Independence Day:
changing paradigms in American puppetry

by Andrew C. Periale

The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the rise of the conservative right in American politics, though radically different processes, have a common thread. In both cases the message to artists has been:" Look over there! See that federal support for the arts? Wave 'bye-bye'!" In this country, the process has caused a lot of suffering and not just for artists. People on welfare, people on farms, people on the streets... a lot of folks will be waving a lot of money goodbye in the coming years as the mood of the country shifts. In particular, the gutting of the National Endowment of the Arts is presenting both artists and cultural institutions with new challenges. As pitifully as this situation reflects on the state of American politics, meeting the challenge will certainly make us stronger in the long run. 

The changing scene in federal arts support may, in fact, be largely responsible for the new paradigm in American puppetry: forge new partnerships, connect with new audiences, build new bridges to the old ones. This new attitude is completely in line with the national movement back toward "community" represented by the new popularity of, for example, co-housing and communitarianism.

In addition to our recognition of the l00th anniversary of the premiere of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, this issue is full of new paradigm puppetry- artists like Amy Trompetter and Lee Breuer, who are endlessly building new bridges in their work- between cultural traditions, between artists, between artistic styles. Arts presenters, too, are creating new partnerships- with new audiences, new artists, new sources of funding. Though this may not seem like a radical concept, Vince Anthony (director of Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts) sees it as a sea change." The model in the '70s was people who'd been drawn to puppetry earnestly working on the techniques by which to express themselves in the medium. In the '80s a lot of new artists were drawn to puppetry from other disciplines and there was a lot of wild experimenting going on- a lot of 'pushing the elastic boundaries'. Now in the '90s artists are interpreting more- really trying to communicate with their audiences." 

Though the NEA money which made it easier to develop risky (at times even obscure) work is largely gone, it has left a legacy of artists who are equipped to continue without it. Whether or not they will is still an open question. 

When we look at how many Russians now long for the good old days before perestroika,we get a quick reminder of the difficulties of real independence. Humans are an ingenious species. I remember hearing Buckminster Fuller address this, pointing to a man who, in need, turned a floating piano crate into a life preserver. That doesn't imply that a piano crate is necessarily the best design for a life preserver. We tend, though, to cling to what works, whether it is the best solution or not. The NEA surely kept many artists afloat in its time. Now the budget cutters, be they anti-art fascists or merely sincere Conservatives, are prying our fingers loose from our make-shift life rafts. 

No doubt some will drown, some will thrash about until they happen on a new bit of floating debris, and still others will put time and energy into designing a more efficient life raft. But for those who've used their time afloat in a process of growth and development, it's Independence Day: the time has come to jump in and swim straight for shore.