ITHACA, NY– With so many artists dedicated to carrying on puppet performance and workshops, the future of puppetry in Ithaca is in good hands, no strings attached. For Linda Wingerter, puppetry is more than a creative outlet; it’s quite literally in her blood. Growing up in her grandparent’s puppet theatre, Wingerter said she always felt a strong connection to the arts.
“That was my normal,” she said. “It was always in my mind as something I wanted to do, but I just couldn’t crack how I wanted to get into it.”
After more than 10 years as a children’s book illustrator, Wingerter found the solution, reviving her grandparent’s traveling puppet theatre, the Stringpullers, and opening studios in Ithaca and Connecticut.. She said she was drawn to Ithaca after finding a large community of puppeteers already playing in the city.
“It’s such a tiny world so, when you find other people as crazy about it as you, it’s always like [finding] family,” she said.
“A lot of people were just really, really open to working with me, and it’s not like that in other places,” Scott Hitz, a local puppeteer, who was shocked by the spirit of the artists and community when he moved to Ithaca. “There’s a passion here that’s pushing a lot of people through, and you don’t find that in a lot of places.”
Lily Gershon, founder and president of the Lilypad Puppet Theatre, said bringing local artists together has always been a major goal for her. Lilypad Puppet Theatre is a non-profit that focuses on educating its audiences on personal and social themes through puppetry, which they consider accessible to all ages and needs. It’s schedule has been impacted by the pandemic, it’s most recent production was a variety show held on Aug. 28.
“We’re trying to create that community of puppeteers by helping each other out and bringing everyone together and I think that’s easier in a smaller town like Ithaca,” Gershon said. “There’s less competition as far as puppetry is involved, so that lets us come through a little more…We want to make sure that everyone has access to these arts because, in some ways, I think art can be a life saver,” she said
“A lot of people don’t have a voice and don’t know how to gain a voice,” Wingerter said. “It’s not for everybody but there are a lot of people like myself where this is the way they can express themselves.” She said that she believes puppetry can give people who practice it a whole new identity and a community. Marc Petrosino, an Ithaca College alumnus who majored in puppetry, said he knows the feeling very well.
“I think it was the opportunity to be anything,” he said. “It’s that escape. You could be a dog, a boy, a girl or even a talking tree and I always enjoyed that.”
He now runs his own production company, Monkey Boys Productions, in Pennsylvania, a business he actually started with Hitz, and said he’s grateful that he went to Ithaca College and was exposed to the opportunity to practice puppetry in the first place.
“I seriously considered puppetry when I was applying to college but it didn’t seem like there was any way to make a living at it,” he said.
Petrosino used the college’s integrative studies major to craft his own degree in puppetry. Since graduating in ‘98, Petrosino has performed and had puppets and props featured on everything from SNL to Sesame Street. But he still makes time to come back to Ithaca to perform, in past years he’s done workshops at his alma mater. “I really enjoy talking with people about puppetry, plus it offers a rare opportunity for students to experience this because it’s such a niche art form,” he said.
Wingerter, who briefly taught Puppetry Arts at Quinnipiac University, has also taught workshops in Ithaca from time to time and said that teaching has offered her an additional opportunity for self-discovery. “Everybody comes to puppetry with a different background and different levels of interests when they start, but they always have fun because there’s so many styles and so many things you can do,” she said.
Hitz has been able to do several zoom workshops at the Newfield library for both children and adults, each to great success.
“Right now everything’s in such a weird place because of the pandemic, but they went really well,” he said. “They were just as fun and enjoyable as the live stuff I’ve done, so I’m absolutely considering doing more of them.”
While the Lilypad Puppet Theatre and the Stringpullers have halted workshops in light of the pandemic, both groups have recently resumed shows virtually and some socially-distanced. Gershon was able to do two live socially distanced puppet shows on Aug. 14 and 28 at the Ithaca Children’s Garden, where she raised money for a local organization, No Mas Lagrimas, which is helping to get food and other necessities to people during the pandemic. Wingerter just finished a virtual shadow puppet rendition of “Romeo and Juliet” and said she remains optimistic about the many ways puppetry can and will adapt to the demands of the pandemic.
“The best thing for puppeteers is that everyone is putting their shows online all over the world and people are also teaching all over the world, so I’ve been taking classes with puppets I’ve admired for years in Iceland and Germany and England and we’re connecting far more than I think we ever have before,” she said. “We’re also figuring out new ways of doing puppet shows online and that’s kind of creating a whole new art form, so I think there’s gonna be some kind of renaissance that comes out of it,” she said.
Episode 1: Wanda the Wizard wants to make a pop-up card for her friend ZeeZee’s birthday, but she doesn’t know what to write. With some help from her friends, and some bibity bobity shmoobity magic, she figures it all out.