Performance » Theater

Pulling a Few Strings

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At first glance, a puppet show might simply seem like a straightforward form of elementary entertainment. But to the folks at Peewinkle's Puppet Studio, this complex world of performance art is one that encapsulates a vast array of artistic realms. 

"It's not just about performing: It's about the building, it's about design and it's about the craftsmanship behind it," explains the studio's Director of Development Heidi Shackleford. "It is an art form that encompasses all art forms."

A third-generation puppeteer, Shackleford works alongside Peggy Melchior (her mother) and Debbi White at Peewinkle's, performing puppet shows year-round for audiences of all ages at their 50-seat, Old World-style theater. Located just a few blocks south of Circle Centre mall, the trio will begin its 17th season of captivating puppetry this fall.

In addition to presenting its own works in the coming years, Peewinkle's plans to introduce the community to more top-notch puppeteers such as Huber. - COURTESY PEEWINKLE'S PUPPET STUDIO
  • Courtesy Peewinkle's Puppet Studio
  • In addition to presenting its own works in the coming years, Peewinkle's plans to introduce the community to more top-notch puppeteers such as Huber.

Holding to the tagline of "A Great Start in the Arts for the Youngest Hearts," Peewinkle's uses the multifaceted platform of puppetry as a vehicle for fostering creativity among its younger audiences, according to Shackleford.

"Our primary audiences are children, and that's our primary focus," she says. "It's one of the reasons why we feel what we do is so important -- it is the foundation for kids in arts of any variety."

Having been to a number of puppet festivals over the years, however, Shackleford also realizes the potential impact this enthralling performance art could have on the city's entire population.

"There are so many puppeteers in this world, who cater to not just children but adults, that have things to say that are very poignant and very beautiful and wonderful," she says. "It would be very awesome, in the future, to bring that to Indianapolis as well."

And that's just what they'll do this Thursday, in addition to raising funds to support their children's programs, presenting Phillip Huber and The Huber Marionettes at the Indianapolis Art Center. Best known for his work in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich and for his performance as "China Girl" in Disney's Oz the Great and Powerful, the world-renowned puppeteer will present his sophisticated "Suspended Animation" -- a vaudeville-esque production of various vignettes that serves as a culmination of Huber's 40-plus years as a professional puppeteer.

Huber's fascination with puppetry began at age 3, after his mother gave him the gift of a dog hand puppet. He recalls, "It was something that I could just relate to right away. I loved it because I could be the center of attention while being hidden, so I would get behind the sofa and do shows over the back of the sofa."

"I have some characters that took me six years to develop, some that took me two-and-a-half years to develop and some that only took a couple of months," says Huber. "The average one takes about 400 hours to build, just to build the character." - SEAN BERTRAND DENNIE
  • Sean Bertrand Dennie
  • "I have some characters that took me six years to develop, some that took me two-and-a-half years to develop and some that only took a couple of months," says Huber. "The average one takes about 400 hours to build, just to build the character."

As Huber grew older, this fascination with puppetry continued, eventually leading him down the intricate path of marionette performance. By the age of 15, he was building his own marionettes and charging for shows he was putting on, officially marking the start of his professional puppetry adventures.

In the many years since then, Huber's puppeteer career has blossomed into performances around the world with his breathtaking collection of handcrafted marionettes. Nevertheless, the Northern Illinois native admits his greatest struggle is reaching older audiences.

"The principle challenge, I think, is the limited perception of puppetry that occurs in the United States," he says. "Even in some countries that had a better perception of puppetry, they've kind of lost it because of television and things like that. So I'm always fighting that false perception of puppetry as just being a children's plaything or a children's pastime." 

And just like Shackleford and her Peewinkle's partners, this misperception is something Huber is striving to change through compelling puppet performances.

"It's sometimes difficult to open people's minds to the potential that puppetry has," Huber says. "It has great potential as a teaching tool with children, and as an entertainment tool, but it is a theatrical art form first and foremost and that means it's for everybody."

In addition to presenting their own works in the coming years, Peewinkle's Puppet Studio plans to continue introducing the community to topnotch puppeteers such as Huber, educating and informing them on this comprehensive art form.

For more information on Phillip Huber's upcoming performance, visit the Peewinkle's website.

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