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2024 Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival opens this week

Theatre, music, dance, comedy: Chicagoans have many reasons to be proud of their city’s performing arts scene. But even art enthusiasts may not know that the term “puppeteer” has its origins in Chicago (coined in 1912 by Little Theater of Chicago director Ellen Van Volkenburg) and that today the city is home to the largest puppet festival in North America. Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, which is in its sixth edition, returns on January 18-28 with productions from five continents as well as acclaimed artists from Chicago and the USA.

Artistic director Blair Thomas, an award-winning puppeteer, actor, director and School of the Art Institute of Chicago faculty member, founded the festival in 2015 with the goal of bringing world-class artists to Chicago, showcasing local talent and strengthening connections. among artists through educational workshops and other events.

Although puppetry is often misunderstood as solely children’s play, this festival is geared primarily for adults, with a dizzying variety of creative and complex performing arts. Many productions deal with mature subject matter; last year’s squad It included a memorable “Moby Dick” and an intense play about the experiences of refugees.

There’s also plenty of family-friendly fare, including a free neighborhood tour – this year with Krystal Puppeteers from Kenya bringing the folktale to life “Tears of the River.”

Wakka Wakka, a company based in Norway and New York, is opening the 2024 festival. “Animals Trilogy” A book that spans the past, present and future to examine issues of climate change, animal extinction and technological advancement and what they mean for humanity. Chicago viewers will be the first to see the entire trilogy when Wakka Wakka premieres the final episode. “Dead as a Dodo” and repeats “Animal rebellion” — a fun show about an anthropomorphic fox who goes on a mission to save all the animals — and “Immortal Jellyfish Girl” A science fiction love story set in 2555. The latter opened off-Broadway in 2023 to critical acclaim.

Wakka Wakka founding members Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock said the entire trilogy could be seen in a single day at Biograph and Steppenwolf theaters, but the play also works well as a standalone story. Surrounded by strange skeleton puppets and black sequined set pieces during a rehearsal break, the group recently spoke to the Tribune about their work.

Warnock described “Dead as a Dodo” as a “dark and magical show” set in the underworld and telling the story of two skeleton friends, one a Neanderthal, the other a dodo. The game imagines what would happen if the extinct dodo were brought back to life; This is a possibility that scientists are seriously investigating. “The questions we’re asking are basically, ‘What does it mean to start bringing creatures back, that is, to start improving life?'” Warnock said. “Which animals will be brought back to life, which will not, and what does this mean for us and our new relationship with death?”

The 2024 lineup also includes artists from Belgium, Chile, Germany, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico and Poland, as well as New York-based companies with roots in Colombia and Iran. Iranian American filmmaker and multimedia artist Hamid Rahmanian presents at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building “Song of the North” An adaptation of the Persian epic poem “Shahname” (“Book of Kings”), blending shadow puppetry, animation and music. “My impetus is to support highly sophisticated art from a culture that has been demonized for so long,” Rahmanian said in a 2023 interview at his alma mater, Pratt Institute. “I have a responsibility to promote the beauty of my culture in the best way possible.”

Opera by composer and librettist Huang Ruo "Book of Mountains and Seas," It will take place with the puppets of Basil Twist, hosted by the Chicago Opera Theater and the 2024 Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival.

While “Song of the North” is billed as family-friendly, those looking for a darker international story will find just that. “Crab,” by Figurentheater Wilde & Vogel (Germany) and Grupa Coincidentia (Poland). In an interview with the Tribune, Blair Thomas described the play as “an Eastern European folk tale with a really great energy that is very different from Western European works and American works.”

Also hosted by Studebaker and the Chicago Opera Theatre, “The Book of Mountains and Seas” The work of Chinese-born composer and librettist Huang Ruo, the puppets by New York-based puppeteer Basil Twist are inspired by Chinese tales about nature.

Thomas spoke more broadly about the importance of bringing international artists to Chicago and how it supports the festival’s mission to “promote peace, equality, and justice on a global scale.” “The amazing thing about going to work from another country is that you have to enter their world a little bit, and the puppet world creates a whole world,” he said. “Then you understand more about that country, and whenever we develop an empathetic understanding of another culture, that in itself is an act of peace.”

Lily Emerson, Leah Casey, Sarah Fornace and Anney Fresh in Manual Cinema's production "Leonardo!  A Great Show About a Scary Monster."

In addition to international acts, Chicago’s world-class companies, such as the Emmy Award-winning Manual Cinema, also perform. “Leonardo! “A Great Show About a Scary Monster” at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center. Based on the works of beloved children’s author Mo Willems, this adorable show about friendship and empathy performed at the Chicago Children’s Theater in 2022 and has toured in Edinburgh, Scotland and across the US.

Sarah Fornace, Manual Cinema’s co-artistic director, said the festival offers the company a rare opportunity to restage a production in its hometown. “I live in Hyde Park, so it’s fun to do this in DuSable,” he told the Tribune. “I am excited to announce this news to the local community.”

Also presenting is Theater Y’s youth troupe from Chicago “Little Carl” A play that addresses gun violence through puppets, masks and poetry. Company Moved to North Lawndale The youth program, run by multidisciplinary artist Marvin Tate and puppeteer Michael Montenegro in partnership with the Firehouse Community Arts Center, is one way the theater is working to create a community-focused arts center in the West. Next door neighborhood.

The productions mentioned are only a part of what is on offer and are complemented by panel discussions with festival artists, book talks by academics and workshops for artists. Additionally, the Puppet Center in the Fine Arts Building includes puppet exhibitions, a temporary café, and a store selling books and festival merchandise.

“By stepping into the theater to watch the puppet show, you have made an agreement to be open to a new experience,” said Sandy Smith Gerding, the festival’s general manager. “Every time, something new, creative, fascinating comes along that you’ve never seen before and probably will never see again. Truly the best place to stay in Chicago.”

The 6th Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival will be held between January 18-28 at various venues in Chicago. Visit ChicagoPuppetFest.org For programs and tickets.

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