5 Theatres You Need to Know: Puppet Theatres in NYC
By JONATHAN MANDELL
Thursday, June 20, 2019  •  
Thu Jun 20, 2019  •  
5 Theatres to Know  •   0 comments Share This

Where to see marionettes and other puppets on stage, including cutting-edge shows for grown-ups

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The heyday of the year-round, brick-and-mortar puppet theatre may have passed with the closing of Greenwich Village's Bil Baird Marionette Theater, where I got my first job, at age 11, as an usher. But you can still find plenty of puppets on NYC stages. There are two tiny theatres that remain dedicated to puppetry, one in Central Park, the other in Park Slope, both geared toward children. The more innovative puppet theatre, which is primarily for adults and sometimes called object theatre, has shifted to festivals at avant-garde havens.

There's also plenty of eye-popping puppetry on Broadway, notably in The Lion King, Beetlejuice, King Kong and Frozen, and The New Victory Theater and Lincoln Center Kids often present puppet productions. If you want to keep up-to-date on all puppet-related events in New York, I recommend signing up for the Jim Henson Foundation's Puppet Happenings email list .

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PuppetMobile
PuppetMobile's 'Bessie's Big Shot;' photo courtesy of the City Parks Foundation

1. Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre
In Central Park at West 79th Street and West Drive

Frederick Law Olmsted, who co-designed Central Park with Calvert Vaux, placed the charming, Swedish-built cottage in the green space in 1877. Since 1947, it's served as the home base for the traveling CityParks PuppetMobile, a troupe that presents FREE performances in parks and rec centers throughout the five boroughs. In 1973, the City Parks Foundation constructed a permanent, sit-down marionette theatre inside the building, where hour-long shows, mostly fairy tales adapted with a modern twist, run year-round. There's even a front-row bench for very young theatregoers, so they'll have the best view in the house.

What's next? At Swedish Cottage, you can currently catch Puss in Boots, a tale of two friends, Fergus and his clever cat Puss, who go on a magical adventure. PuppetMobile is touring Bessie's Big Shot, about a cow with circus star dreams, throughout NYC for FREE through the end of the summer. Both are ideal and inexpensive first-time theatre experiences for tots.

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'The Frog Prince' at Puppetworks; photo courtesy of the theatre

2. Puppetworks
338 Sixth Avenue at 4th Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn

Brooklynite Nicolas Coppola has been smitten with puppetry since the third grade, becoming a professional puppeteer at age 19 in 1954, and opening Puppetworks in 1980. Its location in family-friendly Park Slope makes it a rite of passage for neighborhood tots, who sit on a mat by the stage as they watch adaptations of classic fairy tales featuring quaint handmade wooden marionettes.

What's next? A double bill of the classics, Peter & the Wolf and The Frog Prince, both adapted by Coppola himself, runs through August 10.

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'Eva's Heart' at St. Ann's Warehouse's LABAPALOOZA!; photo by Teddy Wolff

3. St. Ann's Warehouse Puppet Lab and LABAPALOOZA!
45 Water Street near Old Dock Street in Dumbo, Brooklyn

Cutting-edge culture hub St. Ann's had its first success with puppetry in 1983 with a puppet version of Gioachino Rossini's comic opera The Barber of Seville. Bread & Puppet Theater made St. Ann's its New York City home for years, as did celebrated experimental interdisciplinary artist Janie Geiser, who helped create its Puppet Lab in 1997. Over the course of nine months, participants meet weekly to develop new puppet and object theatre works. The program culminates each spring in the annual LABAPALOOZA! showcase.

What's next? St. Ann's next LABAPALOOZA! takes place in spring 2020.

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'Exodus' at the La MaMa Puppet Festival; photo by Philippe Van Bossche

4. La MaMa Puppet Festival
66 East 4th Street between Bowery and Second Avenue in the East Village

Experimental theatre mecca La MaMa began its love affair with the puppetry arts in 1962, when founder Ellen Stewart invited puppeteers from Korea to perform. A few years later, she asked Ralph Lee to create puppet pieces for the theatre; he went on to help launch the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in 1973, which continues to showcase large masks and puppets in its annual procession. La MaMa Archives, which one can visit by appointment, is filled with wondrous and inventive puppets created for productions at the theatre over the decades. In 2004, it debuted the biennial La MaMa Puppet Festival, which showcases a range of boundary-pushing puppet works, both in form and content. At the 2018 edition, there were puppet shows that explored the killing of black men, the refugee crisis and disability.

What's next? The next La MaMa Puppet Festival takes place in November 2020. But you can catch puppet shows throughout the theatre's season, including a bio-puppet play about 17th-century African-American naturalist Benjamin Banneker by Theodora Skipitares next January, and Loco7 Dance Puppet Theatre Company's Seucy and the Giants in spring. Sign up for La MaMa's email list to stay on top of its diverse offerings.

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5. HERE Arts Center Dream Music Puppetry
145 Sixth Avenue, entrance on Dominick Street in Hudson Square

Dream Music Puppetry was launched in 1998 under the direction of Basil Twist -- the only puppet artist ever to be named a MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellow -- with his Obie-winning underwater spectacle Symphonie Fantastique. Every year, the program commissions and develops new, adult-aimed puppet-and-music works and presents them, either as full productions or as works in progress, in its downstairs Dorothy B. Williams Theatre. There's always a wide array of styles and subject matter. This past season, I saw two eerie works based on true stories: Ashes, by the Norwegian-French company Plexus Polaire, about a pyromaniac who destroyed his small village, and Nick Lehane's Chimpanzee about a monkey in captivity in a science lab.

What's next? On December 2-3, HERE will present its cutting-edge Winter Puppet Parlor featuring performances by Peekaboo Pointe, Admiral Grey and Ty Defoe. Sign up for the theatre's email list to stay on top of all its offerings.

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Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Wunderkammer at La MaMa Puppet Festival 2018. Photo by Klaus Kühn.

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