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When Theodora Skipitares, co-director of "Labapalooza! Mini Festival of New Puppet Theater," playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse, first became involved in puppetry 20 years ago, sophisticated performers appeared mostly in Europe. Then, 10 years ago, the Jim Henson family began producing large puppet festivals that brought the best companies from Europe, Asia and Africa to New York City.

These festivals "absolutely changed the face of puppetry in this country," says Skipitares. "Young artists began to see the connection with animation and began to experiment."

Skipitares’ own company, the Puppet Lab, which she directs with Dan Hurlin, has played no small part in the development of puppet artists.

Conceived by puppet designer and filmmaker Janie Geiser, and established by Arts at St. Ann’s in 1997, The Lab "gives young artists visibility and first-rate feedback from the group," Skipitares told GO Brooklyn.

Every year, "Labapalooza!" showcases the diverse works in progress at The Lab.

"In an ever-growing puppet community, we put out applications in the fall. In November, we go over the proposals and make the selections. We usually choose about eight artists to be members of The Lab," Skipitares says.

This year, Skipitares believes she has a particularly "fantastic" group. Some of the artists "have a great deal of conceptual work to be done," while others "are very mature and only need fine tuning." For both groups, The Lab "goes beyond puppetry and forms a great model for making art."

This year’s "Labapalooza! Mini Festival" is divided into two programs. The programs include Bunraku-style Japanese puppetry in which one puppeteer manipulates the puppet’s head and right hand, another the left hand, and a third the feet; shadow puppetry, where flat puppets are manipulated behind a translucent cloth, resulting in something like an animated film; and rod puppetry, in which the puppet artists use rods to operate the puppets.

The festival is divided into two programs. Program A includes "Still Sounds," Sarah Provost, Jane Stein and Nancy Salomon Miranda’s narrative, performed by realistic, 3-and-a-1/2-foot-tall puppets, about a woman alone in the woods, listening to the "sound collage" of her memories; "Useful Tables," Ed Woodham’s fable about tables that includes 10-inch-tall puppet tables with jointed legs, and a fashion show of tableware; Eva Lansberry’s "Maelstrom," an underwater production that relates 16th-century Scandinavian missionary Olaus Magnus’ quest to discover the peoples of northern Europe; and Brian Selznick’s "The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins," which depicts, in miniature, the life of this 19th-century artist who built the first life-sized dinosaurs.

Program B features Eric Novak’s "Fact Leaves Its Ghost," the second in a triptych inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon and the music of Charles Mingus; Jennifer Arave’s "Super America," which takes its title from a gas station chain in the Midwest and features actors manipulating a miniature gas station and cars in an everyday conflict that gets out of hand; Chris Maresca’s "Permanent Disruption," in which small-scale puppets demonstrate the perils of technology and surveillance; and Tom Lee’s "Hoplite Diary," an adaptation of Homer’s "Iliad" that uses shadow puppetry, live music, moving screens and other special effects.

GO Brooklyn spoke with the creator of "The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins." The 20-minute piece is based on the eponymous Randolph Caldecott Honor-winning children’s book written by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Selznick.

"In 1853, fossils had just been discovered," says Selznick. "[Hawkins] built the first life-sized dinosaurs before anyone knew what dinosaurs were."

Selznick calls his piece "toy theater." It takes place on a platform that has piles of dirt and, on the dirt, books, a desk and cabinets that open by themselves to reveal scenes that evoke the story, all to the musical accompaniment of works by Robert Een.
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"There’s a dinner party inside a dinosaur. There’s a ship that appears out of nowhere and sails across the desk by itself. Three encyclopedias open by themselves and tell a brief history of paleontology that shows the relationship between fossils and the ancient belief in dragons," says Selznick. "There are a lot of fishing lines."

Selznick, who is a visual artist and actor as well as a puppeteer, is a good example of Skipitares’ new breed of young American puppet artists. These people want puppetry to become a language for dance and theater and at the same time, integrate film, music, illustration and sculpture with the fundamentals of puppetry: storytelling and performance.

 

"Labapalooza! Mini Festival of New Puppet Theater" Program A will be performed May 23, May 25 and May 31. Program B will be May 24, May 30 and June 1. All shows begin at 8 pm. Tickets are $20. "Labapalooza" performances take place at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Waters St. at Dock Street in DUMBO. For tickets, call (718) 858-2424 (Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 pm to 7 pm) or visit www.ticketweb.com (up to two hours before show time).

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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