Puppet Regime by Gordon Spencer
Pittsburgh City Paper September 12-19, 2001: Cover story
Includes interview with Mike Smith (www.encroach.net)

This article is in parts,
Part 1: Intro to the Black Sheep Puppet Festival with a nice quote from Tim Kaulen
Part 2: interview with Mike Smith of EE
Part 3: short concluding remarks worth mentioning

Part 1.
They come from everywhere. Watch them walk. Watch them talk. Watch them fly. Watch them disappear before your very eyes.

They and their creators re=imagine life for but a short stay on the South Side. Those artists gather to entertain you and each other in Pittsburgh's third annual Black Sheep Puppet Festival.

There are puppets, of course, of many shapes designs,and and concepts. There are no sheep.

Local artists, sculptors, filmmakers, designers, musicians and photographers s started the event believing that puppeteers are the black sheep of the arts but shouldn't be left out in the dark. However, many of the entertainers at the is festival don't feel like outsiders. The see themselves as inhabitants of an expanding universe where they increasingly occupy more space and time. They emerge and shine from a warm, welcoming constellation of international., National and local talent, people with something original to say in distinctive , remarkable ways.

Sure, you think you know something about puppets. You think you've seen a few, the wonderful Muppets or the sweet, diminutive inhabitants of Mister Rogers' Neighbored and Nick Park's delightful Wallace and Grommit or those flapping sensations of Chicken Run. Yeah, they're puppets, rod puppets, hand puppets, stop-motion figures. But you didn't see them, yo saw images of them. You didn't see puppeteers. So you couldn't experience the true magic of what was really happening.

But now you can be there in person to experience the variety of puppet creators an inventions, arriving in 17 groups, coming in fro the latest Black Sheep Puppet Festival. The are from Arizona, California, Chicago, Connecticut, Maryland, New Orleans, New York, Rhode Island, Seattle, Vermont and West Virginia. Nine companies from Pittsburgh take part as well. Some of these talents entertain full-time. They include people who keep body and wood and cloth and strings together as magazine editors, teaches, computer technologists, a janitorial services employee, a theater set designer, a convenience store clerk, a full time professional actor, and art supply store manager and a Bank executive. Most of these artists don't have regular sources of financial support for their work, although the Festival pays them though its own fundraising.

Why here?

"It fill a void," says one of the organizers, Tim Kaulen of the Brew House Association, because, "less familiar art and artists can come forward. And there's a resurgence of puppetry in the US. Its huge." Those puppeteers who have come here for the previous festivals, Kaulen points out, "think both the city and the arts scene are amazing. They have a blast and so do Pittsburghers This whole thing is a now happening. And it's mind-blowing to realize you get involve in a story or situation told not only by a human, but through that human's physical craft and skill."

Kalulen is a sculptor, and photographer sharing studio space with other artists at the Brew House, where a nonprofit association has been providing living and working quarters since 1001 in what was once the Duquesne Brewery. In the mid-90's they created exhibition and performance spaces. Kalulen explains that they came up with a puppet festival because they got excited about a marriage of sculpting and performance with its multiplicity of layers. Yeah wanted to open doors for artists and open the eyes and ears of audiences.

The festival has no unifying them nor is any intended Variety is the key. There are shows for children and for adults, lectures, workshops and films. "Its contemporary and depends entirely on where the artist is coming from" Kaulen adds. "We want to explore the boundaries and the traditions".


Part 2:
...Speaking of provocative names, how about Environmental Encroachment? Not a band of ecological guerillas, Chicago's EE, according to cofounder Mike Smith, "encroaches on environments that require art, play, dancing, costumery, music and/or our aesthetic attention." So "encroach" here fits a dictionary definition of "advancing beyond the original limits". "EE is political, but not in your face," Smith says, "We are about having fun, and raising issues through puppetry and the magic of music and performance. We fit the bill as perfect protesters of a modern younger generation (He's still in his thirties).

Like Squonk Opera, EE is a multimedia group in which puppets are an element rather than the whole. It combines a costumed marching band with live stage performances that include projectionists, shadow puppetry and live sound. EE does children's shows, Halloween shows and what Smith calls, "mock socio-political commentary, chaotic spontaneous events, tactical encroachments, playground installations, pagan rituals, raw architectural projects, pyrotechnical performance, circus-esque sideshows, vaudevillian skits and straight out music jams"

As for the puppet element, in 1996, about a year after Smith and the late Dave Christensen founded the group, they started using shadow puppets and other projections. The puppets interacted with humans and with music; they later added large body puppets.

Smith says that, following Pittsburgh festival organizers' suggestion of a 2001: A Puppet Odyssey theme, EE has created a show about ancient astronauts seeking and finding and ancient monolith at Planet Freedonia, named after the town 90 miles north of Pittsburgh.

The group ranges from anywhere from three to 23 people, depending on the event. Nine will come here for this festival. "EE is comprised of very diverse and talented artists," Smith explains. " We derive our performances from a mix of current interests, enigmas, science, musical genres, visuals, art history, vegetarianism, Moroccan trance music, costumes, etc. We also use acoustics and are all trained musicians. Artists find it easier and more therapeutic to perform in our rare kind of group atmosphere. Our appeal is an inviting, interactive, social entertainment; a kind of group therapy."

Smith delights in the Black Sheep Puppet Festival. "This is our third year together. The Industrial Arts Co-op really works to make the visiting artists' visions happen flawlessly. The hospitality, the audience's receptivity, the quality of the creative community of Pittsburgh, ... all are very impressive and supportive.

Part 3:
The puppeteers contacted for this article not only love what they do but they also admire and respect their peers. Several spoke with great enthusiasm about Chicago's Blair Thomas. Last ear he presented Federico Garcia Lorca's The Puppet Show Of Don Cristobal This year he and percussionist Michael Zerang collaborated on #36 Buster Keaton and the Buddha

A few other festival highlights:

From California comes Chiao-Wen oven Lin to recreate an ancient Chinese love story using shadow puppets and a 17 year project inspired y the life cycle of cicadas. Flam Chen from Arizona uses figures of fire and costumes of light. New York's Muddy Feet's How the Earth Got Its color incorporates ancient Aztec designs utilizing body puppets, hand puppets and original music.

Also from new Your Tiny Nina Theatre performance Shakespeare's Macbeth using ninja figures.

Wait there's more . In five evenings and one afternoon there are festival films at the Harris Theatre. They feature the work of Jan Svankmeyer, graphic artist, sculptor, designer, poet and author. The Czech master is described by on of the festival organizers, George David, as 'the most important animator in the world, one who considers himself a militant surrealist: Svankymeyer;s career now spans over four decades, but his work remains largely unknown outside of Europe. Svankyeyer combines puppetry, stop-motion, sculpture and live action in what Davis calls "a very strange variety of ways," often using human-like figures, found items and fool

Also, American puppeteer and filmmaker Janie Geiser presents a film and will lecture at the Brew Harris An article in the Chicago Reader calls her her "one of the most important voices in experimental puppet theater today" Davis adds, "She's also a scene-scape artist who creates strange visions." Davis himself makes films, is a photographer, sculptor and a member and employee of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, CO-producers of the film events.

"This is not just filming puppets but crossing barriers by commingling art forms, " Davis says. " And that's what we're trying to do in the entire Black Sheep Puppet Festival", to create an event which expands and combines different s kinds of art, multimedia, visual arts and sculptures within performances. That's very exciting."

"Puppets are captivating. They put you in a trance," Mike Smith of Environmental Encroachment observes. "Puppetry is an undervalued historical art, giving you a way to safely get your word out. People are generally unaware of what puppetry can do and what it has done. American puppetry seems like it is spawning a branch of young radical performance-oriented, poitically-motivated artists. These new groups have a lot of energy , and are spreading, touring and showing up a a lot of protests. Puppetry is also growing in schools and as a therapeutic art. I believe that people will be captivated by live puppetry the t they are craving for real, new, unique entertainment. "

"I don't think puppetry is in resurgence or is a lost art that's being found again, concludes Ken Berman, "its out there and always has been."

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