Detroit, Michigan – Apparently, Detroit has the second-largest theater district in the country (after Broadway). Who knew?
In the heart of it all, there is a tiny little theater devoted to the art of puppetry: PuppetART
The place was founded by a group of Russian emigres, most of whom learned their craft at the Obraztsov Puppet Theater. We did not get a chance to visit this celebrated Moscow theater on our last trip, so what a treat to discover this spin-off.
The grandparents took the twins to see Kolobok, a Russian fairy tale that is similar to the Gingerbread Man. I tagged along too. The theater uses all kinds of puppets and puts on all kinds of performances, drawing on traditions from around the world. But I was pleased that we had the chance to see a traditional Russian story, which must certainly be their specialty. In fact, Kolobok was the original premier at PuppetART, way back in 1998. (And thanks to PuppetART for the image.)
The theater itself is small, with about a dozen rows of seats and a pint-sized stage. I suppose everything has to be scaled back when the performers are puppets. Also on site, there is a museum, with magnificent puppets from all over the world, as well as a studio, where kids experiment with making and manning their own puppets.
Unfortunately, we arrived shortly before the show started. Too bad, because there was plenty to see at the museum–puppets scary and sad, funny and glad. We spent only a few minutes, but I’m sure the twins would have been entertained for much longer if we had the time.
Also too bad, because we got the worst seats in the house, which are in the second row. Further back, the small auditorium is graded, but the second row is not. (Thank goodness for laps.)
The show commenced with two woodland sprites (who would later become puppeteers), frolicking in the forest. This long introduction was not part of the plot line. In fact, nothing really happened, aside from setting the scene and establishing these two playful creatures as fixtures on the stage. Nonetheless, Twin S would later report that this was his favorite part of the show.
In fact, the twins were enthralled throughout the one-hour show, and so was I. They didn’t take their eyes off the stage–despite the slow pace of the performance. I get so tired of the constantly moving, fast-changing visuals that fly across the screen on TV and at the movie theater. Sometimes I can barely keep track of what’s happening, so I know my kids can’t.
In this show, the scene didn’t change and movements were measured. Yet the children in the audience were rapt. How refreshing.
In his introduction, the Artistic Director Igor Gozman observed that puppetry is universal–that is, every culture in the world uses puppets of some form or other for education and entertainment. At first I was skeptical that other cultures have as rich a tradition as Russia… but then I remembered the hand-painted marionettes that are for sale on the streets of Prague and the dragon puppets that celebrate Chinese New Year.
Then I was down on America, as I started to think that we might be the only culture in the world that does not really have a tradition of puppetry.
And then I remembered Sesame Street. Which kind of made me feel better, but it kind of didn’t.
I’m not dissing the Muppets, but this is a sad state of affairs. The American puppet tradition is almost exclusively an on-screen phenomenon. (No, Sesame Street Live does not count.)
Fortunately, you don’t have to go all the way to Russia to experience Russian puppet theater. And you don’t have to leave the country to experience other puppet rich cultures, as there are a smattering of theaters keeping the art alive for Americans who care to turn off their televisions. Here are a few in the New England – New York area:
Puppet Showcase Theater, Brookline, Massachusetts
Drawbridge Puppet Theater, Lunenburg, Massachusetts
Bread & Puppet Theater, Glover, Vermont
Puppetworks, Inc, Brooklyn, New York
If anybody has experienced any of these (or other) puppet theaters, I’d love to hear feedback.