Strange Puppets in Hidden Rooms

August 30th, 2006 by Zach Rodgers

So here’s one that should spark a sense of dark, magical wonder in even the most blunted and benumbed heart.

The great arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza near Prospect Park is hollow, and inside its ponderous bulk resides the New York Puppet Lending Library. Seems a Boston-based organization called the Puppeteers’ Cooperative struck a deal with New York Parks officials in 2004 to use the space to store and lend its puppet-craft in exchange for a series of free performances at festivals and other events around town.

You can borrow a puppet on Saturdays, noon to 4pm. I just called the phone number listed on the Web site and reached a very sweet-sounding woman named Teresa at home. She confirmed the group’s existence and hours of operation. The coop also has a “stacks” in Red Hook. The libraries in Boston and New York are stocked with “parade puppets and banners, twenty-foot tall Big City and Mother Earth puppets, twelve-foot dancing cats, enormous flowers, puppet horses for children to ride, and a wide variety of dragons. All these elements are loaned out to enliven school and community events, neighborhood parades, celebrations, and demonstrations.”

Puppetry is of course an ancient art, but it’s also a modern one, as evidenced by the great success and honor we’ve bestowed on people like Jim Henson, Frank Oz and puppets like Punch & Judy, which were themselves descended from Italian marionettes and the Comedia dell’arte. The best-known traditions in the East are the Chinese shadow puppet theater and Japanese Bunraku.

And of course, children are natural puppeteers, making bears talk to dolls and propelling race cars up walls. Just last night, I handed a flashlight to each of my kids (two-year-old twins) and we turned off the lights in their room and projected hand shapes onto the wall, and ascribed words to each shape, and it was a total riot.

So the instinct to confer actions and motivations onto handmade representations of people and creatures would seem to be innate in humans.

Or to put it more simply: We’re all in thrall to a great puppet show.

Case in point: If you do nothing else today, watch this giant little girl (YouTube video), thirty feet high in a green dress, wake up, receive a shower from the Sultan’s elephant, and stroll through the park. She plays alone, largely oblivious to the hundreds of tiny grown-ups swarming around her on the path, that is until a little human girl climbs up to swing on the giant girl’s arm. A profoundly participatory art.

(The Puppet Lending Library item comes courtesy of David Byrne, who recently investigated it himself.)

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