Puppets: Not just for Geppetto anymore

Feeling tied down by massive amounts of work? Want to live life without so many strings attached? That’s too bad. But speaking of strings, how about them puppets?

This month, The Brew House in the South Side will be hosting the Black Sheep Puppet Festival for the eighth year. The festival “is an international showcase of contemporary innovations in puppetry as an art form and performance medium,“ according to its website, www.blacksheeppuppet.com.

Once again, puppeteers and artists from all over the U.S. and Canada will return for a month-long festival promoting puppetry in its modern form. While the resources are paltry and the puppets are not extremely high-tech, sincere passion for puppetry has been clearly displayed at the past seven festivals. Many of the artists return year after year with new projects and creations to show off.

Pittsburgh native Tom Sarver, this year’s curator and the one who has been integral to the festival since its inception, is currently opening a museum called the Tom Museum in conjunction with the Mattress Factory. As part of this festival, he will be conducting a make-your-own-puppet day at the Mattress Factory, during which workshops will be held for introductory puppet-making.

The festival started in 1999. A group of artists that worked in The Brew House at the time wanted to bring something new and different to The Brew House — something that displays the cutting edge, experimental forms of puppet,” Sarver said. “I was in school in Philadelphia studying painting, had just started doing puppet shows, and happened to run into the people doing the festival. Getting involved in the puppet festival helped me get more into it and keep up with it as an art form. It was really inspiring for me.”

Sarver described the festival’s target audience as “basically the arts community in Pittsburgh. The evening shows are more edgy and sophisticated — for adults and kids 12 and above. But we have stuff for all ages, like the children’s matinee.”

In past years, the festival has attracted a mixed crowd, part of which is Carnegie Mellon students. According to Sarver, “The festival features not only puppet shows, but also art that explores the boundaries of puppetry such as performance art or theater groups that use puppets, which makes it a great resource for art students at Carnegie Mellon.”

This year, one of the main attractions will be the artist-in-residence, Beth Nixon. Nixon, an influential name in the puppet scene who holds puppetry performance workshops in schools across the country, has participated in several previous Black Sheep festivals. She will be creating an installation space and, within it, setting up an exhibit depicting the interactions between people and animals and how the two share spaces. In this installation, visitors and puppet enthusiasts will be able to see the puppet-making process and an insider’s view into the construction of large scale, papier-mache puppets.

Other events include screenings of Jan Svankmajer’s film Lunacy, workshops about set construction, and performances by international puppeteers. Many of the main stage performances are recommended for adults only; however, some of the events are designed for the entire family. The Fromage Du Jour Players will be presenting The Stinky Cheese Man at the family matinee, and Diana Vencius will perform her own rendition of Edward Lear’s The Owl and The Pussycat.

The Black Sheep Puppet Festival is being funded by The Brew House Association, the Heinz Endowments, and many individual contributors. In addition, the Pittsburgh City Paper is its official media sponsor.

This festival promises to be innovative and unusual: Using Google Images, search for Black Sheep Puppet Festival to get an idea of exhibits from previous years. It may not be Jim Henson-esque, or reminiscent of that scene from The Sound of Music in any way, but it certainly pushes the boundaries of puppetry.