This weekend, unusual characters will crowd the BAM cultural district.
Expect to see talking-animals, friendly monsters, strange shadows and even wandering socks.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music will present the third annual Puppets on Film Festival, a series exploring live puppetry in cinema. The program – to be held at the Rose Cinemas and the Fisher Hillman Studio- includes nine features, 30 shorts, a family workshop and live performance, and a “Little Shop of Horrors” sing-along extravaganza.
“The festival is multifaceted and includes programming for young kids, twins, teens, and adults,” said Hannah Thomas, publicity and marketing assistant at BAMcinématek. The event includes everything from “Tales of The Riverbank” and “The Great Muppet Caper” (ages 3+), to “Aliens” and “Godzilla” which are geared towards teen and adult audiences.
No one really knows for sure when or how puppetry started but according to Deborah Hertzberg, costume shop supervisor and puppet designer at the Brooklyn College Department of Theater, there are many theories about its origins.
“One theory that scholars believe, is that ancient men sitting around the fire, perhaps, might have recounted the story of a hunt, perhaps using an animal skull,” she said. “You can imagine how they might have used that skull either on their heads as a mask; or in front of them to represent the story they were trying to tell.”
From animal bone and wood, to foam and flexible materials, puppets are made in different shapes, sizes and colors. They are common characters on theater, television and film. Only this year shows like “Avenue Q”, “The Lion King”, “The Magic Flute” at The Metropolitan Opera and even “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” included puppets in their cast.
Paul Andrejco, puppeteer and founder of Puppet Heap, one of the leading studios for puppet production in the United States located in Hoboken, NJ, said that even with many flickering screens and electronic devices vying for their attention, children have an enduring interest in the ancient art form of puppetry – which is said to have existed for thousands of years.
“Puppetry offers a warm alternative to a lot of computer and animated special effects that we see nowadays,” Andrejco said. His short film “Genius Knows No Formula” will be presented at the festival, the story follows the Doctor and his assistant Fritz while they are formulating a miracle elixir.
The timing is right for puppetry to have a moment said Kevin Augustine, puppeteer, founder and artistic director on Lone Wolf Tribe, a puppet theater ensemble based on Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
“Younger generations are looking for more hip ways to craft a story; as well as cheaper budgets,” he said. “With puppetry you can do a lot of magical staff and be very low tech.”
Augustine goes for old style puppetry, his work – not released on film yet – blends history, sociology and psychology into poetic contemporary narratives.
“[Puppetry] is limitless. You can make up your own stories and you characters, and the world they live in,” he said.
Engaging audiences that nowadays spend huge amounts of time on digital media might prove to be a challenge for this old theater form; “It’s true that gadgets are cool and exciting, but I’ve seen there’s something very primal about puppetry,” said Andrejco. “Something that is sort of pre-conscious … that really captures your attention immediately in a very basic way.”
Puppetry also has a long history as educational tool, popularized world-over by “Sesame Street,” the popular American children’s television series. This Saturday at the BAM Fisher Hillman Studio, animator and puppeteer Laurie O’Brien will introduce kids to the history and craft of shadow puppet-making and storytelling.
“Teaching kids to communicate and observe without judgment, without losing their sense of playfulness and imagination, to release all their ‘rules’ about how the world works and relinquish their sense of inhibition, is one of the best gifts we can pass along to young people.” said Trish Sie, film director known for her playful, innovative music videos and commercials and for her creative, unexpected use of choreography.
Sie will be presenting “Not Alone”, a sweet animation where a lonely sock searches far and wide for its mate.
This three-day showcase of the best puppetry on film is presented by BAMcinématek in partnership with The Jim Henson Foundation, dedicated to promote and develop the art of puppetry in the United States. “Puppets create a safe distance from which we can observe, explore, or comment on things with a sense of playfulness, whimsy and imagination that removes some of the threat or heavy-handedness or seriousness of it all.” said Sie.