Puppet festival highlights arts movement in rural Perry

Jun 22, 2018

In a place known for having more cows than people, an arts and culture movement is brewing. The Town of Perry has hosted ‘Shake on the Lake’ since 2012 where outdoor productions of Shakespeare have been performed at Silver Lake and other rural Western New York areas. Now they are home to the inaugural New York State Puppet Festival and hope to bring it back for years to come.

I know the question you may be asking yourself. Why is Theatre at 37 in Perry of all places holding the New York State Puppet festival? Founder and Producing Artistic Director Josh Rice would tell you—why not?  It wouldn’t stand out in New York City.

“I think a festival like this might get lost in the vacuum of New York [City] because there are just so many wonderful and amazing things already happening,” said Rice. “We’re all vying for the same audiences. Here in Western New York, I think there is a unique opportunity to reach an audience that maybe has never been reached before with this kind of work.”

And Perry has a history of drawing tourists with puppet-like contraptions dating back to the mid-19th Century.

“The guy, E.B. Walker, was trying to get people to come to his hotel and was having a hard time getting people to stay. So he created a bellows system that he ran in to the water connecting it to a piece of canvas, blew it up from the shore with the bellows and it rose out of the water and people thought that there was a sea creature. People came from everywhere to come and see it,” Rice said.

People came to the area then and they are coming now to see internationally renowned puppeteers.

“Through all of the shows I have done over the years and my involvement in the puppetry world in New York City, I could bring some of my puppet heroes to my town,” said Rice. “If I was going to start a puppet festival, I wanted to bring the best people in the world. No hyperbole, we have them.”

Puppet master Koryu Nishikawa performing
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

That includes New York City Puppeteer Sam Jay Gold, who is performing his play "War with the Newts," which was inspired by a Czech novel.

“It’s a sci-fi 1930’s tale where the western world discovers this species of three-feet-tall highly intelligent newts,” said Gold. “It chronicles how they spread them around, how they love them, how they educate them, how they arm them, and how they are ultimately overthrown by them.”

Director Miriam Grill said there has been a lot of support for their play here at the festival, which combines human actors with an all puppet cast of Newts.

“There’s creative support. There’s technical support. I feel like in New York, we do things so janky some of the times,” laughed Grill. “You’re just like, ‘I’ll do it myself. I’ll be five people.’ Here is different. They really want to give you a team to support you and your vision.”

They had a residency in Perry in February which led to some inspiration from local school children.

“We did this improvisation with them. It actually led to some of the staging we have now. It was inspired by the community,” Grill said.

The big draw of the festival is 5th generation puppet master Koryu Nishikawa, who has directed the Japanese puppet theater company Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo since the mid-90’s. The company has been named an intangible cultural asset by the city of Tokyo. So how did Rice get him to come?

“We were on a tour of a show in Hawaii,” Rice explained. “I said, ‘Sensei! Would you come to my town and do a puppet festival where there are more cows than people?’

"He said, ‘Ah yes. I come. We do puppets.’ And I said thank you. He’s really just the most generous person.”

With help from his translator Leah Ogawa, Nishikawa has held workshops and performances giving his thoughts on being a puppeteer.

“As actors, I think there is a limit in terms of what kind of characters you can play. For puppets, I can play a child, an adult, a female, a male, a monster… There’s so many possibilities and there is no limit and because of that I think there is value in puppets,” said Nishikawa. “Also, it’s an inanimate object. By me putting life in to it, it adds more value to it. I think that part is a really significant part of puppetry and that’s why I love it.”

Much like a musician and their instrument, Nishikawa’s puppets are an extension of himself.  

“I think you can also say it’s part of you and also a double you. Like the same person that is you,” said Nishikawa. “Even the people that make the faces, they think about what kind of emotion this puppet is going to go through. They think of how they can put their emotion in to this puppet. Each body part is someone’s emotion and therefore it is part of you.”

His master classes have drawn several laughs, partially because of his light-hearted nature, but very much due to his blunt delivery with his translator Ogawa.

“So, in puppetry, if you’re a good puppeteer, you can make the puppet a superhero. But if a puppeteer is really bad you can make the puppet look like a rock,” Ogawa translated as the surrounding area burst out in laughter. “So it’s all up to you as a puppeteer to make this puppet come alive.”

An audience member moving the puppet under the instruction of Koryu Nishikawa
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

For Rice, a Perry native, this is a dream that’s become a reality.

“The hope is, I think, one day to make Perry and Silver Lake an arts and cultural destination,” said Rice. “I’ve been working on it since 2012 with ‘Shake on the Lake’ and now this puppet festival.

"We’re hoping we can continue to draw people in interest and have more people come and see small towns like Perry and rural places like Perry do matter. That arts do matter here. That these places deserve great art.”

This summer’s run of ‘Shake on the Lake’ will feature 20 performances of Richard III across eight western New York counties.

This festival is possible because of funding from the Wyoming County Rural Arts Initiative. One of its biggest supporters has been Perry Mayor Rick Hauser.

“He has been so supportive of all of my arts ideas. I started a Shakespeare festival here in 2012 called Shake on the Lake and he did a lot to help make that happen and come to life,” said Rice.

“This puppet festival is an idea that he immediately said yes to. He loved what we were doing. Wanted to do anything he could to support the project. … For him I think one of the great selling points about Perry is he can walk from his house here in downtown to Main Street and go to a world class puppet festival. I couldn’t agree more and I think that’s an amazing thing. I’m so glad to have his support and so much of the community in town,” said Rice.

Rice hopes to make this a bi-annual festival, which means the next one would take place in 2020.

The festival runs through June 24. Puppet master Koryu Nishikawa will be holding a workshop at the Buffalo Central Public Library June 23 at 2 p.m. before returning to Perry for a performance that night.