In her introduction to the 1916 English translation of Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio, published by J.B. Lippincott, Louise R. Bull writes, "There seems to be no game more beloved of children in all lands and all times than the one called Pretend." Bull goes on to marvel at how the imagination might turn a pile of toy soldiers into a heroic fighting platoon, or a rag doll into a delightful tea party companion. Collodi's story about a puppet who becomes a real boy offers lessons about honesty and asks questions about what it means to be human. It also reminds us how any puppet can briefly come to life beneath the spotlights for those with eyes to see the transformation.
This weekend, downtown Nashville will be transformed into the center of the puppet universe with the kickoff of the Nashville International Puppet Festival. The main library's first puppet fest was held in 2008, featuring puppeteers from across the globe. Another edition in 2011 was mostly an American affair. This year, some of the best puppeteers and troupes from Japan, China, France, Argentina, Germany and the U.S. will delight audiences with magical marionettes, hilarious hand puppets and more.
The undisputed stars of the festival are Phillip Huber and the Huber Marionettes, who will perform at Martinis and Marionettes, an event at TPAC on Saturday night. According to Brian Hull, director of the library's puppetry program Wishing Chair Productions, Huber is a straight-up movie star.
"Huber did the puppetry in Being John Malkovich. He also performed the China Girl character in Oz the Great and Powerful. She's actually a real marionette that Huber performed, and then they used CGI to erase him and enhance the face of the marionette," he says.
Another must-see performance features the return of French troupe Vélo Theatre. Vélo's avant-garde productions inhabit the space between puppetry and performance art, and the pair of plays they've planned for the festival are challenging in more ways than one.
"They're doing There's a Rabbit in the Moon," Hull says. "That's their most famous puppet show. They're also bringing a new show called And Then He Ate Me: It's the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, who encounters characters from other children's stories. It is out there!"
The logistics of the play require complete darkness and complete silence, Hull explains. "We're setting up a tent inside of the Grand Reading Room. They have to load the tent through the windows on a crane. They're creating a whole theater inside of there."
The space will also feature a Chinese shadow puppet show presented by Valeria Guglietti's Sombras Chinas company from Argentina. Huber recommended Guglietti to Hull; her performance of Don't Touch My Hands will combine elements of silent films, puppets, comics and music in a collection of amusing stories.
Japanese puppet company Kawasemi-za will perform Silent Poems, featuring custom-crafted puppets that are so animated and dynamic they convey emotions and messages through gestures alone in this wordless presentation. "They are this very traditional troupe for puppetry. They know no English," says Hull. "They have an amazing show with these puppets. Heather Henson (daughter of the late Jim Henson and a puppetry star in her own right) found out that they were coming to our festival and now she's promoting the performance."
Heather Henson is also connected to the Dragon Arts Studio, which will be performing Images of China, a piece her company recently filmed. "Now we're talking with her about coming down and being a part of the event," Hull says.
A puppeteer from Dresden, Germany, will perform Peter and the Wolf. "He's from the Dresdner Figurentheater," Hull says. "He does all the characters in a one-man show."
The festival kicks off with the Wishing Chair Productions debut of String City: Nashville's Tradition of Music and Puppetry. The Thursday evening show features marionettes and hand, rod and shadow puppets standing in for country music legends. Appropriately, the show will be staged at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. A 9 a.m. parade led by Mayor Karl Dean will kick off Saturday's events, ending with a concert by the WannaBeatles at Church Street park across from the front entrance of the main library. Park events include free live music, food vendors, a 25-foot maypole and a 10-foot puppet named Danke. The courtyard at the library will be transformed into a European-style festival featuring unicyclists, jugglers, stilt walkers, face-painting and balloon artists.
Most of the performances are free, but all of them require tickets, which are available in advance online for a small fee or can be picked up at the event. Visit nashvillepubliclibrary.org/puppetfestival for a complete schedule of events, times and prices.