Detroiters will have a chance to enjoy a double helping of puppets this December, as two veteran local theater companies offer up original performances to the city's young at heart.
THE SNOW QUEEN
Fans of the PuppetART Detroit Puppet Theater are eagerly awaiting the December debut of "The Snow Queen," the troupe's new production that has been in the works for three years.
"We have a real loyal fan base of people, people who come to production after production," said Kelly Driscoll, PuppetART's Marketing and Development Director. "A lot of them have been with us from the beginning. That's why the people are so excited about 'The Snow Queen.'"
The production is based on one of Hans Christian Andersen's most popular stories, which tells the tale of a little girl's journey to save a little boy held captive at the North Pole by the Snow Queen. According to Driscoll, "The Snow Queen" will be a musical production featuring an original score and an operatic feel.
Driscoll said the Snow Queen puppet holds the record as the largest the theatre has ever created. The show's ensemble will include a menagerie of puppets that will likely be new to audience members. PuppetART has been documenting the progress of the new show online.
"We've been updating people with pictures of things of how things are progressing and how they're being built -- from point 'A' where the Snow Queen mask was just a clay mold to where it's at now, completely sculpted and decorated and just a phenomenal piece."
"Americans don't grow up with that professionalism in puppetry," Driscoll added. "We're used to sock puppets and paper bag puppets, but this is real artistry that combines all the arts, whether it's dance, music, theater or visual arts. It's all represented in the puppetry here."
PuppetART's creators celebrate different folk traditions from around the world. Their repertoire includes "Oh, Ananse," a West African folk tale, and "The Crane Maiden," which comes from a traditional Japanese story. The story of PuppetART itself began in the Soviet Union, the home country of its three founders.
In the 1980s, Luda Mikheyenko emigrated to the United States and set up a theater she named the American Russian Theater, a traditional company that featured live performances. Later on, Mikheyenko put out a notice that attracted PuppetART's other two founders, Igor Gozman, a master puppeteer, and Irina Baronovskaya, a puppeteer with a talent for designing puppets, costumes and sets. In 1998, the three decided reorganize the theater into a puppet troupe, although they preserved the original name "American Russian Theater" in the capitalized "ART" of the group's name.
The troupe offers nine other performances throughout the year. PuppetART also provides tours of its workshop and puppet museum.
"The Snow Queen" starts Dec. 3 and runs through the month of January. PuppetART is located in Detroit’s Theater District, just a few blocks from the Michigan Opera Theater. For more information, visit www.puppetart.org.
'PUPPET SCROOGE' MOVES IN NEW DIRECTION
The opening night of Matrix Theatre's annual performance of "Puppet Scrooge" will be very different from those of Puppet Scrooges past. The show, which debuted four years ago, will bring a new director and new puppets to this year's stage. Director Meranda Stewart has set the story based on Charles Dickens's holiday classic "A Christmas Carol" in modern-day Detroit and has added another twist: The new Scrooge is a woman.
The new character, Stewart said, is "broken down by mundaness of life -- who has given up on love, hope and the holiday spirit."
Ebenezer Scrooge has become "Pecunia Scrooge, the selfish and mean spirited owner of a check-cashing store" who must "face the error of her ways." The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future make cameos as well, along with the spirit of Marley and a couple of new friends.
Stewart has also taken some liberties with the tone and pacing of the production, turning the piece into freewheeling musical comedy.
The company's playwriting coordinator, Amy Keller, wrote most of the songs for "Puppet Scrooge," which are updated Christmas carols, with help from Stewart and voice actor Josh Wild.
Originally, the performance featured a mix of live actors and puppets, but the show now features a full puppet ensemble. The cast of voice actors and puppeteers comes from the local community and even includes a couple of circus performers, Stewart said.
While working on the production, Stewart said she tried to give a voice to everyone working on the project. But in a twist of irony, Stewart lost her own voice shortly after being hired in June. She underwent vocal surgery and was silent for three months. Matrix supported Stewart and allowed her to continue with the production.
"I wrote and [planned out] the show on a white board," she said, "and started being able to talk again while directing 'Puppet Scrooge.'"
The Matrix Theatre prides itself on being a socially-engaged theater company with strong roots in southwest Detroit. This year marks its 20th anniversary.
"Puppet Scrooge" will run weekends this month, from Dec. 2 to Dec. 18. Matrix Theatre is located on 2730 Bagley in Southwest Detroit. For more information, visit matrixtheatre.org.