Some people, particularly Brits of a certain vintage, may equate puppet theater with beachfront stalls that accommodate traditional Punch and Judy shows. But, as the 15th annual International Puppet Theater & Film Festival shows, there is much more to the art form.

Organized by the Israel Puppet Center, the festival takes place July 19- 28 in Holon. It initiates and hosts about 30 performances by resident and international artists, conferences, exhibitions, a street parade and workshops for professionals and amateurs based on a wide range of puppeteer techniques. Add to that a one-day conference on Applying Puppets in Therapy, exhibitions at the center’s museum and galleries and a special Puppetry on the Screen presentation, and you end up with some rich offerings.

Keeping an event going for 15 years is certainly an achievement in this culture budget-strapped country, so is puppet theater gaining in popularity here? “I would like to think so,” says the event’s artistic director Ilan Savir. “I also think the fact that we have the Israel Puppet Center also says something about how puppet theater is regarded in Israel today.”

Savir has pulled out all the stops to bring the crowds in to Holon this year, with several big draws in the festival lineup. One of the overseas stars on the roster is American physical comic theater performer Hilary Chaplain, who will present the acclaimed A Day in Her Life show for youth and adults. Others include the Monsters show by the Zipit company of Spain and the Tout… Polichinelle show and the TaRaBaTes Theatre group from France.

Chaplain will also give a workshop for adults.

“We are delighted that Hilary is coming,” says Savir. “We always make sure there is a physical theater item in the festival program. I believe that it is the suitable theater format for puppeteering, and that is something that Israeli puppeteers generally lack – experience in acting. So I am sure we will all have something to learn from Hilary.”

The local side of the artistic program features two shows by the Orna Porat Theater for Children and Youth for pre-school kids, and a number of guest shows for children, including productions by the Jerusalem-based Train Theater, the Tulik Puppet Theater and the Key Theater. There will also hands-on activities for junior festival patrons, including a Puppet Laughter Yoga workshop and puppet-making and operating workshops.

While Savir is keen to bring in as many people as possible to the festival, he recognizes that not everyone considers puppet theater a legitimate highend form of entertainment.

“It is difficult to really get an idea of how many more people take what we do seriously because the people that come to the center in Holon are already into what we do,” he notes. “But the festival is, of course, a great opportunity for us to get the word out further and to make a big deal of puppet theater.

Hopefully, that convinces more and more members of the public that what we do is art, and not just cheap children’s entertainment. But you know, it’s perfectly acceptable that some people don’t consider this as high-quality art.”

Savir says that people come to the festival from all over the country and from all walks of life. He is also aware of the range of theater traditions that people from different cultures bring with them when they come on aliya, and he is looking to capitalize on that.

“We are targeting the Russian community because they have a long and rich heritage in puppet theater.

There is a good chance that we can find a good audience among Russian Israelis.”

It is also a matter of tailoring the wares.

“Not all kinds of shows are suitable for all sectors of the public,” Savir continues. “We are looking into matching what we offer to the different audiences, to see what appeals to them.”

Our own pioneers in the field originated from Eastern Europe, and during the festival the Israel Puppet Center will host an exhibition of puppets designed and made by Dr. Paul Levy, who made aliya from Czechoslovakia in 1939. There will also be a display of puppets made by students at the nearby Holon Institute of Technology, and another exhibition of puppets made by the center’s own students.

The festival program also includes a screening of the 1999 film Being John Malkovich, which includes a memorable puppet theater scene. The man responsible for the scene was American puppet theater artist Phillip Huber, who will be a guest at the Holon festival.

“Many puppet theater professionals and amateurs want to come to Phillip’s workshop,” says Savir. “He is very well known all over the world, and it is a great honor to have him here.”

Other screenings include a documentary called Puppet, about the troubled history of American puppetry, and the Sunflower Hour mockumentary.

Musical entertainment will be available in the park next to the center, courtesy of high-energy rock group Bubbeh Maisers.

For tickets and more information about the International Puppet Theater & Film Festival: (03) 502- 1552 and www.puppetcenter.co.il

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