Poetic justice

“Puppetry is the poetry of the theater world,” declares Lisa Sturz.

Distilling the essence of her cherished art is a joyful task for Sturz, the co-founder — along with fellow puppetmasters Pamella O’Connor, Hobey Ford, and Susan Ward — of Asheville Puppetry Alliance, a group determined to advance the aims of puppetry to unsuspecting audiences.

But persuading the masses to view this ancient craft as high art has proved a solid challenge for Sturz and her comrades. Their greatest obstacle remains the ingrained misconception that puppetry is only for children.

“All of us [involved in the Alliance] try to entertain at different levels,” Sturz concedes. She herself, though proudest of her involvement with Chicago’s Lyric Opera, can boast both a Disney Award and an Emmy for her film and television work; O’Connor and Ward are an experienced equity actress and a noted teacher, respectively; while Ford — a Henson Foundation honoree — is the most established with local audiences. Despite their disparate backgrounds, however, each of her collaborators can likely recount a version of the epiphany Sturz describes thusly: “Adults have said to me after a show, ‘That was the best theater I’ve ever seen. … I had no idea puppetry could [move] me the way it did.'”

Part of the audience’s surprise, she feels, stems from a tendency to associate puppetry with the cartoon world.

“Most people know just The Muppets,” she notes.

Granted, Miss Piggy may not be the foremost example of artistic refinement. But such beloved associations (remember that pang of remorse upon occasionally glimpsing the wires attached to Kermit’s arms?) may well sow the emotional roots for puppetry’s potential healing powers.

“Puppetry [works] for adults by making them less defensive,” posits Sturz. “They can go to a place where they’re able to relax and become more receptive. … Some of [puppetry’s appeal] has to do with the lack of meaning in our lives. People feel the need to find other means of artistic fulfillment. What I see as the symbolic nature of puppets [is that] they can express the inexpressible.”

Weighty themes notwithstanding, the Alliance’s most recent production — Pilgrim’s Progess — was enjoyed by young and old alike. “We did better than expected,” Sturz reports, thoughtfully placing the show’s unprecedented success in a wider context: “More theaters are starting to use puppetry. … [The currently popular production of] The Lion King is one of the most successful Broadway shows ever.”

To celebrate this trend, the Puppeteers of America recently declared April 24 as the first National Day of Puppetry. “Across the continent, activities will take place to help raise the awareness of puppetry as an art form, a teaching-and-therapy tool, a means of communicating religious, health and social messages … and as part of the history of the arts of the North American continent,” declares the group’s press release. For its own part, the Asheville Puppetry Alliance will present the classic “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” featuring Hobey Ford’s Golden Rod Puppets.

“Hobey’s puppets are gorgeous, and he stays true to the story,” Sturz enthuses. The Weaverville-based puppeteer is known for his special effects, she comments; besides his startlingly expressive marionettes, Ford makes use of shadows and rolling backdrops to create a thoroughly artistic production.

So affecting is Ford’s rendition of the scary tale that he doesn’t recommend it for very young children, Sturz warns. Her own 3-year-old, she reveals, “was enraptured;” however, toddlers accustomed only to Sesame Street may not be ready for the lavish production.

“As we grow, our audience will grow,” Sturz allows. “We want to become known for great productions.”

Pamella O’Connor agrees with vigor, offering her own elated theory behind puppetry’s oddly inevitable 11th-hour renaissance: “In such a high-tech world, puppetry is being revisited because it’s magic in a low-tech way. … It transports the audience to a pure place in a way that traditional theater does not, because the audience completes the work in a way [that] they are not required to do with traditional theater.”

In Europe, she notes, live puppetry has long been a widespread form of family entertainment. But far from viewing the art’s marginalization in America as an obstacle, O’Connor sees only opportunity.

“It’s exciting for [Sturz and I] to be in virgin territory, gearing up to develop an audience for something we both have a passion for,” she enthuses.

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