More than 500 of the nation’s puppeteers have converged on Swarthmore College this week for their bi-annual festival of performances, workshops and wide-eyed puppet geekery.
As far as atmosphere, this year’s newly titled Puppet (r)Evolution falls somewhere between a comic convention and a professional development seminar. Participants gush about their best technique for silly voices and their favorite shows of the festival, but they also get the chance to learn basic computer programing for robotic puppets or technique for coaching professional actors to be puppeteers.
The performance lineup is dominated by high-brow, PG-13 acts—after all, there’s life beyond Kermit the Frog and Elmo—but the festival also leaves room for puppet-enthusiasts to tinker.
It’s that love of play that drew Fergus J. Walsh, a New York-by-way-of-Ireland puppeteer, away from his day job and back to the art form he loved as a child.
“I actually was an accountant for six years, and I hated that so much,” he said, “so I ran away with the circus and I became a puppeteer.”
This week, Walsh is teaching a group of festival-goers how to go from a pencil-and-paper sketch to a clay-molded puppet in a few days.
In the backyard of festival director Robert Smythe, the founder of Philadelphia’s Mum Puppettheatre, Walsh’s group would look like they were having a barbecue if not for the clay blocks each participant shaves and kneads.
“It’s like you don’t put clay on, you sort of take clay off,” said Richard Brown of Kentucky as he pinched off bits of clay from his block and worked them onto his wooden mold stand. “It’ll decide what it wants to look like.”
Brown owns a puppet store in artisan-friendly Berea and also performs as a ventriloquist.
“I don’t name my puppets for a while. I work with them. We work together,” he added. “The puppet sort of has its own personality. I know that it’s me, but it isn’t me.”
Up the hill on campus, Ruth Coppersmith tried her hand at finger-puppetry.
“Oh, this is my first time officially with finger puppets,” she admitted, “but it was something that I have always done to amuse myself or any little or big children that happen to be around.”
A former American Sign Language translator from Vermont, Coppersmith spent the morning letting her fingers do the walking and the dancing at a workshop called “Finger Film Action.”
Workshop leader Leat Klingman started making finger-puppet films seven years ago. Since then, she’s advanced well beyond the basics.
“I started building heads and bodies and wings … lots of music and dances and lots of different kinds of puppets. I really got into it very seriously,” she said.
But while waiting for the next pair of puppeteers to curl their arms over the posterboard backdrop for filming, Klingman added that people shouldn’t take her craft too seriously.
“You give them a feather and a pair of boots and they’re doing it—and enjoying,” she said.
The National Festival of the Puppeteers of America runs through Saturday.