Updated: Jul 13, 2020
Or how to get started in puppetry.
Ok, first off, I get it. Why puppetry? People ask me. How did you even get started in puppetry? How does one even get into puppets?
It’s a good question and I wonder it myself. My journey was not a linear one, but it was damn fun. And being a puppeteer makes me the most interesting person at any party, unless there is a celeb there, of course. Then I just leave because I can’t handle not being the center of attention.
Me being the center of attention. Photo by Richard Termine.
The thing about puppetry is that it can seem inaccessible to people who just want a little taste or who might be starting their journey down the path. Puppeteers are fascinating, innovative people, but I imagine like in any niche industry, it can be exclusive. Deep in the puppet world the work can become meta and abstract. There’s a language we all speak. We puppeteers have secret meetups in seedy speakeasies.
I aim to help with the accessibility problem in puppetry. It’s a joyful, innovative, magical art form that should embrace all humans who express any interest at all.
But first, here’s the story of how I started.
When I was getting into puppetry and comedy many moons ago, I was lucky to have a little puppet theater not far from where I was living in Brookline, Massachusetts. It was called Puppet Showplace Theatre. I started taking puppet classes and performing in puppet slams there.
It was my first jaunt in Puppetland.
I sought out more opportunities in puppetry but besides the local puppet theater, there wasn’t much available for beginners like me. The puppetry world seemed like a closed network.
Looking for opportunities on Puppet Island. Photo (and puppets) by Jared Ramirez.
I also didn’t want to perform for kids. Seeking puppetry for adults made my pursuit more difficult, and telling people I was interested in “adult puppetry” could lead me down some unfortunate rabbit holes.
Over time more opportunities emerged, but it took persistence and me loitering around the puppet people in Los Angeles.
So, to give some guidance to the puppet curious and those delving into this magical world, I made this really long list of 20 puppetry organizations, puppet festivals, and places that offer puppet workshops and training.
These are all great organizations built to support the puppetry arts and many of them offer grants and funding opportunities.
Puppeteers of America — or P-of-A as you’ll hear around the puppet parts — is the National organization for puppeteers. Jim Henson was the president of PofA at one time but only for a year, as he was a very busy dude.
Puppeteers of America hosts the National Puppetry Festival every other year in different locations. They also award grants to puppet artists and publish a quarterly magazine called The Puppetry Journal. You can also find out through them if you have a puppetry guild in your area.
The Jim Henson Foundation is led by Cheryl Henson and awards grants to full-length puppet theater productions annually. The foundation also offers an annual puppetry residency at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and a grant to help puppeteers take their show overseas.
Be sure to sign up for their email newsletter, Puppet Happenings, to find out about shows, festivals, and puppet classes happening around the US.
UNIMA is the international organization for puppeteers and puppet artists. They offer granting opportunities and give out awards annually. They also publish Puppetry International, a very nice color magazine about international puppet things.
There is also a very useful World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts on their website.
The Center for Puppetry Arts is a museum and education center in Atlanta, GA. If you are ever in Atlanta and you have the chance to go, do it. They have an incredible exhibit, a large part of which is dedicated to Jim Henson’s career. They also offer a very interesting program called XPT: Experimental Puppetry Theater.
The Puppet Slam Network funds and supports puppet slams — or variety shows that consist entirely of short works of puppetry — all over the US. There is also an interactive puppet slam map, a Facebook group, and a monthly newsletter where shows and calls for acts are posted so you don’t have to miss anything. If you want to start a puppet slam in your area, contact the PSN.
If you love puppets on film you need to know about Handmade Puppet Dreams. HMPD funds a few selected puppet filmmakers each year to help them create a puppet short film and recently launched many of their short films on Amazon Prime. You can find out more about the grant at their website. I made a HMPD commissioned film, Bunny Love, in 2018, which you can watch here.
The LA Guild of Puppetry is one of the more active local puppetry guilds, but I encourage you to see if you have a local puppetry guild and get involved! The LA guild hosts monthly events and an annual 48-hour Puppet Film Project which is available to anyone, anywhere. They also put out a nice quarterly publication, Puppet Life, for guild members, and award small grants to guild members to seeking puppetry education.
Puppet Training and Education
You’ll hear this one referred to simply as “The O’Neill” around Puppetland. The O’Neill is indescribable as an experience, but to put it in a few sentences it is a week-long conference that is all about puppetry. It is an understatement to call it an intensive. It is intense. The O’Neill offers many different tracks, including marionettes, writing for puppetry, puppetry in performance, and oh so many more. The instructors are world-class so if you can make it to the O’Neill, I can’t recommend it enough. It happens every summer at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT, and tuition includes room & board. Many scholarships are available.
UConn is the only university in the United States that offers Bachelor and Masters of Arts in Puppetry. They also house the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry which hosts tours, workshops and events.
10. Project Puppet
Project Puppet is a great resource for puppet patterns and supplies. There are tutorials and multiple puppet patterns available on a very nicely organized website. If you are looking to get into building puppets or have been doing it for awhile, this is the place to go!
11. Beyond the Sock
Beyond the Sock is a puppetry performance intensive that happens at the University of North Texas every summer. You get to work with puppeteers from Sesame Street to learn TV puppetry performance and construction and building techniques.
A two-week intensive in puppet theater on site at the Sandglass Theatre in Putney, Vermont. The program, as it says on the website, is for puppeteers, teachers, actors, writers, and anyone that wants to learn the art of the puppet. What could be more beautiful than summer in Vermont?
I haven’t taken any of these classes myself, but if you’re interested in learning more about creature effects and specialty puppet building, this is a good place to start!
I haven’t attended it myself but I have only heard very good things about this annual festival in Chicago. They bring in puppeteers from around the country and have performances at multiple venues. Worth checking out.
The National Puppetry Festival happens every other year in different locations around the US and is put on by Puppeteers of America. It’s a week-long festival that includes workshops, intensives, and many, many puppet shows. It also involves Puppet Potpourri, a beloved puppetry open mic, and always fun National Puppet Slam.
The National Puppet Slam happens every year either at Dragon Con — a massive pop-culture convention in Atlanta — or at the National Puppetry Festival. Performers have to be either invited or nominated to perform in the National Puppet Slam. It is the best of the best in the puppet slam world.
The name might imply this but this is the largest puppet theater festival in the world! It happens every other year in the fall in Charleville-Mézières, France and includes some of the best puppetry from all around the globe.
This is a fairly new festival that happens each year in NYC and features puppeteers from around the world.
A festival in Scotland that includes puppetry, visual theater and animated film. It looks super cool and progressive and celebrates innovative theater. It’s presented by Puppet Animation Scotland.
A rather large international puppetry festival in Montreal that features acts in all styles from around the world. It also features cabaret style and late-night puppetry shows.
WOW that is a lot of stuff and I’m sure that I will add more over time, or if you angrily email me to tell me I forgot something.
And Godspeed to you on your puppetry journey.