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Puppets for the public 

Savannah hosts regional Puppet Gumbo festival

Savannah is about to be overrun by puppets.

The Southeast Region Puppeteers of America is holding a regional conference called the 2008 Puppet Gumbo Festival, and the Savannah Coastal Puppetry Guild is hosting it. Angela Beasley, who created the Puppet People in Savannah in 1973, is heading a group of volunteers to make it all happen.

“In even years, the Puppeteers of America have regional festivals all over the country,” she says. “In odd years, there is a national festival. This is an even year.

“For eight years, the Southeast Region Puppeteers wanted to have one in Savannah,” Beasley says. “It’s finally here, thanks to SCAD, one of our sponsors . I’m so happy.”

Puppeteers from around the world will be in attendance. “We’ll have regional as well as national entertainers from as far as California, Chicago, Cincinnati, Orlando, Tampa and Nashville,” Beasley says.

“We’ve got a group that’s coming all the way from Taiwan,” she says. “The Taiwanese government paid their way to come to the festival.”

Most puppeteer conferences are private. “Usually, they go into a community, camp out at a college campus, have all kinds of wonderful stuff and leave,” Beasley says.

The event won’t be so private in Savannah. “We’re making it a community event,” Beasley says. “There will be a free street fair in Johnson Square with a free puppet-making booth manned by three different puppet guilds. They’re bringing in the supplies and are volunteering to teach children how to do make-and-take puppets.”

At the street fair, one puppeteer will teach children how to make giant parade puppets. “She has all the parts and pieces,” Beasley says. “Twice that day, we’ll be having mini-parades in the square with children and puppets.”

Other events at the street fair will include craft booths, stage performances, jugglers, educational booths and a puppet flea market. All work is strictly volunteer.

“People from all over are putting it together,” Beasley says. “They want to advance the art of puppetry.”

Puppeteers who attend the conference will participate in classes and seminars. “People can learn how to be a puppeteer,” Beasley says.

In addition to the street fair, the public can attend several puppet shows that will be presented throughout the festival. Some of the puppeteers are well known.

“Hobey Ford is a Savannah favorite,” Beasley says. “People know his name and that of his Golden Rod Puppets. He’s received numerous citations and grants, as well as international puppetry citations.”

Another puppeteer who will perform is Heather Henson, daughter of the late Jim Henson, the genius behind the Muppets. “She doesn’t realize she’s the princess of a dynasty, but that’s endearing,” Beasley says.

Henson’s IBEX Puppetry will present Panther & Crane on June 13 at Trustees Theater. “Heather’s always been a dancer, so you know she’s going to have lots of dancers in her show,” Beasley says.

“She’s also a filmmaker, which makes her doubly interesting to the crowd in Savannah because of the film productions out of SCAD. She has a network of puppet filmmakers, called Handmade Puppet Dreams, with a national stable of puppet filmmakers she promotes and encourages. We’re going to show some of the films at Red Gallery.”

Being a puppeteer is like no other job. “It’s not like something you ever retire from,” Beasley says. “We make it look easy if we’re doing a good job, but it’s not easy. It’s the most fun hard job you’d ever do. You don’t really feel the pain until after.”

In addition to classes, egistered participants also can audition for Disney, which will have representatives at the festival. The entertainment giant is always looking for puppeteers of all types, Beasley says.

The puppeteers traditionally hold an improvisational event called Potpourri as part of their conferences, and while one will be held in Savannah, there also will be an edgier event, Puppet Slam. “It’s for mature audiences,” Beasley says. “We’re only charging $5 to get in. There’s always beer and food at a puppet slam, so we have to card people before they can come in.”

Some people may be surprised that there are adults-only puppet shows, although Beasley thinks Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers puppet show might have paved the way for enlightenment. “This is a great way to open up people’s expectations of this art form,” she says. “Any kind of theater can be expressed through the puppetry art form.”

Beasley wants to emphasize that Kevin Clash who performs as Elmo is not going to be at the festival, as originally scheduled. “He must be in New York to receive his Emmy,” she says.

However, Clash and Elmo will be appearing in Savannah at a later date. Beasley says final arrangements haven’t been made yet, but an announcement will be coming soon.

Anyone can attend the public performances, and people interested in attending the classes can register June 12 from 2-5 p.m. For information about the festival, visit www.southeastpuppetfestival.org.

“People who like engineering as well as art might find a new art form,” Beasley says. “There’s a lot of engineering that goes into these creations.”

2008 Puppet Gumbo Festival Schedule of Events

Thursday, June 12 2-5 p.m. Late registration at SCAD's Boundary Village.9 p.m. Savannah River Cruise and Show, featuring the Puppet People in Beyond the Moss Curtain. $20 per person.10 p.m. Puppet Slam at Cardinal Rep Theater for adults only. $5 per person. Friday, June 13 8:30 a.m. Classes and seminars begin for registered participants.7 p.m. Heather Henson's IBEX Inc. presents Panther & Crane for ages 8 and up. $15 general admission and $10 for seniors 60 and up and students. Saturday, June 14 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Puppet Gumbo Street Fair in Johnson Square. Free.3 p.m. Family Double Feature with The Rainbow Bridge and Other Tales by Hobey Ford and Adventures in Slumberland with Madcap Puppets. $12 general admission and $6 seniors over 60 and students.8 p.m. Double feature for mature audiences only, with Cabinet of Desire by Blair Thomas & company and Faust, a film by Steven Ritz-Barr and Hoku Ochiyama. $15. Sunday, June 15 2 p.m. Performance of The Dragon King by Tanglewood Marionettes. $10 general admission and $5 for seniors over 60 and children under 15.
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Linda Sickler

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