Puppetry is the epitome of a hands-on art form. Nonetheless, thanks to the pandemic, Pittsburgh’s newest puppet showcase is virtual, which is a big reason it's able to include performers from around the world.
The International Puppet Festival takes place Saturday, with 32 performers contributing to separate programs for adults, children and all ages.
The festival grew out of the 2020 Virtual Puppet Residency run by Pittsburgh-based artist, educator and puppeteer Tom Sarver. The residency, backed by Pittsburgh Center for Arts and Media and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, gave about 50 artists on several continents, from beginners to veterans, the chance to hone their skills and develop new work.
Most of the residency artists agreed to perform in the showcase, including puppeteers from as near as Pittsburgh and as far away as India, Romania, Hong Kong and South Africa.
Some festival performances are live and others are pre-recorded. Puppetry styles vary, from traditional marionettes to the puppets crafted from blue Giant Eagle grocery bags by Pittsburgh’s Catherine Welsch Aceto for her all-ages “pandemic edition” of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” The themes range widely too, from fantasy and stories of friendship to more topical material.
“I think it’s important to have a mixture of all different types of shows, some of them very sad, humorous, some of them silly, and a lot of fun shows for children, too,” said Sarver, whose keystone role in Pittsburgh’s puppet community goes back to helping organize the storied Black Sheep Puppet Festival starting in the late 1990s.
Festival contributors are eager to show off material developed during the residency. Kenyan puppeteer Fedelis Kyalo specializes in educational puppetry, with a TV presence in his home country akin to that of “Sesame Street” here, tackling topics from health care to the environment. He contributes two shows to the festival.
“Lockdown in the Village” uses table-top puppets to tells a story about country folk who don’t believe they’re susceptible to COVID-19. “I was just trying to address now the issues where the negligence of the government, where they don’t give proper information to even people who are in the rural places,” said Kyalo, speaking via Zoom from Nairobi. “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” Kyalo’s collaboration with Victor Otieno, is a short puppet play for adults on a similar theme, but set in a city and with grimmer overtones, he said.
Other festival shows experiment with the interactive possibilities of puppetry in the virtual realm. For her show “Fly On the Wall,” Australia-born puppeteer Caitlin Strongarm mounted a streaming-video device in a puppet that stands in for the title insect. Audience members see what the fly sees, and are given a series of choose-your-own adventure choices, on which they vote by voice through their computer microphones.
“It’s almost like the audience is puppeteering the puppeteer,” Strongarm said, speaking from England. “So an entire Zoom audience of however many people … become one single fly, buzzing around and annoying people in my house.”
The festival can be viewed on Facebook or Zoom. All the performances are three to eight minutes each, and each of the three programs lasts about 90 minutes.
The Children’s Program starts at 10 a.m. and includes Sherri Roberts’ “All Kinds of Ways: A Story About Discovery and Friendship,” Anji Goude’s “Jamila and the Two Travelers,” and Paul Greggs’ “Hawaii Christmas.” Pittsburgh’s Tara Alexander performs “Owly & tara.”
At noon comes the all-ages program, including Aceto’s “The Tempest, Part I (Pandemic Edition),” Kyalo’s “Lockdown in the Village,” Peter Court & Creative Madness’ “The Little Prince Meets The Fox,” and Strongarm’s “Fly On The Wall.”
The adult program begins at 7 p.m. It features Lois Parker’s “Zoom Mouth,” Ela Portnoy’s “The Secret Sex Lives of Nail Varnish,” Tyler Jacobs’ “Fugzy & Friends – In the Box,” and Kyalo and Otieno’s “Between A Rock And A Hard Place.”
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