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Emerging puppet artists will once again present their works-in-progress at the annual "Labapalooza!" mini festival of new puppet theater at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, May 28 through June 6.

In the vanguard of the two-decade-long march from children’s entertainment to mainstream media (witness Broadway’s "Avenue Q"), Arts at St. Ann’s has been nurturing puppet artists in its Puppet Lab since 1997.

"The lab is a development think tank," says "Labapalooza!" director Dan Hurlin. "We look over applications in the fall, and out of 25 or so, we select about eight to sink time and resources into. Being part of the lab doesn’t mean you have to show. These are works-in-progress. Sometimes they aren’t ready to show. And that is fine."

This year, Hurlin has joined forces with David Neumann.

"He’s had experience with puppetry," says Hurlin. "He choreographed Amy Trumpeter’s ’The Barber of Seville’ last year at St. Ann’s Warehouse. I thought it would be great to have a choreographer. Ultimately, it’s always the movement of the puppets - that’s how the puppets speak. Puppetry is closer to dance than to theater. I thought it would be good to have someone who speaks the language of puppets."

But if puppets all speak the same language, they have many different accents. Hurlin says he uses the broader definition of puppets, which is "any performing object." Among the types of puppets that will be on stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse are Japanese bunraku (up to three puppeteers onstage manipulating a puppet), string puppets (also known as marionettes), a hand puppet (performing a duet with an actor) and shadow puppets (where the puppet is behind a screen and seen by the audience as a silhouette).

Hurlin adds, "We have some puppets that don’t fit nicely into a category. You can’t say they’re string puppets or rod puppets."

This year’s "Labapalooza!" is divided into two programs.

Program A includes "Bedcase," the story of a young woman crippled in a trolley accident; "The Attic," an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairytale "Jorinda and Joringle"; "If You Take a Fish Out of Water, Will it Swim?" in which an elderly woman recalls her travels through Indonesia and the Netherlands; and "The Biggest Play in the World," about a playwright struggling to produce a work of genius without becoming consumed by her characters.

Program B includes a meditation on the beauty and terror of technology, "The Bird Machine, an excerpt: Leo’s Dream"; the second part of a chronicle of sleazy goings-on in a disreputable hotel, "The 47th Street Hotel, Part 2: A Little Thong and Pants"; the story of a 50-year-old Civil War soldier, "Civil Woman"; and the tale of a tree branch that gets struck by lightning, comes to life and finds love with its accompanying sorrow, "The Adventures of Charcoal Boy."

Explaining the puppet artist selection process, Hurlin says, "We look for a history of being able to pull off ideas. We look at their work samples - videos and drawings. We’re basically looking for interesting projects. It’s very subjective. David and I work closely with the artists, so we want to make sure we’re excited about their projects."

What excites Hurlin the most is the small, intimate scale that is possible and the freedom that is inherent in puppetry.

"I like puppetry that looks for things human beings can’t do. Puppets defy gravity. They can fall apart and come together again," he says.

Hurlin explains that he was introduced to working in scale when he was doing children’s theater in New Hampshire. Later, when he was performing in an avant-garde show in which he played up to 60 characters, he learned that "objects could be useful as stand-ins for human beings." Finally, after visiting the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M., where he saw an exhibit of toy theaters, Hurlin decided to make puppetry his life’s work.

Although most countries have indigenous forms of puppetry for adults, in the United States, the art form has been largely relegated to children’s entertainment. Hurlin believes this is partly because in England, Punch and Judy puppet shows, which had started as street entertainment that incorporated the news of the day, had become children’s entertainment by the 1700s. And it was as children’s entertainment that puppetry was brought across the Atlantic. In the 20th century, puppetry’s collaboration with television in shows like the ’50s "Howdy Doody" and ’60s "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" cemented the bond.

Then in the early 1990s, Jim Hensen (of Muppets fame), created the biannual Hensen International Festival of Puppet Theater, with events all over Manhattan.

"The festival was very visible and very exciting and incredibly invigorating," says Hurlin.

Inspired by this success, "Labapalooza!" continues to celebrate the creative spirit, technical skills and collaborations that make puppetry both provocative and entertaining.


St. Ann’s Warehouse presents "Labapalooza!" in two programs: Program A plays May 28 and June 5 at 8 pm, and June 6 at 3 pm; and Program B plays May 29 at 8 pm, May 30 at 3 pm and June 4 at 8 pm. Tickets are $20 for one evening or $30 for both. St. Ann’s Warehouse is located at 38 Water St. at Dock Street in DUMBO. For tickets, call (718) 254-8779 or visit (up to three hours before show time).

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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