Lakefront Puppet Theatre

by Jason Hart

Many who saw the dragon and the twelve foot tall giant wandering around Locust Street Festival this June had questions. “What’s your name?” “Who are you?” and “Are you Jesus?” (addressed to the long-haired, robe-wearing giant, not the dragon) were the most common. Since we’ll encounter similar baffling apparitions at the upcoming Center Street Daze, maybe it’s time to finally have some of these questions answered.

First off, the giant wasn’t Jesus. The puppets and their operators came from the Lakefront Puppet Theatre, a brand new company whose members are Michael Pettit, Mark McKillip, Alice Wilson, Bill Olsen, and Jason Hart. The Lakefront Puppet Theatre was founded by Pettit purely as a performance company. With Polaris Puppet Theatre closing its doors, and Milwaukee Mask and Puppet acting as mostly a puppet production company, Lakefront has become the only puppet theatre company geared solely toward performance.

Pettit has lofty but realistic goals for his company: “I want to create shows that illustrate a path of peace to turn the tide of selfishness and materialism. I don’t claim to have any qualifications to take on any major social issue – I’m just saying the potential is there.”

Pettit has worked as a puppeteer, puppet builder, and writer for the last twelve years with Milwaukee Mask and Puppet. “I was volunteered into it by my Mom,” he said, “She was a good friend with [MM&P director] Max Sampson. They had a puppeteer move away to get a job elsewhere and were looking for a replacement. She said, ‘Michael will do it – he’s fun, hyperactive, creative.’ I did it, and the next new show I started writing and designing puppets.”

Company member and New York native Mark McKillip is well known in puppetry circles – he has been building puppets and performing internationally for over twenty years. He even served as president of the Puppetry Guild of New York for two years. But he’s lived and worked in Milwaukee for the last decade. “I’m very happy living here,” he said, “I hate New York. I hate big cities.”

The company plans to continue its street shows and is producing a set of staged shows for audiences of all ages. A script for a culturally aware adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories (which many see to be racist, but Pettit believes can be told in positive way) is in the works, as well as educational pieces on subjects such as traffic safety and environmental awareness.

The company prefers to work with puppets over human actors because of the special opportunities for expression that puppets allow. Puppets allow them to present difficult issues in accessible ways, and allow them to bend reality in ways not possible in traditional theatre settings.

“You can deal with things that may be too difficult for human actors to deal with,” said performer Alice Wilson, “Using puppets as standins is a good alternative to making human actors go to extreme places.”

“In one show [with MM&P] we had emaciated concentration camp victims,” said Pettit, “Because they were puppets, we could still do it in front of children. We’ve done shows about racism, about violence. We’ve done shows about Gandhi, about Einstein.” Children may not sit still for a lecture about passive resistance or Einstein’s regret over the atomic bomb, but they will watch puppets communicating the same things.

Puppets can also stretch the boundaries of reality to portray the fantastic. “You can do the impossible in many ways,” says Pettit, “In Pinocchio, when Pinocchio was swallowed by the whale, we were able to have all of his limbs float around separately inside the belly, and then when they came back together he was a real boy again.”

The power of puppets to cross boundaries of reality is acknowledged internationally. In Asian cultures, said McKillip, puppet’s heads are removed after each performance. “When I was president of the guild, we had a group from Japan come over, and they would do that,” said KcKillip, “The superstition was that the puppet would come to life at night if the head was not removed. The puppet is the character, always.

Riverwest Currents online edition – September, 2006