Luminaries Gather for National Puppetry Conference at O’Neill Theater

HARE TODAY by David Colston Corris; an Emerging Artist Project (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

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WATERFORD — A majestic procession of three large illuminated catfish and a towering river spirit disappeared into the night on Saturday, signaling the end of the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT.

Those lantern giant puppets were built within just a week’s time under the instruction of conference guest artist Andrew Kim.

“It’s been such a delight,” Kim said. “It’s an optimal place to really explore puppetry, learn techniques, and to really make connections with other puppeteers all of the country, all over the world, and to really hone your craft.”

Kim added that “there will be more amazing puppetry out in the universe, and that’s a good thing.”

The Guest Artistry group presentation of “Lantern Puppets” with Andrew Kim.  (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

The annual National Puppetry Conference allows puppeteers to come to the idyllic campus on the Long Island Sound for a nine-day retreat to focus on a particular strand or type of puppetry, including lantern puppets, marionette performances, and marionette construction. The conference also featured original music compositions and live music by musical composition director William Wright, and Camille Charlier and Jun Jie Edmond Son.

Jane Henson, Margo Rose, Richard Termine, George Latshaw, and other leading puppeteers and puppet makers of the day created the puppetry conference in 1990, after the death of Jim Henson.

The conference is led by artistic director Pam Arciero, principal puppeteer on “Sesame Street,” performing numerous characters that include the lovable Grundgetta Grouch for more than 40 years, and Jean Marie Keevins, artistic producer and director of participant programs, and owner of Little Shadow Productions, has coordinated puppet builds for “The Muppets,” and worked as the puppet supervisor on APPLE TV+’s “Helpsters.”

Raymond Carr, a puppeteer for the social media for Aflac’s famed duck, and founder of Ninja Puppet Productions, came to the annual conference to grow his knowledge of puppet construction and illumination.

“I hadn’t done theater in a while, and I wanted to get my theater muscles exercising, so I thought this was the perfect time,” Carr said.

He also had the honor of being inside the body of the water spirit, about 12 feet tall, for a puppetry performance. The face was made out of worbla, a type of thermal plastic, that was luminescent. The body was draped with pieces of blue fabric, and each hand was made with a lantern puppet catfish head. A puppeteer flanked both sides of the spirit, helping Carr to maneuver and take choregraphed bows to an enthralled audience.

“When I got close to the audience, just hearing everyone’s reaction was thrilling,” Carr said.

(Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Kim, who is based in England, and co-founder of Thingumajig Theatre with his wife Kathy, made the designs for the puppets with puppeteer Anne Cubberly, founder of puppetry company, Giant Puppets. Kim instructed participants in the construction of three different types of large, illuminated puppets, enabling participants to hone their skills in electrical, sculpting and lighting techniques. All members also got the chance to perform in the showcase.

The conference also featured the emerging artist strand. Led by Termine, a co-founder of the conference, a veteran puppet designer/builder for “Sesame Street” and “The Muppets,”  and professional performing arts photographer, emerging artist are afforded the opportunity to create and develop theatrical works that utilize puppets, and channel the spirit of the O’Neill. Notable works developed at the center include “In the Heights,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, “Avenue Q” by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty; August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Fences,” and “The Piano Lesson,” and “The House of Blue Leaves,” by John Guare.

“For puppetry, we have taken on the O’Neill mode of developing new works and have adapted it and applied it to our artform,” Termine said. “The essence of that is storytelling, and putting the story first, in terms of the performance structure and the narrative that we are going to share through our puppets.”

“Hare Today,” by David Colston Corris, is a theatrical work developed at the O’Neill that featured a puppet. The story followed a widow, played by Corris’ partner, Olivia Broome, who finds solace through a beloved toy of her late husband. The piece was rich in sentiment and gentle humor, focusing on the power of nostalgia and how childhood relics can aid those in times of grief. The mother, was played off-stage by Jane Martineau.

The puppet, partially built at the conference, drew from the influences of Bunraku, Tabletop, Hand/Rod, and Mechanical puppetry.

“I like the idea of being able to share puppetry with audiences that may not expect it, and might not expect to be affected by it emotionally,” Corris said. “There are always audience members who are delighted to find that they unexpectedly believed in the puppet.”

Corris credited a technique he learned last year as a participant in the conference from Jim Kroupa — a renowned voice actor and puppeteer who has worked on The Muppets— with the development of mechanisms that allowed for movements on the puppet.

Other emerging artist works included an interactive, dynamic piece about a college graduate transitioning into adulthood, entitled “Cat Rave,” by Anthony Sellitto-Budney, founder of the puppetry company, Break-Fast, and “Lone Fish,” by Andew A. Cano, a work told in multiple scenes using storytelling and puppetry, about a son who tries to help his undocumented father get help when he gets sick. That piece incorporated elements of “Pinocchio,” and in the initial proposal to the O’Neill, the piece aimed to explore the idea of “what it means to be a ‘real boy’ in America,” Cano said.  

Cover puppeteer for the Metropolitan Opera, Justin Otaki Perkins, said he wanted to come to the O’Neill after hearing glowing reviews from friends and colleagues about their time at the campus and the bonds they made with participants.

“It really lived up to my expectations—exceeded my expectations,” Perkins said. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Perkins, who was part of the marionette performance strand, created a skeletal-like puppet, made from wood, bamboo and stuffing, for the showcase. His puppet entered the stage in a sort of crawl, and over the course of the act, the puppet and Perkins, who was operating the marionette, seemed to develop a bond. The skeletal fingers touched Perkins in what seemed was a curious longing. Toward the end of the performance, the entire puppet wrapped around Perkins in a way both haunting and enchanting. 

“It had some otherworldly feelings,” Perkins said.

He attributed part of his interactive performance with the marionette, to his experience with Bunraku-styled puppetry, a Japanese form of traditional puppet theater which requires a more direct manipulation of the puppet, as opposed to using strings and remaining at a distance.

“It was natural to bring it into my space and be a partner with the puppet,” Perkins said.

The marionette strand, led by puppeteer Sarah Frechette, co-founder of the international shadow puppet touring company Night Shade, allowed participants to develop their performance with their marionettes.

Hank Fialkow, a student at Rhode Island School of Design, said Frechette pushed him to approach his performance development from a perspective of openness, which focused on the movements and natural tendencies of the puppet, rather than coming into the initial rehearsals with a set routine.

“We talk a lot about ‘manipulating versus animating,’” Fialkow said. “Having Sarah lead us toward that, was really strong.”

Fialkow gave a entertaining performance with a rat marionette. Set to a tango, and seemingly at odds with the puppeteer, the rat was made to appear lifelike in its struggle to break free from Fialkow’s foot.

Fialkow, who made the rat puppet in 2023 in Kurt Hunter’s marionette construction strand, said the performance was a sort of “glimpse into the end of a rat’s life.”

Participants also had the chance to work with guest artists Portuguese puppeteers Luís Vieira and Rute Ribeiro. The duo, who are partners, use micro cameras, silhouettes, and miniatures sets to create storytelling. Participants got the chance to make such puppets and partake in an interactive and diverse performance based off of five poems by Jaques Prévert, Edward Gordon Craig, and René Margarite.

The performance, entitled “Disorder or This Order,” as part of the Life Behind Things with A Tarumba strand, was fascinating. One scene about domestic life, adapted from the “Déjeuner du Matin  or “Breakfast,” by Prévert, featured cardboard cut-outs, the appearance of spilled coffee, and miniature cigarette butts, that when presented through the lens of the camera, had the dual effect of looking both lifelike and abstract. Actual coffee was poured into a cup for the scene, and when the creamer was poured into the cup, it made a sort of face — a happy occurrence that happened through planning and some degree of chance.

“The conference is really, really special,” Fialkow said. “You come here for a week, and then you spend the rest of the year thinking about the next time you’re gonna come back.”

This story has been updated with additional biographical material