January 28, 2013

Puppet movers, shakers create lively art scene

Portland grabs a national spotlight as a center for theatrical puppetry for adults.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Blainor McGough is often surrounded by puppets. But it's not always like a scene out of "Sesame Street" or "The Muppet Show."

click image to enlarge

Blainor McGough, executive director of Mayo Street Arts in Portland, will use some of these marionettes in an upcoming production of “Alice in Wonderland.”

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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John Farrell of Figures of Speech Theatre in Freeport with a giant puppet he created to portray the witch Sycorax in “The Tempest.” Farrell and his wife, Carol, were among the first puppet theater artists based in Maine and have taken their performances around the world.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below



WHEN: 6 p.m. Feb. 17, March 31 and April 28, and the last Sunday of every month for the rest of the year

WHERE: Acorn Studios, 90 Bridge St., Westbrook

COST: Pay what you can; suggested donation of $10

INFO: improvisedpuppetproject.com


WHEN: Shows are between March 10 and April 28; exact dates to be announced. Shows will include local and national puppet acts.

WHERE: Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo St., Portland

COST: To be determined

INFO: mayostreetarts.org


WHEN: 2 p.m. June 29

WHERE: Portland Performing Arts Festival, exact location to be announced

COST: To be determined

INFO: portlandfestival.org

McGough, 38, runs a nonprofit business called Mayo Street Arts, a three-year-old performance center in a refurbished Portland church. Lately, Mayo Street has become the center of the Portland area's large, vibrant and not necessarily kid-friendly puppet theater scene.

It's a scene that includes adult-themed "puppet slams," puppet operas, puppet versions of Charles Dickens stories -- even puppets acting out Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey."

And it's a scene that has attracted national attention, including a visit to Mayo Street Arts in 2011 by Heather Henson, a leading puppetry promoter and daughter of the late Jim Henson, the Muppets creator. A group that Henson started, the Puppet Slam Network, even gave Mayo Street a $2,000 "slam grant" last year.

"Oh, I love what they've done with the slams at Mayo Street," said Marsian De Lellis, the Los Angeles-based coordinator of the Puppet Slam Network. "There aren't many places in the Northeast that small doing slams like that."

But it's not just slams, which consist of a variety of short-form plays for adults that use (and sometimes abuse) puppets as part of the drama. Greater Portland is quickly becoming puppet central. Besides the happenings at Mayo Street, the local puppet scene includes:

The Improvised Puppet Project, which in February will begin staging monthly performances at Acorn Studios in Westbrook, and is planning a summer performance called "The Post Apocalyptic Improvised Zombie Puppet Musical."

Figures of Speech Theatre in Freeport, where members of the puppet theater's student ensemble are making a film version of "Frankenstein" using small paper puppets.

Peaks Island Puppets, which is working on a piece called "The Rudder Family Holiday Planner: A Guide to the New Jewish."

Alex Endy, a frequent puppet slam participant at Mayo Street, who teaches morning puppet workshops at Portland's East End Community School.

Several groups, including Mayo Street, Portland's Shoestring Theater and students from Maine College of Art, that are collaborating on a production of "Alice in Wonderland" using Sicilian marionettes for the Portland Performing Arts Festival in June.

So what do all these puppet happenings -- as well as the attention they've garnered from Henson -- tell us?

For one, that Portland has an incredibly vibrant and large puppet scene for a relatively small city.

Second, that puppets as entertainment can be a lot more than what Howdy Doody or Kermit the Frog had previously led many of us to believe.

"There is a renaissance in puppetry right now, and I do think there's more going on in Portland than in a lot of places," said Libby Marcus, a longtime puppeteer and puppet maker who was based in Boston for years before moving to Portland in 1999, when her husband got a job at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. "I've certainly seen an increase in (puppeteers) since I've been here."


Why Portland has gained such a potpourri of puppetry is hard to say.

Many local puppeteers say it's at least partly because Maine continually attracts creative, artistic people. So an offshoot of that is a lively puppet scene.

But people also say that while Portland has always had a puppet scene -- both Shoestring and Figures of Speech Theatre are puppet theater companies that have been around for some 30 years -- it has become so much more visible since Mayo Street opened in 2009 and gave puppeteers a concrete place to practice their art.

"Puppetry has always been a sort of underground, back-room type of art form," said Nance Parker, who has run Shoestring Theater while holding down a variety of day jobs since 1982. "But now Mayo Street gives everyone in the puppet community a place to come."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Students Sarah Grace, left, and Charlotte Spritz work on producing a film version of “Frankenstein” using small paper puppets at Figures of Speech Theatre in Freeport.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer


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