By Mark Guarino
CHICAGO, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Puppets aren't just about Muppets, kids and circuses.
Indeed, an international puppetry festival in Chicago aims to redefine the art form and promises theatergoers an experience that, unlike so many in our digital age, can't be swiped, streamed, downloaded, or tweeted.
The first annual Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, which opens on Wednesday and runs through Jan. 25, is about the many forms of contemporary puppetry - from marionettes, masking and shadow puppets to tabletop puppets and larger-than-life installation characters that tell stories that are both epic and innately intimate.
Puppet theater is thought to have been around in some form for more than 3,000 years, with recent award-winning stage shows like "War Horse" and "The Lion King" taking the art to new, emotional levels and huge global audiences.
Festival founder Blair Thomas says the low-tech nature of puppetry is what makes it so enduring, especially when people are now inundated with technology in their daily lives.
"Live puppet theater is really just this sculptured object being performed in front of you by someone who has ability to endow it with life," Thomas said.
"That's in such sharp contrast to our media culture where we are inundated with how fast things are edited in film. Our cinematic eye is very sophisticated but also oversaturated. So there's something very real about being in the presence of an animated puppet that is a breath of fresh air," he said.
The 12-day festival takes place throughout Chicago, from storefront theaters to the Museum of Contemporary Art and Field Museum. It will feature about 50 puppeteers from around the world including New York, London, Montreal, the Netherlands, and France.
Chicago is represented by companies like five-year-old Manual Cinema that incorporates multimedia, soundscapes, and storytelling focusing on abstract expressionism.
Puppetry has deep roots in Chicago with the term "puppeteer" credited by etymologists as originating there in 1912 with Ellen Van Volkenburg, a co-founder of the Chicago Little Theater that put on marionette shows on Michigan Avenue.
Van Volkenburg was later profiled in a 1920 New York Times article which first used the term "puppeteering" in print.
Thomas says more theater artists are incorporating puppetry today because they have come to appreciate how it expands their storytelling potential.
The simplicity of the art form, it seems, taps into something inherently primitive that cannot be replicated by human actors reading from conventional scripts.
"Puppet theater is intimately connected to the irrational," he said.
"After several centuries of empirical thinking as the primary way of looking at the world, there's no way for irrational thought to go. So watching a puppet that is animated well can tap into that reptilian brand, which makes it a very powerful experience."
The performances in Chicago (chicagopuppetfest.org) will vary from traditional shadow puppetry by New York's Chinese Theater Works, to the animated drawings of Canadian Daniel Barrow, and what is described as "a live-action three-dimensional cartoon" performed by 15 puppeteers of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater of Minneapolis.
Thomas hopes the festival will become a biannual event.
"One of our goals is to redefine what puppetry is in people's minds," he says. "It crosses a lot of boundaries and borders and cultures and languages that otherwise separate us." (Reporting by Mark Guarino, editing by Jill Serjeant and Gunna Dickson)