May 18, 2012 Kite’s Tale Review/Interview from www.knightarts.org by Jeremy Schmall.
This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of taking in a performance of Blair Thomas & Company’s “A Kite’s Tale,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts (a Knight Arts grantee). It was a puppet show unlike any I had ever seen, involving a live performance by pianist Kathryn Goodson of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and featured an engrossing combination of puppetry, costumes and theater. The performance was without dialogue, though the audience was given a brief and lively primer on the storyline at the start. The story itself was intensely surreal and imaginative, involving two “tricksters,” a dancing rabbit and a little girl with a bad temper and a red kite.
Puppeteers (dressed in all black) control the actions of the little girl and a rabbit. Photo courtesy of Blair Thomas & Company
Following in the tradition of Japanese bunraku theater, some of the puppets were life-sized, and others required several puppeteers to control. There was also a costume element to the show, including an enraged version of the story’s main character, a little girl who would lose control of her temper and transform from a three-foot tall puppet into a towering version of herself played by a costumed performer. The first time the transformation occurred, and the giant version of the little girl stepped suddenly onstage, the audience audibly gasped, and I saw many of the younger kids in the audience clinging tightly to their mothers. It was an electric moment, and just one of many throughout the show. The handcrafted and hand-painted puppets and dynamic performances transformed the event beyond the traditional concept of puppet show, and into an in-motion work of highly-refined folk art.
The large versions of the little girl and the rabbit, seen here with the pianist. Image courtesy of Blair Thomas & Company
I had the pleasure of catching up with Blair Thomas to ask him a few questions about the performance. The result of our conversation is below:
Jeremy Schmall: Was there anything in particular that inspired “A Kite’s Tale?” Did the story emerge over time and through a process, or was it the sort of thing that sprung out fully formed?
Blair Thomas: The story emerged over time as I worked on this show starting in 2005. I listened to the music repeatedly and just imagined characters from the sound of movements. It was clear there was some giant character, I imagined some mercurial trickster characters that would create some mischief, and I imagined a young child skipping through the woods — I was convinced there was some Sloth character too, but he never emerged.
JS: What kind of time investment goes into a production like this, in terms of creating the story, doing the choreography and constructing the puppets?
BT: It takes months to make the puppets — and the ones we are using now have been built a couple of times to get it right. Then rehearsal is a long process — I start with an imagined scenario of action that quickly is forced into revision as we stage moments to the music. But the music dictates the narrative — I knew that at one point there would be a chase scene and another there would be a fight, another a moment of contemplative introspection, etc. For example, the movement where the little girl first becomes angry and turns into a giant was first a scene where the giant was playing with a butterfly but in the end crushes it. Then it was a stand off scene between the tricksters and the giant.
The giant and the rabbit. Image courtesy of Blair Thomas & Company
JS: Does your company fabricate all the costumes and puppets yourselves? What is that process like?
BT: A group of designers built the puppets. There were mold makers, someone else who figured out the mechanisms of their operations, a couple of different people designed and built the costumes, I painted most of them. This process has been ongoing with this show.
JS: How did you originally get involved with doing puppet theater?
BT: As a boy I lived in a small town without a movie theater or much else, and I got the idea of a puppet show. Without having seen one and with some store bought marionettes, I started making shows for birthday parties and church events.
JS: I really enjoyed the use of different kinds of puppets throughout the performance, especially the bunrakupuppets, which I had never seen before. What is your history with bunraku?
BT: Over the past years I have worked with different versions of the bunraku doll— I’ve done several human-size types. I like the direct response the puppeteer can give them.
JS: I loved the dramatic moment when the giant version of the little girl steps on stage for the first time, which sent shockwaves through the audience. Were you worried at all about scaring some of the kids in that moment?
BT: No not worried— surprise will often scare young kids — but surprise in the theater is one of its greatest assets. There are many kinds of surprise; this is an obvious one, but dynamic.
JS: I noticed a lot of literary influence in your works, including Federico Garcia Lorca and an adaptation ofMoby Dick. Do you consider yours to be literary-focused company, or is literature just one of the many influences on your work?
BT: I approached Mussorgsky’s score in the same way I have written word texts. A writer/composer can put a structural integrity into their writing that in itself is a form of storytelling. As a puppeteer, I am interested in the works that aren’t created for the stage because the puppet theater operates with a unique theatrical language itself, and the original source material is just one component of the performance. So I do take inspiration off of pre-existing works — I am interested in participating in the dialogue of tradition with our culture at large.
Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900, dia.org
High art meets low when the words of 20th century writers are given voice in puppeteer Blair Thomas’ production of “The Hard Headed Heart,” a cabaret that features wooden puppets, rolling paper scrolls and a one-man band.
The CSB/SJU Fine Arts Series presents Thomas’ production at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, in the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater, Saint John’s University. Using a variety of traditional puppetry techniques, this solo performance presents a trio of interconnected solo shows:
The Puppet Show of Don Cristobal: Based on the bawdy script by Federico Garcia Lorca, this play, performed with wooden hand puppets and a drum kit, is a humorous retelling of the traditional trickster Don Cristobal’s wooing and marriage to the delectable Dona Rosita.
St. James Infirmary: Based on the traditional New Orleans folksong, this is a clever, romantic show whose main character is faced with the death of his lover. This piece is performed with rod marionettes, a motorized paper scroll and a one-man pit band.
The Blackbird: Based on the Wallace Stevens poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” this play is an inventive shadow puppet show that examines what happens when doubt inexplicitly finds its way in between the love of a man and a woman. This piece is performed on a set of four rolling scrolls, lit entirely by lamplight.
As founder of the highly successful Redmoon Theater in Chicago, Thomas spent a decade leading a vision to create large-scale spectacle theater. He was the principal creator behind productions such as “Frankenstein,” the Winter Pageant, and All Hallow’s Eve Halloween parade until he left in 1998. Blair then served as co-curator for both of Chicago’s International Puppet Festivals in 2000 and 2001 and became an associate adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 2002, Blair founded Blair Thomas & Co., which has built a repertoire of work for adults and for children. He was awarded the Illinois Arts Council Fellowship for New Performance in 2002 and 2004, and was hand-picked to serve in the inaugural position of Jim Henson Artist-in-Residence at the University of Maryland in College Park for the 2006-07 academic year.
Tickets to “The Hard Headed Heart” are $30, Senior $27, and Student $10. Contact the Box Office at 320-363-5777 or online atwww.csbsju.edu/fine-arts. Please note: this performance contains adult themes.
Related Event: Thomas, an ordained Buddhist monk, will lead a Buddhist meditation workshop from 9:30-11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 11, at the Oratory of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph. This workshop will be an introduction to Buddhist meditation in collaboration with the Saint Benedict’s Monastery Spirituality Center. The workshop is free and open to all. Contact 320-363-7112 to register.
Blair creates sophisticated puppet theatre for adults (and kids) and often does everything from puppet building, the costume creation, and music to the performances themselves. A bit of a one-man-band, through puppets Blair is able to tell deep and complex stories with the various characters often being different extensions of his own personality. Right! Not your average puppet show!
Here he is literally a one-man band — the inventive small-scale sets (designed by Thomas) for two of the pieces, “The Puppet Show of Don Cristobal” and “St. James Infirmary,” include drum kits and other musical instruments that Thomas plays as he simultaneously manipulates the puppets. (“The Blackbird,” based on Stevens’ modernist “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” incorporates Ben Johnston’s gorgeous “String Quartet #4,” recorded by the Aurea Ensemble.)
Nobody puts more riveting faces on puppets than Blair Thomas.
The creations of Chicago’s leading puppeteer vary in magnitude, materials and mechanics. He does babies, huge-headed girls and creatures made out of shoes. They all reflect the human condition with creepy accuracy.
Most of Thomas’ puppets are sad misfits with big noggins who clearly resent being puppets. Like most of us, they doubtless dream of a life with fewer strings and more dimension. At one point in Thomas’ new show, “Cabaret of Desire,” on Wednesday night, I swear I saw an especially feisty puppet sneer at his handler. Maybe there’ll be a revolution by the weekend.
You can see several of Thomas’ gorgeous, provocative, homemade individuals at the Storefront Theater. “Cabaret of Desire” is a 70-minute exploration of six short pieces by Federico Garcia Lorca, a renowned writer who actually penned works specifically for puppet theaters in the Andalusian tradition. He was a fan.
Thomas has performed some of Lorca’s puppet repertoire before, including “Buster Keaton’s Stroll,” a fascinating play performed inside a kind of oversized toy theater with fully playable brass instruments built into its structure. Lorca was compelled by Keaton’s sadness and Thomas skillfully picks up that note of the grotesque. Perched inside this eye-popping fantasy theater of his own creation, he looks like one crazy, obsessed puppeteer—which, for a puppeteer, is a compliment. It’s a great piece.
I wouldn’t compliment the entire show (which is co-directed by Sean Graney). Although visual theater geeks will be fascinated, the show is something of a stylistic jumble.
One appreciates the retro hipness of the intimate ambience, but the five cast members seem uncertain of their bodies and themselves. The show needs a deeper sensuality to fully do justice to Lorca and more visual cohesion. In this kind of work, we have to feel the pain and pleasures of the human cast members, as well as that of the puppets.
Thomas has long had a latent desire to miniaturize his shows almost to infinity—he’s never happier than when a scroll of images on a piece of paper moves past a single light source. That’s both the source of Thomas’ brilliance and his Achilles heel. The more of his work you see, the more you want him to interact with life as it is really lived.
You don’t typically stumble across a moving little show such as “A Rabbit’s Tale” in a park.
Most free, family-oriented outdoor entertainments are frenetic, low-budget affairs wherein an overworked crew of sweat-splattered performers sing or clown themselves ragged trying to attract — and maintain — the attention of pint-size summer revelers and their hassled minders.
But then, few green spaces in the world are as artistically oriented as Chicago’s Millennium Park, and very few cities have a native theater company such as Blair Thomas and Company, for which visual delicacy and an open heart are at the core of the art. Thomas has created the Fast Fish Puppet Theater to bring his style of work to children.
While one can win and maintain the attention of children in many different ways, an emotionally resonant tale, delicately and beautifully told with an eye on the fragility of life, can be as adhesive as toffee.
And you don’t always need the hyperkinetic, pink-haired young singer/dancers whose brand-promoting gyrations fill up the likes of Nickelodeon and Noggin. By contrast, the wordless “A Rabbit’s Tale” is enacted to the accompaniment of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” played live and beautifully by Mary Rose Jordan on a Steinway in the center of the stage of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, even as a puppet rabbit climbs on her piano stool.
Take away the show itself, and that would still be a fine and accessible performance for any child to hear. It surely was the best part of my Wednesday.
“A Rabbit’s Tale” was created for indoor performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But even with just a piano accompaniment, it still fills the Pritzker stage in very satisfying fashion. That’s because Thomas’ puppets are in the Bunraku style. One character, vaguely reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s “The Big Friendly Giant,” looks about 10 feet tall. When his huge hands accidentally crushed a puppet butterfly, the little girl next to me looked as if her world had temporarily come to an end.
“A Rabbit’s Tale,” which suggests the love of a big-eared critter can conquer even the meanest of creatures, has a redemptive ending that makes everyone smile. But it’s not a show that totally avoids loss or sadness. Even the youngest walker through a forest in a park has to learn something about the fragility of life.
‘A Rabbit’s Tale’
When: Through Aug. 24 (Sundays at 11 a.m. and Wednesdays at 3 p.m.)
Where: Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park
Running time: 40 minutes
No shows booked at the moment.