Not Your Average Puppet Show

CNC Newspapers, November 2000

Disney. Pokemon. Barbie. How can we parents hope to interest our 21st century children in finer culture like theatre, for example, when there is so much cultural junk food around them that is competing for their attention?

We can begin at the Puppet Showplace Theatre, right here in Brookline. Although Puppet Showplace has been around for 27 years, it is brand new, vividly reborn, alive with accessible art. Possibly the oldest continuously-run puppet theatre in the country, and serving as the home to the Boston Guild of Puppetry, as well as to national and international puppetry groups, the Puppet Showplace is strongly grounded in the great tradition of theatrical arts. Since the Showplace’s founder, Mary Churchill, died three years ago, the theatre staff has been working not only to keep the art of puppetry alive according to Churchill’s vision, but to expand its reach beyond youngsters all the way to adults.

Karen Larsen, artistic director to the Showplace, finds that the medium of puppetry allows an unparalleled freedom of artistic expression. “You can do things with puppets that you can’t do with anything else. You can control a whole world.” From stage management, to special effects, to direction, to the ‘actors’ themselves, with puppetry, one can take their own vision and have complete artistic control over the outcome. Though fairy tales are their most popular basis for productions, the Puppet Showplace often takes traditional stories, such as Little Red Riding Hood, and reinterprets them in ways that get their audiences thinking and questioning, in this case casting Red Riding Hood as a dental student who, instead of using violence against the wolf, ended up extracting his teeth. Or, in the case of the upcoming production of Beauty and the Beast, presented by Showplace Artist-in-Residence Paul Vincent Davis, which promises to be nothing like the popular Disney version. The Showplace hopes to attract an older audience to this show which is “very sophisticated and beautifully costumed,” according to Showplace Executive Director Jovonna Van Pelt. Van Pelt sees Beauty and the Beast as an example of the Showplace’s new outreach to older children and their families. She hopes to begin new traditions for Boston area families with this sort of production “like they’d come to see the Nutcracker… really aimed toward school-aged kids, [with] Friday evening performances… for kids 9 and up.” Indeed, along with new shows for older children, the Showplace plans to have shows that will appeal to teenagers, college students, and adults, in the form of adult cabaret, and “Puppet Slam,” open mike nights for experimental puppetry, people just getting into puppet theatre, and puppet theatre with adult themes like politics.

Adults and children will enjoy the new brightly-painted look of the Puppet Showplace as well as the myriad new offerings. From the moment you walk through the door, you are charmed and charged by the colorful, playful atmosphere of the place. Your children will find themselves led gently and skillfully into the world of theatre. As Larsen puts it, “It’s their first introduction to theatre… and it needs to be something magical.” And that is just what the Showplace provides: compelling, thought-provoking magic. It begins with the artful, sensitive way they leave the lights on during the performances for the very young, and ends with how they provide a question and answer period for after the performance. An afternoon or evening with the Puppet Showplace Theatre promises a vivid, meaningful cultural experience for children and their parents — as far removed from Disney as you can get, but still lots of fun.