvisatory and topical commedia dell'arte. Argentines use puppets to memorialize the thousands of dissidents and others who were kidnapped, tortured and slaughtered by government forces during the 1970s and 1980s. All over the world, puppets have helped spread religion, culture and revolution.

"It seems like a harmless fairground theater kind of thing," Andrews says. But puppets are a formidable tool, because they can pull the wool over the eyes of the very people they mock.

"A puppet could start insulting you and you'll just laugh, whereas if I get up there and I start insulting you, you're likely to punch me in the face," he says, "You can get people to stick around and listen because it's already not taken as seriously because it's a puppet, but the message is still coming across. So it's like, 'Oh, I'm not making fun of the king. The puppet is making fun of the king. It's this little pointy-nosed guy.' "

Andrews knows firsthand how effective political puppetry can be. He and other artists paraded a giant "stadium monster" puppet around the city to generate opposition to a planned stadium that would have required demolition of parts of Philly's Chinatown neighborhood. And during the 2000 Republican National Convention, after several days of well-publicized puppet demonstrations, police surrounded a warehouse and arrested more than 75 puppeteers from around the nation. They had planned a spectacular grand finale protesting the death penalty and the prison system, using more than 100 handmade puppet skeletons.

The arrests were infuriating, Andrews says. But they also attested to the power of puppetry.

"That, I think, really catalyzed a lot of people as far as the kind of theater that we would make," he says. "Before that, we were like, 'We're all independent puppeteers doing funky shows.' "

Wide appeal

At the University of Connecticut in Storrs, which offers the nation's only master's degree in puppetry and one of only two undergraduate degree programs (the other is at West Virginia University), many students use puppetry to express their political views, says program director Bart Roccoberton.

A UConn grad performs in Broadway's popular "Avenue Q," whose Muppet-like puppets frankly address racism, homophobia, discrimination, cyber-porn and other hot-button issues. After "Avenue Q" won three Tony Awards in 2004, including best musical, applications to Roccoberton's undergrad program spiked to 60, compared with last year's pool of 25.

But competition has always been fierce for the three undergrad puppetry spots that open each year at UConn, says Roccoberton, whose students come from all over the world.

"Constantly, people say, 'Puppetry is in a renaissance. It's re-emerging,' " he says. "I've come to realize that it's not that it's coming back or has gone away, it's just that people rediscover it."

RadiCackaLacky is one road to that discovery, says Andrews, who likens upstart puppeteers to low-budget indie musicians.

"It's like being in a band that does puppet shows instead of songs, and then we put it in the van and go on tour from city to city and perform for audiences in basements or at a punk rock show," he says. "But because it's a puppet show it's not limited to that audience. It can happen in a library or a community center or a cafe or a park, or at a puppetry festival.

"It has this nice, broad appeal to it," Andrews says. "And when people do it and take it around, it gets other people to see it and they're like, 'Wow, I could do that.' "


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