Valley of the dolls

“When I was a kid, I made a puppet show with my Raggedy Andy doll,” reveals Chicago-based theater director Blair Thomas.

“There wasn’t a movie theater or anything in the town I grew up in,” he slyly adds.

To be fair, most kids pick up a puppet at some point, no matter where they happen to live

But it’s a much smaller group that pursues this passion into adulthood. And of those professional puppeteers, a certain faction has become determined to bring their shows not to the expected 10-and-under age group, but expressly to an adult audience.

What’s most interesting is that bona fide grownups are actually responding.

The upcoming Southeast Regional Puppetry Festival (short-tagged Puppets on the Ridge) includes five days of public performances at Diana Wortham Theatre, as well as professional workshops on puppet performance and construction.

When it came time to select acts for the July 28-Aug. 1 event, Festival Director Lisa Sturz, based in Fairview, found herself faced with about 40 national submissions to wade through.

“Some of the best acts are from our region,” reveals the Emmy-winning puppeteer.

And most of them are likewise “moving in the direction of appealing to an adult audience,” explains Susan VandeWeghe, the festival’s business manager.

Proven innocent

Be assured, though, that however much it’s grown, “adult puppetry” hasn’t been swept up in the dark conceptual coattails of, say, the adult bookstore. A higher level of sophistication is being implied, not a Miss Piggy peepshow.

“Being geared toward the adult population doesn’t necessarily mean [a show is] raunchy or sexual,” says VandeWeghe. “It just means that adults will enjoy it.”

However, the festival’s list of performances does include Thomas’ adults-only presentation Buster Keaton’s Stroll & Other Stories, billed as a “lusty streetwise romance.”

Like many likewise-lusty art forms belatedly embraced in the U.S., puppetry has long been considered appropriate entertainment for grownups in Europe. And in Japan, Bunraku theater — originally consisting of lavishly staged morality plays marked by a strict social hierarchy among puppet handlers — has been a national pastime since the 1600s.

But though puppet shows in America have carved out a small niche in left-leaning political satire — think the still-thriving, Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theatre, best known even today for its shows protesting the Vietnam War — the talking dolls have never had quite enough, well, pull to cross over into serious entertainment for the general public.

Until Being John Malkovich, that is.

This dark film comedy from 1999 opens with John Cusack’s character, Craig, performing a puppet show. The puppeteer later discovers a door in his office that leads directly into actor John Malkovich’s brain, and it’s through this portal that Craig performs his greatest feat of puppetry: manipulating the actions of another human being.

The puppets in the cult film weren’t worked by Cusack, of course. That task fell to artist Philip Huber, co-founder of Huber Marionettes.

Blame it on Howdy Doody

“I think the film was a leading cause for acceptance of puppetry [by] adults,” claims David Alexander, a collaborator with Huber Marionettes.

“It was the first time in a while that the public has seen string puppets in film,” he explains, “making it somewhat new again, and intriguing.”

Yet, he notes, puppetry first infiltrated the mass media quite a long time ago — back during the dawn of television. Consider Howdy Doody.

“Soon, TV turned this legitimate variety art into a babysitting job,” Alexander says. Think Lamb Chop, Mister Rogers and Sesame Street.

Many adults now in their 30s and beyond only came to marionette awareness when they took a second to dwell on that wire maneuvering Kermit the Frog’s arm.

But this newest generation, having grown up with video games and many sources of animation, is even more accepting of puppetry, Alexander maintains.

Though Huber’s shows are family-oriented, he’s always worked in the adult arena, performing at nightclubs and on cruise ships. And while his material is certainly acceptable for young ears and eyes, it’s Huber’s complex manipulation of his marionettes that sets him far apart from, say, the typical birthday-party hand-puppet set.

“It’s always been a difficult sell, because people are embarrassed to accept that puppets might entertain them,” Alexander notes.

But that’s apparently changing. “Phillip [Huber] recently performed a sold-out run in Los Angeles [that was] billed for adults only,” Alexander reveals. “I found the adults were relaxed enough without children around to be childlike in their enthusiasm for the show.”

Local puppeteer Hobey Ford can certainly see that. “Puppetry is experiencing a renaissance,” he agrees. “It’s really growing incredibly. Theater is starting to recognize the possibilities.”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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