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Nashville hosts International Puppet Festival

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Photo -   In this June 19, 2013, photo, Connor Hill, left, Brooklyn Maize and Gina Vermeersch, right, all of Saginaw, Mich., view a puppet display at the Nashville Public Library in Nashville, Tenn. The Nashville International Puppet Festival is scheduled to be presented at the library June 21-23. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
In this June 19, 2013, photo, Connor Hill, left, Brooklyn Maize and Gina Vermeersch, right, all of Saginaw, Mich., view a puppet display at the Nashville Public Library in Nashville, Tenn. The Nashville International Puppet Festival is scheduled to be presented at the library June 21-23. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Entertainment,Theater

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The rock stars of the puppet world perform this weekend at a festival for top-notch puppeteers, some of whom traveled here from as far away as Germany and Japan.

The International Puppet Festival is the biggest event of its kind in North America, according to Phillip Huber, the puppeteer behind the China Girl in "Oz the Great and Powerful" and the marionettes in "Being John Malkovich."

"It's definitely not rinky dink. It's on par with many of the European festivals," said Huber, who performing his "Suspended Animation" show on Saturday night as one of two paid performances to benefit the otherwise-free festival. "You would have to travel the world to see this kind of talent. And to see it in one place over a weekend — it's fantastic."

Performances include Sombras Chinas from Argentina, where a puppeteer creates complex shadow puppets using only her hands and a few simple props. There will also be the object theater of France's Velo Theatre, in which a puppeteer/storyteller stays on stage and anything he picks up can be transformed into a puppet, and the traditional Bunraku puppetry of Japanese troupe Kawasemi-za with the show "Silent Poems," which has no words and includes a giant dragon puppet that fills the stage.

The library's own troupe, Wishing Chair Productions, is performing a newly created country-music themed show Thursday called "String City," featuring intricate marionettes at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Jon Ludwig, the artistic director at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, said puppetry is so visual and can easily transcend language and culture.

"When puppets are brought to life by a puppeteer, it cuts through any barrier and you totally believe you are looking at a live thing," he said.

But the different troops are in no way generic. "You get a sense of what the culture is like," he said. "A lot of times you see that in the design, each has a cultural style. Sometimes it's surprising. It's not always what you think."

The library's 75-year tradition of puppetry began in 1938 when a 15-year-old high school student walked over to the downtown library to put on a version of "Puss and Boots" with puppets he had created. Tom Tichenor made a career for himself on radio and television, even creating puppets for the Broadway show "Carnival," but he always kept his ties with Nashville and continued to perform at the library throughout his life.

Today, Wishing Chair Productions performs original shows nearly every weekend at the library.

Troupe leader Brian Hull said the idea for the festival came after a puppet troupe from Nashville's sister city of Magdeburg, Germany, came to town as part of a cultural exchange in 2004. The next year, Hull took some of the Nashville puppets to Germany and ended up meeting people from several other troupes, including the Velo Theatre of France.

"It turns out they are one of the greatest in the world," Hull said. "I had no idea how big they were. People are calling me, asking, 'How did you get them to come do a puppet show at your library?'"

Although the shows are free, many require tickets due to limited seating.

Tari Hughes is president of the Nashville Public Library Foundation, the nonprofit that raises private funds to enhance the library's collections and programing and is funding the festival at a cost of about $500,000.

"People hear 'puppets' and 'library' and they might think of sock puppets and story time," Hughes said, "But really we have this incredible talent we've brought in, and they perform in so many different styles. These are puppet troupes that are really rock stars in their own countries."

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Online: http://nashvillepubliclibrary.org/puppetfestival/

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