The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Chicago’s International Puppet Theatre Festival returns with vibrant stories

Jessica Goska
Puppeteers perform at the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, at Chicago’s Navy Pier.

Last week, Chicago’s International Puppet Theater Festival returned for its sixth edition of hand-crafted expertise. Located in various theaters across Chicago, the festival is packed with over 100 performances, workshops and artist intensives, shining as the largest event dedicated to puppetry in North America. Founded by Blair Thomas in 2015, the 11-day festival features local and visiting artists in venues across Chicago to promote peaceful justice from a worldwide perspective. 

In 2021, amid the Covid-19 quarantine, the festival faced closure, necessitating a new plan for sharing puppetry. A group of volunteers gathered and created a strategy team to help puppetry through the cultural upheaval happening across the globe. The team aimed to guarantee the festival’s stability using focus groups, artist-led interviews and meetings with local thought leaders. 

Over the course of a year, the team strengthened its footing in the arts scene while devising its plan. 

“The Festival reclaims and strengthens its trajectory and even more firmly establishes Chicago as a cultural center for puppetry for Chicago and the world,” said director and founder Blair Thomas in the team’s re-worked mission statement. 

The project’s outcome was a five-year strategic plan to ensure future growth and sustainability. After the plan’s release, its contribution to Chicago’s evolving artistic community led to sponsorship by the Arts Work Fund and the SmartGrowth Program from The Chicago Community Trust. The International Puppet Theater Festival has since grown to include artists from five continents and draws audiences of over 14,000 visitors yearly. 

A child reacts with glee at the at the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, at Chicago’s Navy Pier. (Jessica Goska)

This year’s mix of free and paid performances pushes genre boundaries and demands openness from audience members. 

“You can expect the unexpected,” said Caitlin McLeod, the studio production manager. “You can have a puppet in space, underground, swimming in a river of lava, or talking to beetles, all using creative staging techniques. Be open to a story that feels more like magic than classic drama.” 

McLeod, who started as a volunteer and designed her way into a leading position, explains how puppetry mystifies storytelling. 

“Puppetry opens a world of imagination,” McLeod said. “You’re no longer tied down to reality. Audience members can see the puppet and recognize it as a puppet, but your brain ignores the puppeteers and accepts the world’s rules.” 

Puppet Festival attendee Imani Johnson said puppetry’s ability can transcend the audience’s understanding of reality. Johnson is a returning festival guest who first visited during opening night in 2022. 

“There’s nothing like puppetry,” Johnson said. “It makes you queasy and uncomfortable, but it also makes you want to cry tears of joy and jump out of your seat laughing.”  

In addition to performances, the festival offers workshops through the Chicago Puppet Studio and Chicago Puppet Lab for puppeteers looking to master their skills. 

Quinn Kempe, a DePaul comedy arts student, hosted their own puppet show with the help of other students in The Theatre School. Kempe and DePaul’s comedy arts students brought over 20 puppets to life in under an hour and a half, leaving audiences equally shocked and amazed. From this experience, Kempe witnessed firsthand how much dedication and precision learning puppetry requires. 

A puppeteer entertains the crowd at the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, at Chicago’s Navy Pier. (Jessica Goska)

“I made every sock puppet for the show,” Kempe said. “You infuse life and meaning into an object and are responsible for keeping it alive, which is intense. Education on puppetry is not easily accessible, so if you have the interest and means to take a masterclass at the International Puppet Festival, you absolutely should.” 

The festival concluded on a high note with the “Closing Night Cabaret” on Jan. 28. The multi-puppet extravaganza featured accordionist Iliya Magalnyk and the world-renowned actress, puppeteer and director Yael Rasooly, summarizing the past 11 days of storytelling. Johnson further expressed enthusiasm for the festival’s events. 

“I couldn’t wait for the festival to start, and now I already want more,” Johnson said. “All week, I was thinking how lucky I am to be in Chicago to see accessible and powerful art.” 

Look out for next year’s International Puppet Theater Festival, featuring art that challenges reality’s limits onstage.

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