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Arts & Life

A Puppet Festival Of Colossal Proportions

Julie Denesha
Heather Nisbett-Loewenstein directs a massive puppet in preparation for the show.

This Sunday, the lawn of The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art will be transformed into the main stage for the larger-than-life puppets of StoneLion's puppet pageant "Mother’s Day for Mother Earth." 

Big, Big Puppets

"The Mother's Day For Mother Earth is the culmination of our season," said Tim Cormack, lead puppeteer at StoneLion Puppet Theatre. "We like to build big, big, big puppets for this event. We've had up to 4,000 people in the audience on the lawn of the Nelson watching this and we've learned that a small puppet, even a five-foot-wide dragonfly flying across the lawn of the Nelson looks very very small, so we have to make them really big."

"Our mission is to take things to people who don't normally get to go to art events and to involve them in it," said Heather Loewenstein, the founding artistic director of StoneLion Puppet Theater. "To make it more community friendly, hands on, and that's where the Puppets for the Planet Festival series started."

A Troupe of Community Volunteers

"As the years have progressed we started out where the cast was almost completely professional performers that I paid to be in it, like every company theater does," said Loewenstein. "And now this year about three-fourths of it is community volunteers. People that maybe never have been in a play before. Certainly never have carried a polar bear in front of 5,000 people and their kids. So all the kids get their own little puppet and they get to be in the show as well."

Brace Yourself

"I am one of the giant puppets. I have never worked with one of the big puppets," said James Paisley, a senior at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy. "Last time I was on a butterfly, maybe about this big, and I was just flapping the wings. 

"It's interesting that once you get in there - and I was in one earlier today - you have to really brace yourself, dig down in case the wind blows," Paisley described. "Otherwise it's just…piew! And it's never a fun experience."

"After the Gasp"

"I always am after the gasp. I'm after that sense of awe or surprise, whether or not I am working with tiny puppets or these really big ones; that's what makes puppets work," Loewenstein said. "We can go outside and create something completely out of imagination."

Physical Effort Required

"What was surprising for me was just how much physical effort there is," said Paisley. "You see a puppet and it just seems to move so seamlessly: dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. And there's just a tremendous amount of physical effort and discipline that goes into it."

"I remember back with the butterfly, I had to flap my wings in a very, very specific manner, and my arms got tired really fast, and we weren't even a third of the way done," Paisley said.  "So, as we went through the rehearsals, I got stronger and stronger and stronger with it.  And with this big puppet, I really felt today I can really feel it in my shoulders. Just how much weight there is. That's something that I don't think people are aware of and if they're not aware of it we are doing our job right."

Becoming Invisible

"I like it when the people get so into it that they don't know I am there," Cormack said. "Whether I am doing my little one-man show for a group of thirty kids, who are so entranced that they forget that I am doing all the voices and doing all the characters, or if I am holding a giant whale, whatever. When I become invisible, that's the fun part. If we can make it real enough, that we disappear, that's awesome!"

Hard To Resist the Fun

"My goal always is not to be in the show, just to direct it, you know, and to try and orchestrate everything that's happening," Loewenstein said. "But nine times out of ten, I can't resist and I always end up as the bad person. I am the bad guy. Last year I was  the greenhouse gas monster, and I may end up being the bad guy again this year because those are always the funnest theater roles to play, you know. But I am determined that I am going to resist this year and just be a good director and orchestrate the entire pageant, but, I don't know. I don't know if I'll be able to resist."

StoneLion Puppet Theatre presents an original performance at 2 pm of "Our Global Village," as part of the annual Mother's Day celebration from 1 pm - 4 pm on Sunday, May 12 in the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.

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