Ears pounding. I swallowed globs of queasiness and approached the puppet stage. It sat at one end of a room filled with what I imagined to be savvier puppeteers who would surely mock my newcomer performance. In my fog of apprehension, the room felt like a vast and menacing cavern. Repressing pulses of panic, I handed my cassette tape to the nearest techie, hung my puppets on hooks attached to the playboard’s inside edge, arranged my props, and nodded to the techie. He pressed the “start’ button and music began.
It was show time at PotPourri, an opportunity for anyone with the desire or need to perform. I was at a regional puppetry festival, sometime in the nineteen-seventies. Although I had been performing at birthday parties, my experience with more sophisticated audiences was non-existent. My friends from the Chicagoland Puppetry Guild persuaded me to perform for my peers at the festival. I agreed and chose a three-minute bit warmly received at party gigs over the previous year. The tape began. My puppets were in hand, so to speak, and the audience was waiting. To an upbeat nonsense song, my girl and boy rabbit puppets danced and pranked each other until the end of the tape when they embraced and collapsed in each other’s arms. That evening, the audience’s prolonged (in my mind) and enthusiastic applause was a gift. They liked it! I was nearly in nirvana, a perfect state of happiness. Boosted by my audience’s acceptance, I became a puppetry festival enthusiast and an increasingly confident performer.
Becoming that puppeteer with aplomb who was once a nervous shipwreck was a slow process. My first instructor in puppet manipulation, Hans Schmidt, had liked my work and my instincts. He had coached me with kindness and insights so that I did develop a way of manipulating hand puppets that brought them to life. Nevertheless, I lacked the self-confidence and nerve needed to work in front of other puppeteers outside the circle of my local friends.
That critical festival and others that followed gave me additional opportunities to perform, to learn, and to share puppetry experiences. It marked the beginning of my participation in an international community of puppetry. I met marionette theater people from Germany, Sicily; hand puppet innovators from France, Canada, and England; shadow puppeteers trained in Indonesia; tabletop “theater of objects” performers; parade puppet makers; and close encounters with my hero, Burr Tillstrom as well as many other gifted and innovative puppet theater folk from all of the Americas.
I will cherish the variety of performances I encountered at every fest: among others, hand puppets skating, dancing, and transforming themselves into characters that challenged disbelief; string puppets conveying authentic emotions and movement while totally distracting the audience from their puppeteers; shadow puppets in a simulation of an all-night performance in Bali. I have many wonder-filled memories of the spirit, creativity, and enthusiasm generated by every festival I attended, and I am grateful for the boost they gave to my own spirit, creativity, and enthusiasm for the art. I am equally grateful I faced my fears that evening at the regional festival and did it anyway.
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As a famous puppet we once met said: “That’s the way to do it!” (Picture: my favorite puppet)
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