The Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium brings together practicing Festival artists with scholars to consider the intersection of puppetry with other disciplines and ideas. Before 1912, the year the Little Theater of Chicago was founded in the historic Fine Arts Building, the term “puppeteer” did not even exist. Little Theater director Ellen Van Volkenburg needed a program credit for the actors she had trained to manipulate marionettes while speaking the text of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and she coined the word “puppeteer.” That marked the dawn of the movement that has brought us to the rich art form now practiced around the world.
This year’s Symposium featured Festival Artists on four different artist panels discussing the materiality of the puppet in both theory and practice. It also featured book talks by puppet scholars of four new US publications released this year. Mexican-American writer, artist and philosopher, Manuel DeLanda calls for a new materialism noting that by splitting the supposedly indivisible atom, modern physics has demolished the tangible solidity on which Aristotle defined the “real.” Taking “material images of humans, animals, or spirits that are created, displayed, or manipulated in narrative or dramatic performance,” as performing objects in anthropologist and folklorist Frank Proschan’s terms, the theme of the Symposium series moved from materialism to material performance, to material characters, to the actual material of the puppet asking, what is it made of and how is it made while looking at what the design and the materials enable object performance to express about material existence.