VOICING UNTOLD STORIES: Why World Puppetry Day Matters

Puppetry is an ancient form of artistic expression, and is one of the oldest forms of art-entertainment that still exists. We’ve loved it on stage seeing Avenue Q, War Horse or Little Shop of Horrors, but puppetry in performance goes far beyond that, and we can see performers pushing boundaries and creating bridges of empathy through puppetry at La Mama, Puppet Slams, Dixon Place, the Eugene O’Neill National Puppetry Conference and more. I first discovered puppetry through the O’Neill Theater Center and as a musical theatre performer and playwright, felt like I had found home. Puppetry became an ideal way to fuse multiple mediums to tell a universal story. A few years later, I couldn’t be more excited to celebrate World Puppetry Day, which comes every March 21. The idea came from the puppet theater artist Javad Zolfaghari from Iran. In 2000 at the XVIII Congress of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette, (UNIMA) in 2003 UNIMA, and has become a real tool for the promotion of puppetry arts and a project allowing to unite the puppet actors of the same territory.

Why is puppetry more important than ever right now?

It’s hard to believe that COVID has darkened our theatres for nearly a year. When the pandemic first struck, World Puppetry day had an important message for March 2020:

“Throughout history, puppet theater was a source of entertainment, but also an instrument for protest, to express social criticism against established powers, and denounce injustice. This holds true to this today. The contemporary puppet theater of the Americas has become a great and effective ally, and an incentive which enriches the struggle, amplifying the volume and voice of those claims. Through social networks and other publications on the Internet, we can see puppets are present in most of these manifestations and claims by the people….There is a new awakening in the Americas, and there is a loud cry for peace, freedom, justice and equality. Through protests, demonstrations and marches, Americans (those from North, Central, Caribbean and South America) continue to raise their voices and exercise their right to freedom of expression….Technology brings us closer, informs and, just as often, disinforms. It allows us to communicate instantly. The struggle is strengthened and the voices become even stronger with this new global resource.”

– Awakening anew, By Manuel Antonio Morán, Ph.D.

Voice from North America (Message for World Puppetry Day 2020)

On March 21st, 2021, we hope to celebrate coming back into the light with performances, hope and healing that only the arts can provide. I’ve been part of Tom Sarver’s Virtual Puppetry Residency, a six-week program developed for puppeteers of all skill levels to improve their craft and performance concepts. Sarver initiated the program in May of 2020, after the COVID-19 global pandemic cancelled in-person puppetry events and education. The program, run online, features weekly critiques, guest speakers and a final showing of works created in the residency to celebrate World Puppetry Day, 2021. Fifty current VPR residents join the program from The United States, Canada, Brazil, Guyana, Argentina, Kenya, Croatia, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, The United Kingdom, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Ukraine, and Italy.

When Tom Sarver started Virtual Puppetry Residency in June of 2020, he was looking for ways to transition his community-building art projects and teaching to a virtual format. “It was a new world for me. I started by making some posts on social media, eventually finding a group of puppetry enthusiasts willing to take part in the experiment. One year later, the program has evolved into an international community, with fifty active participants from sixteen countries. Connecting, sharing ideas, and getting feedback from puppeteers of all skill levels has been a core value of the program. I am thrilled to see the work of all the participants grow and their visions come to fruition. I especially love the variety of approaches, as each participant has shown what puppetry means to them.”

His participants are thrilled to present samples of their work, as well as short interviews with artists from around the world. Experimentation was a theme for season three of Sarver’s residency, and participants pushed the boundaries of what can be accomplished in showing work online.

“The program was very informative for me as a self-taught puppeteer. The critique sessions were so welcomed and it allowed me to improve in my craft. Thanks to Tom for not forgetting the friendship formed from around the globe.” – Faith-Ann Chester-Inniss, Georgetown, Guyana, South-America

“The journey to understand and express my memories, through use of my fiberart in storytelling, has been a safe and glorious experience because of the two Virtual Puppetry Residencies in which I have participated. Tom Sarver has gathered a worldwide, world-class collective of variously-skilled puppeteers who help one another to problem-solve structural, storyline, character, and other issues. Each person is unique and willing to talk things through, as well to suggest other resources. As for World Puppetry Day, a new find for me! Now I can dive deeper into the puppetry rabbit hole. I hope that, through discovery and experimentation, I will further develop my puppetry skills and build to a level which I will share in my Pittsburgh, PA. community and beyond.” – Sherri Roberts, fiberarts cartoonist

“My name is Fine Fröhlich from Transit-Theater-Berlin. Im professionel puppeteer based in Berlin/ Germany, where it has been impossible to perform theater for nearly the whole last year because of the corona measures. Participating in the Virtual puppetry residency was so refreshing to me, it gave me a lot of new energy to continue and not give up.”

“When you’re fully engaged in the process of creating and making something, you tend not to focus on what’s happening in the world, especially in these uncertain times – and that’s good for your mental health. As a puppeteer, it’s amazing to be able to connect with people from across the globe, watch their performances, have the opportunity for both personal and professional development in a safe and supportive space. I’ve seen people really pushing the boundaries by mixing puppetry and performance art. For many years there’s been a kind of snobbery towards puppetry as an art-form. It’s often been wrongly seen as something low-brow that’s for just for children. I think that events such as World Puppetry Day help to dispel these myths and bring puppetry to a wider audience.” – John Harrop, Bat-i-Burrillo Teatro de Títeres, Sevilla, Spain

“Tom has gathered together puppetry artists to support and nurture their creativity in a collaborative environment. I have felt inspired to tap into my childhood memories and honored to offer support to the artists around me. This is community.” – Dina Kaplan, Puppeteers Without Borders

“I’m a professional puppeteer from Wales, UK. The residency has been a phenomenal experience, supportive, inspiring, truly international – in years to come we are gonna hear a lot of people’s life’s/ careers have been enhanced and changed by the gentle steering of Tom and the meeting of many minds and hearts. Personally I hope there will be many similar projects. I don’t know if I ever want to build a show without the chance to share it in this kind of safe space. In my 30 year career I’ve never come across anything that is so supportive.” – Jo Jo Vagabondi

“Unless collaborating, my years of experience has been privately processing material to later be transformed into a show for an audience. As part of VPR, other puppeteers witness and give gentle creative feedback. Far from being aligned with my own nasty internal critic, their constructive criticism was helpful. I have been inspired and sparked with the wonder of being part of a global community of puppeteers. To observe the myriad of styles and means of expression, both traditional and innovative, come join us!” – Elyse Jacobs, San Francisco

“The Virtual Puppet Residency is a supportive and inclusive community of kind-hearted puppet lovers, and it has helped me tryout some new and exciting endeavors that I wouldn’t have otherwise found.” – Genna Beth Davidson, Puppetry MA candidate, University of Connecticut

“It has truly been an honor to connect with puppeteers from around the world. The breadth of knowledge and willingness to share vulnerable, uplifting, and raw stories has been both eye-opening and grounding. There is validation in knowing your work is important and connective. A theme that has arisen is puppetry as a voice to the voiceless. Stories have been shared of children and adults with special needs, refugees, survivors of sexual assault, and communities reeling from racism and classism using puppets as a way to communicate grievances. It has become clear that puppets can have a profound impact on our global social and emotional fabric.” – Lindsay Shields, NY,  Educational Theatre

For me, puppets bring the inanimate to life, and this isn’t only for “objects” like a chair, tree or sock. They bring what is hidden to life, whether it be our inner world, our untold stories, a flashback, dream, a haunting – the possibilities are as wide as your imagination can go. Puppetry can capture the life all around us, giving everyone – and everything – a voice. We can jump in and out time, location, narratives, and points of view. Puppetry is a beautiful way to collaborate and show how collective voices of a community can come together, pandemic or not. An entertaining, poignant, and visceral bridge of connection, Isn’t that what all great theatre is?

On March 20th and 21st, resident artists in the third season of the VPR program will present short sketches (2 – 5 minutes) designed specifically for online viewing. The event will be divided into three programs. (Children’s, All-Ages and Adult programs). Viewing of the Open House events is free. You can view some messages from the participating puppeteers in this video: https://youtu.be/7_tDCbsU1hE

Virtual Puppet Residency Project Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/VPRpuppets

Open House Programs:

Saturday, March 20th, 10 AM EST – Children’s Show (rated G equivalent). Fun, uplifting shows for children and families.

Saturday, March 20th, 2 PM EST – Adult Show (mature audiences). A variety of shows and creative experiments in puppetry. Some works may address serious social issues.

Sunday, March 21st 2 PM EST – All Ages Show (PG Equivalent). A variety of shows for all ages. Announcements will be made before shows if content is not appropriate for children.

These Artist Residency Projects were administered by Pittsburgh Center for Arts and Media and supported by the Arts in Education Partnership of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. PCA&M serves Allegheny, Beaver, Greene, and Washington counties as part of the AIE Partnership. Additional support has been provided by private donors.

Amy Oestreicher is an Audie award-nominated playwright, performer, and multidisciplinary creator. A singer, librettist, and visual artist, she dedicates her work to celebrating untold stories, and the detours in life that can spark connection and transform communities. She has given four Talks on transforming trauma through creativity, and has contributed to NBC’s Today, CBS, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen Magazine, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, and MSNBC, among others. Amy has toured her multi-award-winning musical, Gutless & Grateful, to over 200 venues from 54 Below to Barrington Stage Company since its 2012 NYC debut, and her multimedia musical, Passageways (original lyrics, music, book and mixed media artwork) has been performed at HERE Arts Center, Dixon Place, and the Triad Theater. Her memoir, My Beautiful Detour: An Unthinkable Journey from Gutless to Grateful. was awarded 2nd Place Winner of Best Memoir/Autobiography for the 2019 CT Press Awards, and her self-narrated audiobook was released in February 2021.

About the Author
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright, sharing the lessons learned from trauma through her writing, mixed media art, performance and inspirational speaking. As the creator of "Gutless & Grateful," her BroadwayWorld-nominated one-woman autobiographical musical, she's toured theatres nationwide, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre for college campuses and international conferences. Her original, full-length drama, Imprints, premiered at the NYC Producer's Club in May 2016, exploring how trauma affects the family as well as the individual. To celebrate her own “beautiful detour”, Amy created the #LoveMyDetour campaign, to help others cope in the face of unexpected events. "Detourism" is also the subject of her TEDx and upcoming book, My Beautiful Detour, available December 2017. As Eastern Regional Recipient of Convatec’s Great Comebacks Award, she's spoken to hundreds of healthcare professionals at national WOCN conferences, and her presentations on diversity, leadership and trauma have been featured at National Mental Health America Conference, New England Educational Opportunity Association's 40 Anniversary Conference, and have been keynotes at the Pacific Rim Conference of Diversity and Disability in Hawaii, the Eating Recovery Foundation First Annual Benefit in Colorado. She's contributed to over 70 notable online and print publications, and her story has appeared on NBC's TODAY, CBS, Cosmopolitan, among others. Learn more: amyoes.com and support her work at patreon.com/amyo. Amy is currently participating as a playwright and performance artist in the National Musical Theatre Institute at the world-renowned Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.