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THE NEW YORK TIMES

Saturday, June 18, 2005

On Miniature Stages,
Performances Crafted From Heart and Paper
by Jason Zinoman

 

There were 60 scantily clad dancers, and a stage blanketed in glitter and feathers. Lots of feathers. This lavish spectacle was the latest version of the "Ziegfeld Follies," the early-20th-century blockbuster known for its highly synchronized showgirls - except that this production was very, very small.

 

"Ziegfeld Miniscule Follies" had its premiere last weekend on a stage the size of a television set, a shrunken copy of the New Amsterdam Theater, and included tiny paper actors who, luckily for the producers, worked free.

 

"When you use paper instead of people, the 'Follies' is very easy to afford," said Liz Joyce, who along with Steve Widerman performed this puppet show, on a budget of a mere $75, at the 10-day International Toy Theater Festival at St. Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn.

 

This diminutive entertainment is part of an American revival of toy theater, an arcane art form that as almost any practitioner will tell you is not what it sounds like. "The name is a misnomer," said John Lee Beatty, a Tony Award-winning set designer who has been a fan of the long-forgotten art form since he was 9. "It is not a toy in the sense of being dumbed-down for children."

 

It's not exactly theater, either, at least in the sense of its being part of a public performance. These simple shows, which are made of paper and feature two-dimensional figures and model theaters patterned after proscenium playhouses, were originally mass-produced and sold in bookstores in the 19th century.

 

They reached greatest prominence in Western Europe, where toy theater was the preferred home entertainment system of the Victorian age. Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, G. K. Chesterton and Lewis Carroll grew up with toy theaters. Playwrights like J. B. Priestley even wrote dramas for them.

 

With the advent of television, toy theater lost its pride of place in the family living room, but it has resurfaced in more traditional performing spaces in Britain, France and Germany. In the last decade, as the worlds of puppetry and theater continue to overlap, an American base has also emerged, thanks to a dedicated band of aficionados.

 

The seeds of the International Toy Theater Festival, which is presented in New York City every couple of years or so, were planted in 1991 when members of the Great Small Works theater company started putting on tiny shows in response to the gulf war. The troupe mounted the first festival two years later.

 

"When we started we just thought it would be a quick and accessible way to make theater responding to current events," said Trudi Cohen, a founder of Great Small Works. "But we soon discovered an entire community of eccentrics who do toy theater."

 

Brother Jon Bankert, a Franciscan friar and an active toy theater performer, who has mounted everything from "Sweeney Todd" to "Peter Pan," is one of those eccentrics. Tonight and tomorrow night, he will perform "Tales of St. Francis," three stories with religious themes. He said that he was drawn to the intimacy of the form, and that his faith also played a role.

 

"St. Francis taught his brothers that they shouldn't be interested in great huge changes in the world, but rather changing the world one person at a time," he said. "That has to do with my interest in toy theater, which is so intimate. In a small group, I can feel the hearts of an audience."

 

Audiences will be able to walk through St. Anne's, moving from one show to another and perusing a wealth of tiny stages. The biggest of the stages will be videotaped and the image enlarged on screen. For those who prefer to stare at the real thing, there will also be binoculars.

 

That passes for high technology in the old-fashioned world of toy theater. "Toy theater is having a renaissance because it's so counter to today's culture," said Ms. Joyce of the "Ziegfeld Miniscule Follies," who sees it as an alternative to the bigger-is-better aesthetic of contemporary culture. "'Star Wars,' with all its CGI effects, may look real, but you know it's fake.

 

With toy theater, it's more concrete. It may not look real, but you come for that one moment when your reality is suspended, you fall for it and then you believe."

 

Artists from the Middle East, the Netherlands, Canada, Mexico and Germany have participated in the festival, which ends tomorrow. The remaining shows include an adaptation of a Garcia Lorca text, "Buster Keaton's Stroll ("El Paseo de Buster Keaton"), from Chicago, and "Troka el Poderoso ("Troka the Powerful"), from Mexico.

 

There are theaters built on top of baby carriages, inside matchboxes, in mail slots and even in the stomach of a life-size doll. In other words, toy theater, which was originally staged on a paper proscenium, is somewhat broadly defined in this festival. But if there's a common denominator, it's the scale.

 

Some purists grumble at the use of the term "toy theater" to describe this potpourri of entertainments. "I don't like that they say this is a toy theater and people think that's what it is, but it's not," said Gigi Sandberg, a forceful and lively 79-year-old champion of toy theater, who runs a website, www.toytheatre.info and a toy theater store from her home in Mississippi.

 

But the founders of the International Toy Theater Festival say that they don't want to be stuck in the past. "The Europeans are more traditional, because they have more of a history with toy theater," said John Bell, a festival founder. "But what we have done is taken this art form and made it our own."

 

The festival continues through tomorrow at St. Anne's Warehouse, 38 Water Street, Dumbo, (718) 254-8779 or www.stannswarehouse.org.

 

 

 

 

 

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