Why Would Chicago Host an International Festival of Puppet Theater?
Before 1912, the term “Puppeteer” did not exist in the English language. Ellen von Volkenburg a director with the Chicago Little Theatre housed in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, needed a program credit for the actors she had trained to manipulate marionettes while speaking the text of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Nights Dream. Puppet artists to that day were called “showmen”, as the art form was mostly associated with sideshows and circuses.
Von Volkenberg coined this word at the dawn of the movement in puppetry that has brought us to the rich art form that is practiced today. Chicago is unique in that has a substantial local theater audience that not only attends performances but supports innovative and new theater. Puppetry is active in American theater today, frequently employed in musicals and dramas as a sign of the renaissance for the art of puppetry. Chicago is ripe to be positioned as a leader in this renaissance. We have seen the cultivation of such companies as the nationally unique Redmoon, whose language of spectacle is born out of puppetry as well as the intimate Manual Cinema, whose shadow puppet innovations have earned them top awards at national puppetry festivals.
Chicago’s History as the Home of Festivals of Dramatic and Puppet Theater
The new Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival is a direct descendent of three previous festivals from our recent past. First, the Chicago International Theatre Festival presented a decade of performances and transformed the landscape of the Chicago theater scene from 1986–1994. Chicago audiences have felt its absence for 20 years now, and our Festival aims to fill this void. Second, a four-day international puppet festival was hosted by The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Performing Arts Chicago in 2000 and co-curated by Susan Lipmann and Blair Thomas. Third and most significant, Puppetropolis—presented by the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the Mayor’s Office of Special Events—spanned 10 days and many venues throughout the city in 2001. Puppetropolis brought together 30 companies and reached 500,000 audience members, benefiting from the immense support of local presenters including the Chicago Park District, The Field Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Performing Arts Chicago, Redmoon Theater, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lookingglass Theatre Company, The Actors Gymnasium, and Sears on State. Puppetropolis proved a puppet festival’s viability through sponsorship from United Airlines, the Illinois Office of Tourism and the National Endowment for the Arts. Claire Geall Sutton, our 2015 Managing Director, was integrally involved in the programming for Puppetropolis, and Blair Thomas curated special programming as well.