The monkey leaps. A dazzling creature flaps its wings. The lovely princess’ eyelids blink open. These scenes unfurl on a tiny Detroit stage. And the stars can only move with the help of strings, rods and hands.
Since 1990, this has been the PuppetART Detroit Puppet Theater’s small-scale brand of storytelling. Its dozen original shows – including favorites Banana for Turtle, Sleeping Beauty, Firebird and Snow Queen – play most Saturdays year-round and are always finding new audiences, says artistic director and co-founder Igor Gozman.
“Puppetry speaks fairy easily to children,” he says. “And adults, they somehow get captivated by this ‘children’s’ performance.” It’s pretty basic, as Gozman sees it.
“The ability to animate an object as a live character: It belongs to the human race. Something resonates in us.”
Fortunately, he adds, eyes sparkling a bit, some grown-ups never outgrow it. Which is what makes visiting PuppetART – home to a theater, museum and studio – so welcoming and magical.
Parking, admission and times
Tucked in the downtown theater district, the center has ample metered street parking near its spot on Grand River Avenue. The People Mover also stops at nearby Broadway Street. A municipal garage off Woodward is less than a five-minute walk away and about $3 for two hours (right around enough time for a full experience).
Theater admission is $5 for kids and $10 for adults. That’s remained steady for years, Gozman says, despite relying almost entirely on word-of-mouth advertising. Be sure to bring cash or a check; plastic isn’t accepted.
Shows start at 2 p.m. But plan to arrive 15-20 minutes early. If you do, Gozman or one of the troupe’s friendly puppeteers will sweep you right in for a mini tour of PuppetART’s collection.
A unique museum
Not your typical “museum,” this gaggle of dozens of puppets covers the walls just outside the 70-seat auditorium. Inside glass cases, reserved for the “veterans,” are a pair of ornate Chinese marionette men, made circa 1900, and local legend “Applesauce,” a red dragon puppet who starred in Milky’s Movie Party, the popular 1950s Detroit-aired kids’ TV program.
The more modern puppets hang out in the open – from exotic West African varieties carved of wood, to a giant dragon that’s worn costume-style. Your guide may even trot out a new friend to meet in person.
Delivering this bright, bold mix of diversity is actually a big part of PuppetART’s mission. And culture, in particular, also plays out on stage. For instance, Turtle Island is inspired by Native American legends. Several shows have been influenced by Russian lore, too – a nod to Gozman’s heritage (he and the troupe’s two co-founders are all masters who trained in the former Soviet Union).
“Puppetry is a special art form,” Gozman says. “It’s like a crossroad of all arts.” That’s why, just before the curtain lifts, he chats a bit about the show’s roots – and what kids can watch for. Take Sleeping Beauty. The marionette tale was told almost entirely without words. How? Through dance.
There’s also the dialogue and music, all created in-house and, thanks to pre-recordings and sound system, crisply audible – even if little attendees get chatty. And naturally, the visuals are works of art, from the nearly lifelike 3D characters to the intricately detailed backdrops and intricate little props. Twists are a specialty, too: Crane Maiden includes live actors, and Oh, Ananse!, a West African tale appearing in February, has a hip-hop beat.
Fresh shows every time
Productions change monthly, with the repertoire repeating annually. But even if you’ve seen a particular title before, you’re in for surprises the next time, says Jaclyn Strez, a PuppetART alum, Dearborn native and current movie actress.
“(They’ll) try new things; add new things,” she says. “(They) don’t just ‘redo.’ It’s never the same show next year.” Since the stories are designed to be “age-old,” she adds, families often opt for season passes.
At an hour in length, shows are just the right length for kids, too.
Workshops, gifts and more to explore
To harness that very excitement, PuppetART hosts a post-show workshop – the “studio” portion. Here, with the help of puppet designer Irina Barovskaya, kids create their own simple puppets, similar in style and theme to the show. These projects cost an extra $8 each and take about 20 minutes to complete.
Rather take home a pre-made character? Visit the little lobby gift-shop. Varieties range from quirky $1 finger puppets to high-quality marionettes that are more like $45.
Before you leave, linger a bit in the main lobby and browse Barovskaya’s other stunning puppet creations. Top off the afternoon with a bite in nearby Greektown.
But whatever you do, says co-director Luda Mikheyenko, make plans to visit PuppetART.
“It doesn’t work until people come here,” she says. “Almost every time, people say, ‘I never expected to see what I saw.'”