This week, we went down the road to the Center for Puppetry Arts, the only center of its kind in the country. When we think of puppets, Jim Henson -- Father of the Muppets and Mississippian -- usually comes to mind. The Center is home to the largest collection of Jim Henson puppets and props, but it’s also much more than that. Gina spoke with Museum Director Jill Nash Malool and Producer Kristin Haverty about the importance of the Center’s location in Georgia, what it means to support the arts in local communities and internationally, and what we still have to learn from puppets.
But first, what exactly is a puppet? Puppets are things that you can pick up and manipulate and turn into a character. Jill admits that definition is … pretty vague, but that’s on purpose. People who visit the museum usually don’t realize just how connected their lives are to puppetry. Puppets can be made from clay, wood, or textiles. They can be stop-motion and for one-time use. The museum’s founder, Vincent Anthony, decided he wanted to put together a center where you could have puppetry live, puppetry as a static fine art, and puppetry as a craft for the public. Larger cities usually have a ballet, an opera, or both, but very few have a dedicated place to experience puppetry.
The Center for Puppetry Arts has two permanent galleries: the Global Collection Gallery and Jim Henson Collection Gallery. The Global Gallery teaches visitors about puppetry as a global tradition. The puppets in this collection include ones from The Lion King on Broadway, marionettes from China, a leather shadow puppet from Cambodia, and more.
Puppets are displayed as fine art throughout the Center, which means, like at most museums, you can’t play with them. This also means they have to cared for and conserved like pieces of fine art. In 2007, when Jim Henson’s family decided the Center would be home to the world’s largest collection of Jim Henson puppets (including the Fraggles, the Muppets, and your friends from Sesame Street!), props, and costumes, the center had to renovate its storage area to include things like climate control to meet museum standards — and keep the puppets around as long as possible for future generations. At the the Center, there’s always something new to see: most items are only put on display once every two years.
People usually don’t think of the arts as having a home in the south, Gina notes. But the Center is very well known in the international puppetry scene, and in domestic traditional arts scenes. “There’s definitely a sense of Atlanta and the center having a very prominent role in puppetry,” Kristin says. Kristin loves that the center has a long history of inviting guest artists to share ideas and techniques and create an exchange of ideas and introduce people to the south once they choose to venture outside of the world’s busiest airport.
Even though it’s off the beaten path for traditional art purveyors, the the Center is a destination for puppeteers from around the world. Kristen doesn’t think Georgia’s low per capita spending for arts means audiences aren’t interested in experiencing new and innovative art. Kristen says audience interest and appreciation despite low arts budgeting makes it even more important that the Center is in Atlanta. The center instills a sense of excitement about the arts into children and features adult programming and shows people of all ages how to incorporate the arts into their own lives.
In 1983, the Center created Experimental Puppet Theater (XPT) as a way for puppeteers doing shows at the Center to have fun together, branch out, and try new things. Before long, the Center added more people and structure to the program. Now, every January, applicants (mostly local) submit their XPT ideas. Selected candidates, visual artists, performers, and other interested parties come together to develop a group show and individual pieces. It all hits the stage every May. XPT participants have taken the unique puppet-centric platform and formed art collectives and ventured into film and television work after the program.
One of the annual highlights of the Center's programming is The Ghastly Dreadfuls. Kristin calls it a synthesis of great aspects of puppetry because it showcases great storytelling and uses different styles of puppetry, creating an all-around fun evening of theater. But that show is only around Halloween, so we recommend marking your calendar now.
And on August 30th, the Center hosts the Dark Crystal Ball to celebrate the opening of the exhibit for one of Henson's most beloved non-Muppet masterpieces.
From Instagram #puppets: