In the 1996 tearjerker Fly Away Home, Anna Paquin plays a “tween” in Canada who discovers an abandoned nest of goslings and winds up teaching her flock to migrate with the help of an ultralight airplane.
A decade later, puppeteer Heather Henson is recreating a similar story (replace geese with cranes, Canada with Florida) — but not on film. The heir to the Henson (think late Kermit and Miss Piggy creator Jim) empire is telling her tale through puppets. “These people [a team of biologists] are teaching the cranes to fly again on an old flyway [a path along which birds migrate] where cranes haven’t been since the 1920s or something,” Henson revealed in a recent chat with Xpress.
But she’s reluctant to delve into much of an explanation of her production, which she nervously describes as being “still a work in progress.” Pressed, the reclusive artist points to an interest in the Florida ecosystem (where the cranes winter) and an obvious connection to the wildlife project: The cranes are taught to migrate following biologists who wear bird puppets on their hands.
Henson’s distinctly non-Muppet-ish production (she calls the 30-minute work “visual dances,” but declines to embellish further) shows at this weekend’s East Coast Supersonic Puppet Festival, along with favorite acts like the Huber Marionettes (associated with Being John Malkovich) and Dramaton Theater (a group of grads from the University of Connecticut’s puppetry program, in which, it’s worth noting, an enthusiast can pursue a Doctorate of Puppetry).
Henson, though born into marionette royalty, actually went to college for animation. “My first year out of school I did a version of my senior thesis in puppets, not animation, and I found the process more satisfying,” she recalls. “I like the dialogue the puppeteer has with the audience — I like the whole communication.”
It’s an odd admission from someone who clams up when interviewed, claiming she can’t understand why puppetry fans would want to read about her work. But Festival Director Susan VandeWeghe points out that “most of us [puppeteers] are shy, and hiding behind a puppet is a good way of getting out something we can’t say ourselves.”
Also, with reluctant artist Henson comes welcome name recognition — though festival promoters insist that Supersonic performers were chosen for talent, not prestige.
And, while the daughter of the man who brought us Oscar the Grouch seems to shun the media, behind the scenes, she’s prolific on the puppet front. With her siblings she serves on the board of directors of the Jim Henson Company, which they bought back from German children’s network EM.TV in 2003. She also creates adult-oriented puppet films with various artists — just don’t ask her to discuss them.
“The puppet films I’m into are really independent, artist’s-vision stuff,” she allows. “Artists are creating stuff for their own peer groups. I think in the artsy world [they’ve] been creating stuff for adults for many years, so there’s an audience, but it’s still not very broad.”
The Puppeteers of America host the East Coast Supersonic Puppet Festival in Asheville Wednesday, July 19 through Sunday, July 23, with workshops and public performances. See below for a schedule of shows at Diana Wortham Theatre. Tickets range $5-$20. For more information, visit eastcoastpuppetfest.com or call 257-4530.
Performances at Diana Wortham Theatre
• Thursday, July 20, 7:30 p.m.: WomanSong; The Huber Marionettes’ Suspended Animation
• Friday, July 21, 7:30 p.m.: Dramaton Theater’s The Traveler
• Saturday, July 22, 7:30 p.m.: Double Feature. Little Bouch’s Albrecht Roser’s Meisterklasse and Heather Henson’s IBEX, Inc. presents Panther & Crane.
• Friday, July 21, 11 a.m.: Lee “That Puppet Guy” Bryan’s Pinocchio
• Saturday, July 22, 11 a.m.: Paul Vincent Davis’ Beauty and the Beast
• Sunday, July 23, 2 p.m.: Red Herring Puppets’ Aesop’s Fables