Wed, Jun 23, 2004 - Page 16 News List

No strings attached for puppet enthusiasts at annual convention

An annual conference for puppet enthusiasts in the US draws an international crowd

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , New York

Left, eye puppets in a video workshop at the 14th Annual O'Neill Puppetry Conference in Waterford, Connecticut. Above, rehearsing for a TV show.

PHOTOS: NY TIMES

When Lindsey Briggs slips her long, slender arm into a latex foam puppet, she finds a voice inside her that she did not know

existed.

This year, Briggs has been attending a puppet conference in the picturesque resort town of Waterford, Connecticut, where some of the best puppeteers from around the world convene to share their coveted tricks and some of the least experienced, like Briggs, come to learn.

"It was Wednesday, and I was a mess," said Briggs with a hushed voice, recalling last year's experience. "I was crying and saying I wanted to go home. This is so wrong for me. I'm not funny. By Friday night, I felt like I had broken through a barrier."

A year later, Briggs, 24, returned for the 14th annual O'Neill Puppet Conference held at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, an organization for theater projects that also owns and operates the Monte Cristo Cottage, the playwright's childhood home in nearby New London.

The fishing town of Waterford is more well known for the center's playwrights' workshop than a puppet conference. But within the small, familial puppeteer subculture the gathering is a who's who of puppeteers, with many veterans of Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and, most recently, the Tony award-winning musical Avenue Q. Indeed, that Broadway show was refined and performed at the conference two years ago.

art form

For decades puppetry was learned by way of most traditional crafts through master and apprenticeship. Now, there are a handful of university programs offering degrees in puppet arts. And as the industry continues to garner more attention from high-profile productions, so does interest in this conference and the few others like it.

"It feels like it's a validated art form," said Amy

Trompetter a senior lecturer at Barnard College who started teaching a class on acting with puppets and masks two years ago. Students "knew puppetry as a kid form, though Avenue Q pushed it to the adult realm," she said. "It's a lot bigger than that, and that's very exciting to find out."

Once accepted into one of the 35 slots, the conference costs US$900 to attend. The fee pays for lodging, meals and unlimited instruction. There are no phones, no television and no Internet. Its main focus is the craft.

"It almost has a magical power to foster creativity," said Pam Arciero, the artistic director, who has been a part of the conference since its inception in 1991. "People do feel like they have a life-changing experience. We have people dig deep inside themselves and pull out a very beautiful piece."

At this year's conference, which began earlier this month, a children's educational video that used puppets to warn about the dangers of land mines, was filmed. The puppet designer Michael Frith and Kathy Mullen, the project's director, along with an experienced production crew, led a workshop devoted to the video, which was intended for Afghanistan and titled The Adventures of the Little Carpet Boy.

aspiring puppeteers

Inside the red barn turned theater, stage lights and monitors point toward a makeshift stage created to look like a desert landscape. On a workman's table, pushed off to the side, there are half a dozen handcrafted puppets waiting to come to life. ChucheQhalin, the story's main character, stands an arm's length tall and is adorned with a multicolored hand-painted Persian outfit.

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