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

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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

Mayo Street's McGough grew up in Portland and fell in love with puppetry while doing an internship with Parker as a college student.

She opened Mayo Street as a nonprofit arts center with her partner, Brian Arlet, and it hosts events beyond puppetry.

But largely because of McGough's background, the place has become the hub of puppet activity in Maine.

"I saw puppetry as this anti-technology activity that allows you to be so creative," said McGough. "I just knew I wanted to do it."

The most recent puppet slam at Mayo Street was a November production called "King Friday's Dungeon." It featured King Friday from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" transformed into a foul-mouthed old coot, as well as other acts.

Last year, Mayo Street also hosted puppet versions of Homer's "The Odyssey" and Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" -- both put on by Shoestring Theater -- as well as a puppet version of the opera "Hansel and Gretel" by Paper Bull Puppets.


Some local puppeteers, especially those who are now in their 20s or 30s, say the Muppets and "Sesame Street" had a huge impact in terms of turning them on to puppetry, even if the puppetry they do now isn't just for children.

"That can't be underestimated," said Endy, 36, of Portland. "Puppets are really object theater, the idea of using anything other than human actors to tell a story. So that means puppetry can be extremely diverse."

Portland's scene includes lots of different kinds of puppets, such as the tiny paper puppets being used in the "Frankenstein" movie, Sicilian marionettes, simple cloth puppets, rod-activated puppets and giant papier-mache heads and masks.

For Paper Bull Puppets' "Hansel and Gretel" opera, the puppetry was in the Japanese Bunraku style. That means the puppets were roughly the size of children, operated by three people each, who are seen on stage. One of the operators also had to be a skilled opera singer.

Although puppet scenes like the one existing in Portland aren't rare in the United States, they're often found in larger cities such as New York or San Francisco.

Tara McDonough grew up in Maine, but was doing theater in San Francisco when she discovered her passion for performing with puppets. She became part of a troupe that did unscripted shows with hand and rod puppets.

"Puppets allow me to play characters I can't play as a person. And you can get away with things with a puppet, because they have a likability that allows you to push the audience's trust," said McDonough, 42.

When she moved back to Maine after 15 years away, McDonough began doing theater productions and found other folks interested in unscripted puppet shows.

Thus was born the Improvised Puppet Project. The puppeteers in the group don't follow a script, they use their puppets to improvise a performance. They base their performances on suggestions from the audience.

McDonough said that once she started talking to other local folks about puppets, she began to realize the puppet scene was bigger here than she thought.

Puppeteers in Portland are sort of a sub-genre of the larger arts community. But like most artists here, few, if any, make a full-time living doing what they love.

Parker works as a teacher and is a painter, McDonough does marketing work for the Portland Symphony Orchestra, and Endy, besides teaching at East End School, works for the city's public facilities division helping to set up concerts and events.

Two people who did make a living in puppetry for years are John and Carol Farrell, founders of Figures of Speech Theatre in Freeport. Their theater company performed around the world for years, with both of them working full time in the company.

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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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