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What every culture has in common – what may, perhaps, define culture – is our stories that make sense of the world around us. How did we get here? Why do people behave the way they do? What should we strive for?

 

All of these concepts are addressed in the stories of cultures around the world, which are influenced by the environment in which that culture exists. The way those stories are told is constantly evolving, although certain ways of presenting a story remain relevant over time.

The longstanding success of PuppetArt Theater in Detroit bears that out.

They have been presenting a rotating cast of shows since 1991, beginning as the American Russian Theater and changing their name to PuppetArt in 1999, the year after the group moved into their building at 25 Grand River Ave. in Detroit.

"Now we have the second generation of patrons," says Igor Gozman, founder and artistic director of PuppetArt. "The kids who came 16 years ago, now they bring their little kids."

Each production is based on a fairy tale or folktale. The founders of PuppetArt are from Russia, so most of the earlier productions focused on Russian Jewish tales such as their classic interpretation of the Firebird story. Over time, they have expanded their storytelling vision to include stories such as Oh, Anase, which is based on a West African folktale, or this year's new show Mouk's Adventures, which is based on an Arabic folktale.

November's show was one that they first produced in 2003, called Turtle Island. It recounts two Native American stories about how the Earth came to be. As with all of their shows, PuppetArt wanted to be conscientious they were presenting stories with the highest degree of cultural accuracy and cultural sensitivity.

For Turtle Island, they sought help from Kay McGowan, a local anthropologist and Native American who has studied the culture intensively. All the stories they tell have certain important themes running through them, Gozman says, but also have elements unique to the culture from which they orginate. PuppetArt wants to emphasize both. In Turtle Island, that theme is the idea of how everything is connected.

"Everything has its spirit and must live in harmony, and we must be not only thinking about humans but about nature," he says. "It looks at things such as the role of the female in society, and how the least of us can become a hero -- real beauty is hidden and real strength is hidden." In December and January, PuppetArt presents

The Snow Queen, the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale on which Frozen is based. Like most of their shows, it was created several years ago and placed in their rotation of shows they repeat on a regular basis.

It takes about a year to develop a PuppetArt show, from the scripting the story to designing the puppets and composing original music, to the actual staging of the show. Rehearsals usually span four or five months before a show is ready to premiere.

This season, they are working on an interpretation of Antoine de Sainte-Exupery's The Little Prince. Unlike their other shows, this one is aimed at a more adult audience that can understand the more complex themes of love and loss in the beloved story.

PuppetArt's shows are somewhere between storytelling, where illustrations help the imagination visualize the story, and a live-action performance. "It is based on animation of the objects as allegories," he says. "It's really an intentional, artistic, aesthetic difference."

Children still are attracted to puppetry, despite all the other entertainment options available to them 24-7. Gozman thinks it's because everyone will interprets what they see through their own experiences.

"When an object is presented in a story, you become the animator of those objects," he says. "The spectator is an actual creator of that story -- you kind of frame a moment and bring collaboration, history, imagination and memories, and put it all together."

By Amy Kuras

The details:

Turtle Island closes its run Nov. 29-30. The Snow Queen will run through December 2014 and January 2015. For tickets and showtimes, go to www.puppetart.org or call the box office 313-961-7777.

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