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Pied pipers of puppetry

Folks who make a living with puppets get together periodically to exchange ideas and stimulate creativity. A week-long conference, 2001 - A Puppet Odyssey, is coming to Tampa.

By AMY ABBOTT

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 5, 2001


From Chicago to New Zealand to Prague to Tampa, puppet festivals attract a following that covers the world. Puppet aficionados come to create, learn and show off their creations. Their brain-children.

Tampa's convention is no exception.

For a week, puppeteers will descend on the city for the Puppeteers of America festival: 2001: A Puppet Odyssey. Marionettes, shadow-puppets, spongy letters and their masters want to share their art and expertise with the public, but mostly with each other.

"Puppeteers are a particularly friendly bunch," said Bonnie Periale, half of the Perry Alley Theatre in New Hampshire along with partner, Andy. "We tend to share. Unlike what you usually find in the music and art world. They're more exclusive."

A group effort is essential. Every conference is a production itself. Hundreds of artisans attend this festival every year, and they come to learn new ways to explore their craft.

That's what this festival is all about: learning.

With more than 70 workshops, you can be sure there is more to choose from than Sock Puppets 101. Classes on facial characteristics deal with more than crossing your eyes and sticking out your tongue. Professionals will explain how using masks, lighting and size can help a performer give characters believable personalities.

But foam rubber and styrofoam bodies are only part of this intricate art. An essential part of performing, like it or not, is the business side. More than one workshop will tackle the business with instruction about how to run a museum, market your show or work the public school circuit.

Teaching artisans about business is a sign that puppetry has come a long way since the "Punch and Judy" show. Puppetry, older than recorded history, was an extention of the puppeteer, designed to portray social issues of the day. Puppets weren't bumbling figures meant to distract children long enough to give their parents a break. Well, not all the time.

"People have been exposed to the Muppets and Mr. Rogers," said Periale. "We let people know that puppetry can be an art form, respected, ancient and new."

New, fresh material is something Bonnie and Andy Periale of Perry Alley Theatre alway push for. At the festival, they will be performing Puss in Boots for the public but not the way you remember it. They like to switch voices to change the gender of characters.

But it doesn't end there. The cat, dressed in lavish Renaissance clothing, also break-dances and raps.

"We developed this play in 1986 when we thought rap would be a fleeting trend," said Periale. "We thought "Would this work?' but it does, and kids feel it relates to them."

Adults relate to their shows too, said Periale.

"We try to portray the message to the children with physical theater and with wit for the adults," said Periale. "We have adults coming up after the show all the time telling us they really like it personally, like it was a surprise."

But performing for children isn't the main act. The Periales have been Emmy Award nominees and Andy has won the coveted Citations For Excellence in the Art of Puppetry award for the bawdy Chinese Take-Out Theatre. That kind of diversity can be expected at this year's festival.

This is the first time Tampa will play host to the 64-year-old festival. The Periales have been attending this national conference since 1983, as well as several other smaller festivals. That means they have to keep coming up with something new to keep these artisans coming back.

Conference themes range as widely as a puppeteer's imagination. "Bread and Puppets" in Vermont expounded upon overthrowing tyranny and oppression. The National Puppetry Conference in Connecticut created an intense atmosphere to spark the creative flint in puppeteers. And now in Tampa, the "2001 -- A Puppet Odyssey" promises to be an all-access look at who's pulling the strings.

Beginning Sunday, the celebrities come out. Celebrities in the puppet world that is.

You probably wouldn't know who Marty Robinson is but chances are you know the product of his and Big Bird's imagination: Snuffleupagus. Philip Huber will show the masses how he exercised his craft in the film Being John Malkovich. Kathy Mullen, who gave life to Kira in The Dark Crystal, will tell people the techniques she learned while working with Jim Henson and how she helped create PBS's reading show, Between the Lions.

The whole week is filled with workshops, performances and events. But if you think you can't attend without being a member, you're wrong. Week-long admission is $375, but you can stay for the day at $80 a pop.

- Amy Abbott can be reached at (813) 226-3374 or via e-mail at abbott@sptimes.com.

Did you know?

  • The fear of puppets is called pupaphobia.
  • The theme tune to Alfred Hitchcock Presents is The Funeral March of the Marionettes.
  • Frank Oz was the voice of Miss Piggy, Bert on Sesame Street and Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
  • Roi Nuoc is the Vietnamese art of water puppetry developed by creative farmers in flooded rice paddies thousands of years ago. The surface is the stage and the depths conceal the puppeteers' rods and strings.

At a glance

What: Puppeteers of America's festival: 2001 -- A Puppet Odyssey

When: Sunday through July 14

Where: University of Tampa and surrounding venues

Cost: Week-long: members, $330; youth members, $300; non-members, $375; single day, $80

Contact: (813) 932-9252 or (813) 931-2106

Web Site: www.puppetlove.com/2001festival/site.htm

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