Local storyteller lets his puppets do the talking

Jonathan Timmes - Michael Cotter of Blue Sky Puppet Theatre plays with two of his rod puppets.

How do you like to tell a story? Do you write it down and read it to your mom? Do you like to act it out with your friends, complete with hand gestures and funny voices? Do you like to sing it? There are many ways to tell a story and entertain people.

Michael Cotter, who started Blue Sky Puppet Theatre in 1974 in the Washington area, likes to tell stories with puppets.

(Richard Termine) - It’s easy to make puppets from just about anything, like with these Ping-Pong ball hand puppets.

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“I am basically a storyteller,” he said from his office in University Park. “You take it a line at a time, and next thing you know you have a script and you keep writing and rewriting.”

Many puppets, many scripts

Cotter has written or helped write about 75 scripts through the years for his approximately 250 puppets. This weekend he will perform “Eleventh Finger” as a part of Strathmore’s summer puppet festival. It’s a story about a puppet named Feathers who goes on a journey and meets other puppets who help him solve a riddle.

Puppetry may seem like an art form that’s just for kids, but Cotter didn’t see his first puppet show until he was 25 years old, in San Francisco about 40 years ago. (Part of the Strathmore puppet festival is actually aimed at adults.)

“There was something really charming about this art form,” Cotter said. Even though he had no background in theater, he decided to get together all his artist friends and put on a puppet show for adults.

Today, Cotter and his company perform about 1,000 shows a year for kids. He decided a while ago that kid audiences were the best.

“I get along great with kids, and I think they’re wonderful and exciting, and they have their own gifts to bring to the situation,” Cotter said.

His company is one of many puppet companies in the Washington area and one of more than 100 companies in the United States.

Thousands of years old

The art of puppetry has been around for thousands of years, probably starting in Egypt or Greece, according to Harriet Lesser, who curated (or put together) the puppet exhibit at Strathmore’s mansion. A famous puppeteer whom she liked as a little girl in the 1960s was Shari Lewis. Lewis used to talk to her two puppets, Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse. “It’s very freeing to talk to a puppet,” Lesser said.

There are four major types of puppets: hand puppets (such as the Muppets), marionettes (puppets controlled with wires and strings), shadow puppets (made by putting an object — sometimes a hand — in front of a light so that the object’s shape appears on a wall or screen) and rod puppets (what Cotter uses). He stands behind a curtain and holds onto a pole over his head that is attached to a puppet. The audience can see the puppet but not Cotter.

Try it!

If you’re curious about puppetry, Cotter says, experiment with it, just like he did.

“Draw on your hand or get a paper bag, [or] get a piece of cardboard and put a stick on it,” he says. “I didn’t get trained in this. I just figured it out as I went along.”

A great thing about puppetry, said Cotter, is that he can do it all. He can write the script, build the puppets, make the stage, be the actor, figure out the lights, “and then I can put it all in my box and put it in my car and take it someplace to a theater production.”

Cotter has been able to make a living doing something he loves that is creative just because he was “looking for something different to do,” he said.

IF YOU GO: “Eleventh Finger”

See puppets for yourself as part of this summer’s “Puppets Take Strathmore” series, which includes performances and a free puppet exhibit that includes dozens of real puppets.

When: Saturday at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Where: Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, CityDance Studio Theater 405.

What: Blue Sky Puppet Theatre’s “Eleventh Finger.” Either before or after the show, visit the “No Strings Attached” puppet exhibit in the Strathmore mansion, open Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Tickets: $8 for kids ages 5 to 12. Have a parent call 301-581-5100 or go to www.strathmore.org for tickets and more information

— Moira E. McLaughlin

 
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