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A Tour of L.A. Puppet Fest

Writer/director Dan Clark on left with puppeteer Sean Johnson on right, both prepping a mutant puppet
Writer/director Dan Clark on left with puppeteer Sean Johnson on right, both prepping a mutant puppet
Ramin Zahed

The art of puppetry has morphed over the years: from marionettes, to Muppets, to the dancing of shadows on far-away walls to Simon Morley's renowned stage show Puppetry of the Penis. But at the core, puppetry is the art of playing with and manipulating objects as extensions of oneself.

Many events of L.A. Puppet Fest, taking place over the past few weeks, are not what you might expect of puppetry. These gatherings, brought people together from all over, from puppetry pros to scholars intrigued by the history and cultural pertinence of puppetry in our technological age.

Change the World: A Show Puppet Performance combined puppetry in the form of shadow projections with social issues like fracking. Other highlights of the Fest have included a lively night called Pulling Strings & Funny Things at the Bob Baker Marionette Theatre and a lecture by historian J. Eric Lynxwiler at the Los Angeles Central Library, which recognized the connections among puppetry, Hollywood and L.A.'s gay community. The night was dedicated to commemorating how the Yale Puppeteers and Turnabout Theatre gave the gay community a voice, through the practice of puppetry, in a time before they had one. The lecture also included black and white photos, including one of Albert Einstein holding a puppet version of himself at CalTech in 1931.

Along the way I met L.A. puppeteer Bobby Box. "Puppetry requires that audiences invest more than usual in the theatrical arts," he says. "A greater degree of participation is required in the viewer's imagination. So it's like theater times two." To the same end, puppeteers have to combine many diverse skills: dance, sculpting, painting, costuming, acting and special effects.

"Anytime an actor plays a character, that character is ultimately a part of the actor's personality. For a puppeteer, the same is true, just not in the same body," says Box. Therefore, puppetry is founded on the principles of mimicry.

There were few children at the festival events. But Dan Clark, known as the master of alternative puppetry, compares puppetry to play. "I can bring toys to life like I did with my action figures when I was a kid," he says.

Clark was inspired to begin making puppets at the age of 8, when he discovered Bill Jackson's Cartoon Town. And ever since, he's been using his inventive powers in conjunction with companies like Disney, Cartoon Network and Nick Jr. His company is working to blend the puppetry with innovative techniques, such as green screens, puppets made of foam latex and CGI animation.

Another puppetry innovator is Sam Koji Hale, who works with Heather Henson (Jim Henson's youngest daughter) and is creating a new short film called Monster of the Sky. It's "a puppet love story gone wrong, set in a Steampunk universe, all inspired by a Lord Byron poem," he says.

He combines puppets not only with independent filmmaking but with a motion capture system, which turns the puppets into animation, putting them in the middle of beautiful, futuristic landscapes littered with giant clockwork gears and winged creatures.

Those who missed L.A. Puppet Fest can catch one of the final events, the Million Puppet March, taking place tomorrow, April 28, on the Santa Monica 3rd Street Promenade.

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