Accidental Critic: Puppets and Poems


I’ve been a fan of puppetry and a patron of puppet theatre for years, and I like almost any kind of puppetry, from hand-held dolls and shadow puppets to giant, larger-than-life puppets that dwarf the humans manipulating them.

This weekend I saw puppetry like I’ve never seen before—live humans functioning as shadow puppets, interacting with inanimate shadow puppets via the magic of projection.

The occasion was a special performance of “No Blue Memories” by the multidisciplinary performance group Manual Cinema, sponsored jointly by the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and the Poetry Foundation in conjunction with the centennial celebration of poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ birth. The performance was basically a biography of Brooks, but a multisensory, multimedia production that was the antithesis of dusty history. This show brought Brooks’ poetry to life along with her personal story and placed it beautifully in context with the real-world events and culture that inspired the poet.

The basic mechanics consisted of shadow puppets projected onto a small screen through the use of four overhead projectors; a cast of live actors who interacted with the on-screen images; and the human-puppet interaction projected onto a much larger screen at the front of the stage. Basically pretty simple, but ingenious; I’ve never seen this done before. The actors spoke their parts, making this very much a live theater performance; and a live band contributed a musical score that was both atmospheric and evocative.

Interspersed throughout the performance were readings of five of Brooks’ poems—Eventide; Beverly Hills, Chicago; We Real Cool; The Third Sermon on the Warpland; and Speech to the Young – Speech to the Progress-Toward—plus Haki Madhubuti’s poem called Gwendolyn Brooks. All of this was punctuated by the live music, which often echoed the poetry.

The effect was powerfully immersive, which is exactly what Brooks’ poetry deserves. The focus moved seamlessly from screen to musician and occasionally to live actor. The audiences’ ability to watch the puppeteers and live actors along with their simultaneous projection as a puppet show somehow added to the magic by revealing its mechanics. Audience members were invited on-stage after the performance to talk with the cast and see the mechanics up close, and the queue stretched the length of the theater.

This promotional video from Manual Cinema gives a good glance at the show:

Though the show had a very limited run of three ticketed performances, it’s also being brought to Chicago public school students in a week-long series of shows, along with workshops in both puppetry and poetry for high school students. I’m thrilled that the collaboration includes this educational component for Chicago’s public school students; kudos to the Poetry Foundation and puppet festival for making that happen!

Though the public performances of “No Blue Memories” were limited to this weekend, the puppet festival also is offering a neighborhood tour of free performances this spring across Chicago. That’s just a spring teaser. The real puppet festival is a biennial event and runs Jan. 17-27, 2019.

Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

Poetry Foundation

Manual Cinema

Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems: Poetry Foundation

Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems: Poetry Society of America

“Gwendolyn Brooks,” by Haki Madhubuti

Gwendolyn Brooks centennial celebration in Chicago

Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net.