Leslee Asch: Everything You Thought You Didn’t Know About Contemporary Puppet Theater

Many books and thousands of pages have been written about Jim Henson’s life and work. Out of the Shadows is the first to focus solely on his love of, and impact on, puppetry as a vital contemporary art form, an important and previously unexplored aspect of the Henson legacy.

It was my great honor to serve as producing director of the Henson International Festivals of Puppet Theater, working with executive producer Cheryl Henson to present five award-winning festivals. It is now 20 years since the last Henson Festival and 30 years since Jim Henson died, a perfect time to look at the festivals themselves, the environment into which they were born, and their continued legacy and contributions to the contemporary puppet theater landscape.

The Jim Henson Foundation’s International Puppet Festivals brought puppet theater into mainstream American theater. Between 1992 and 2000, the Jim Henson Foundation hosted the International Festivals of Puppet Theater in New York City. Over the course of the five festivals there were 136 different productions from 31 countries in 24 theaters throughout the city. Over 120,000 people attended the New York performances; nearly 400,000 saw related exhibitions; 100,000 more attended Festival on Tour performances; and millions of people read about the festivals in the extensive press coverage.

Puppetry artist Hanne Tierney beautifully articulated the importance of the festivals for puppeteers: “The festival, for us, was like getting your Ph.D. from Harvard. It set the quality standard. American puppetry, at that point, really needed that festival to grow into a grown-up art form. I always felt it gave everybody this idea—I’m going to get into Harvard for my Ph.D. And it rubbed off. We still all have that feeling that we’ve got to do the best we can do. I think that’s how these festivals changed this field.”

Out of the Shadows celebrates the extraordinary festival performances and the special strengths of live performance, something which has become even more significant in this time of COVID-19, when so many theaters remain dark. As puppetry is such a visual medium, I knew this could only be done properly by including strong images from many of the shows. The book includes 156 photos, by 65 different photographers. It provides a solid history and resource for the field, and also offers an accessible entry point for a broader theater and art audience.

Employing all aspects of the visual and performing arts—sculpture, painting, costuming, music, theater—puppetry is the perfect union of the theater, which puts ideas into action, and the visual arts, which give them form. When people have traveled, or lived, internationally, it is not unusual for them to have encountered different types of traditional puppet theater, as it is an accepted part of so many cultures. Puppet theater has also become ubiquitous in major theatrical productions.

People who think they have had little or no exposure to contemporary puppet theater are surprised when I point out a few well-known theatrical examples, that they may never have considered as great works of puppet theater. Undoubtedly, one of the best-known examples is War Horse, which, with puppets by Handspring Puppet Company, took the theater world in the United Kingdom and the United States by storm.

War Horse, with puppets by Handspring Puppet Company, is shown in performance at the National Theater, London, 2007. Photo by Simon Annand

War Horse is connected to the Henson festivals through the alliances made during the Festival on Tour, a program that brought festival performances to 19 cities beyond New York. During the festivals, we presented two different productions by the Handspring Puppet Company/ William Kentridge collaboration. Woyzeck on the Highveld, in 1994, was the first of their productions to be seen in the United States. So, while we can’t take any credit for William Kentridge’s meteoric rise, we are proud to have been the first to show his work in the U.S.

Woyzeck on the Highveld, by Handspring Puppet Company. Photo ©Ruphin Coudyzer FPPSA

The second Handspring/Kentridge production was Ubu and the Truth Commission, which we presented in 1998. For this production we partnered with The Kennedy Center, in Washington, DC. The Kennedy Center then continued their relationship with Handspring beyond the festival. Alicia Adams, vice president for International Programming and Dance for the Kennedy Center, explains the genesis of War Horse as an outgrowth of the production Tall Horse. Alicia initiated Tall Horse, the first time Handspring Puppet Company had worked with large-scale puppets. When people from the National Theater in London saw it in South Africa they fell in love with the giant puppets, and began to look for a property that would require big puppets. As Alicia puts it: “Long story short, that is how War Horse began. The National Theater decided to produce War Horse [2007] and then it went on to Lincoln Center Theater, and the two directors [Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris] won the Tony that year [2011] for War Horse. So, that’s a significant outcome of that relationship and one I am very proud of.”

Other excellent mainstage examples are The Lion King (1997) on Broadway, and in opera, Madama Butterfly (2006), Satyagraha (2008), and William Kentridge’s recent opera Wozzeck (2020), and there are many more. My hope is that once people hear this, or read the book, they will start to think about all the examples that have touched them.

Many prominent New York theaters participated in the festivals, including: The Public Theater, La Mama E.T.C., HERE Arts Center, PS 122, and The New Victory Theater. As hoped, several of these theaters continue to be important presenting homes for puppet theater.

As Mark Russell, producer of the Under the Radar Festival at The Public Theater, said, when thinking about the Henson Festivals’ impact: “The American theater now knows there’s such a thing as serious puppetry, that it exists in the world. There were some amazing performances that really shifted my view of how powerful puppetry can be.”

Interest in the form continues on all levels. MoMA is planning an exhibition of the work of the artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp. The exhibition will include some of her puppets and is scheduled to open in November, 2021. Arp is one of many significant artists who have explored the field. Out of the Shadows provides context for their work.


Author Leslee Asch worked for Jim Henson and The Jim Henson Company for over twenty years. She began her career as a puppet builder and went on to serve as Director of Exhibitions for Jim Henson Productions, curating and managing exhibitions world-wide. She served as Executive Director of the Jim Henson Foundation and Producing Director of the Henson International Festivals of Puppet Theater. She is a recognized expert in the field. Out of the Shadows is available from Itasca Books and Amazon.

The book cover shown above features Peter and Wendy, by Mabou Mines, adapted by Liza Lorwin, directed by Lee Breuer, with puppets by Julie Archer. Actress Karen Kandel is with Peter and the Lost Boys. Photo by Richard Termine.