Puppetry meets Tony Awards®

Handspring Puppet Company will receive a special Tony Award on June 12 for puppets used in the Tony nominated play titled War Horse (Photo by Joan Marcus)

It’s tempting to associate puppetry with preschoolers, especially when you’re a Valley parent whose children first encountered the art form attending shows by the Great Arizona Puppet Theater in Phoenix.

Their production of “The Three Little Pigs,” recommended for ages “pre-K and up” runs through this Sunday, so folks with children who’ve yet to experience a live puppet show can check it out this weekend.

But the Great Arizona Puppet Theater knows that adults appreciate good puppetry too. Hence they offer monthly “Puppet Slams” — adults-only shows that they describe as “quirky” and “edgy.” (This month’s slams take place June 3 & 4.)

Cast members and puppets from the Phoenix Theatre production of Avenue Q

Puppets — and those who conceive, design, build and operate them — rarely get the credit they deserve. Creating puppets is an art form, and operating them a skilled blend of artistry and athleticism. Just ask the cast from Phoenix Theatre’s recent production of “Avenue Q.” I’m told even their fittest actors worked some body parts much harder than you might expect while venturing into puppet land.

Valley actress Manda Lee Blunt will soon be learning by doing in the puppetry department as she performs with (and without) a puppet in the upcoming Hale Children’s Theatre production of “Little Shop of Horrors” — being performed at the Gilbert venue this summer (and best, they tell me, for ages 12 & up).

I chatted Friday afternoon with producers assistant Cameron Tryon, who shared that they’ll be using four different puppets in the show. One of the show’s main characters is a plant that grows, and ultimately envelopes one of the show’s human characters. So the final puppet has to be substantial in size.

Puppetry in theater isn’t new, but it’s still rather rare. Broadway works incorporating puppets include not only “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Avenue Q” but also “The Sound of Music” and “The Lion King” — all musicals.

The Lion King, another Tony Award winner, features several types of animal puppets

But there’s a play on Broadway now that features life-size horse puppets. It’s called “War Horse” and it’s nominated for five Tony Awards® — for best play, best direction of a play, best scenic design of a play, best lighting design of a play and best sound design of a play.

The puppets used in “War Horse,” which is based on a novel of the same name, were created by master puppeteers at the Cape Town-based Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa. An article available on the Tony Awards® website notes that they’re crafted of cane, wire and fabric.

Handpsring Puppet Company will receive a Special Award at this year’s Tony Awards® — which will be broadcast on CBS on Sun, June 12. I’d love to catch the play when I’m in NYC helping Lizabeth get settled into college life, but have plenty of puppet-related theater to enjoy here in the Valley in the meantime.

Blakeley Slaybaugh as Pinocchio in the musical Shrek (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Though no puppetry will be used in the Hale Children’s Theatre production of “Pinocchio” opening Sat, June 11, I’m still eager to see the show. This tale of a wooden puppet who longs to become a real boy is one of my favorite works of children’s theater because it’s full of fascinating characters and lends itself to wonderfully imaginative sets, costumes and props.

My daughter Jennifer, now 20, performed in a Greasepaint Youtheatre production of “Pinocchio” more than ten years ago — so the show has sentimental appeal. It’s perfect for introducing children to live theater, and great fun to couple with frequent reading of the story about the little puppet with big dreams.

Theater Works in Peoria began adding “Puppet Works” shows just this season, so they’re another local resource for families who want to explore the live theater/puppetry mix.

Be ready to make your own puppets at home once you get back from seeing these shows. Theater inspires creativity long after the curtain closes, so stock up now on craft supplies like popsicle sticks, yarn, googly eyes, markers, construction paper and pom poms that you can turn into puppets or other characters.

War Horse is nominated for Best Play and four other Tony Awards (Photo by Joan Marcus)

And take a peek at the “War Horse” website. There’s more to puppetry than animating old white socks.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about a book titled “Handspring Puppet Company,” which explores their philosophy of puppetry and technical innovations. The book (at right) includes essays by theater professionals and writers who have collaborated with the company — and features numerous photos of the company’s work.

Coming up: Valley venue holds Tony Awards® contest

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