'Puppets of Portland'
A total of 28 artists came by the Portland Puppet Museum, 906 S.E. Umatilla St. in Sellwood, to lend their own creations to a new exhibition there called "Puppets of Portland." It opened in February, before the current health/economic crisis forced it to be closed to in-person visits.
"It's true, Portland is the third largest puppet-building region in all of the United States," remarked Steve Overton, as he and partner Marty Richmond set up their most ambitious exhibit to date.
"All kinds of puppets are represented here; some funny, others a little creepy, and everything in between," Overton added.
Fun with puppets and kids
Anyone with kids must have seen shows created and produced by Portlander Jason Ropp, the founder of Dragon Theater Puppets & Princesses, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
"As a kid, I was involved with our local library programs because I was home-schooled," Ropp said. "For my Boy Scouts Eagle Scout project, I built a puppet theater at my local library near Paradise, California."
At that point, a professional puppeteer, about to retire, took Ropp on as an apprentice, teaching him how to make puppets with latex rubber.
Under her guidance, Ropp build his first puppet show. After gaining experience, he performed at a Shakespeare Festival, and ended up touring festivals like Oregon Country Fair and Burning Man.
Settling in Portland, Ropp worked with the famous Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre for 3 1/2 years, touring the United States with their shows. "Then I established Dragon Theater here, and stepped out on my own.
"And we now run the Kids Zone for the Portland Rose Festival, do major fairs and festivals in Oregon and Washington — and am still very involved with summer reading programs at our libraries," Ropp said.
His contributions to the exhibition are several of his most beloved rod puppet characters, noted Ropp.
Not far from the Portland Puppet Museum, movie maker and puppeteer Jesse Blanchard was preparing the "stars" of his motion picture — which was to premiere during the Portland International Film Festival — to go on display at the Portland Puppet Museum exhibition. They are puppets Frank, and Zed.
Blanchard, who has earned his living for many years working on films and creating videos for companies and nonprofit organizations, said he's always yearned to do his own "creative" projects.
For 10 years, he tried making independent films, only to have the productions "fall apart" because, with a limited budget, the actors and crew drifted away before he could finish it. "But the cool thing about working with a cast of puppets is that they never grow tired of working on a long-term project!"
"Having decided to put down roots here, I decided to leverage Portland's great puppet and animation community," recalled Blanchard. "My first puppet project was when I met Jason Ropp – we put out a short film, featuring puppets, called 'Shine' – a comedic horror story.
"I started working on our new movie, called 'Frank & Zed' in 2014. It's about a Frankenstein's monster-like character (Frank) who partners with a zombie (Zed) in a hilarious tale of misguided fears, innocent brain consumption, and a loving friendship."
The genre? "We call it 'Splat-Stick' – it's like slapstick, only with splatter; a lot of splatter!" Blanchard said with enthusiasm.
Science fiction, with strings attached
Geahk (pronounced 'Jack', it's Gaelic) Burchill is a puppet builder, artist, and engineer based here in Portland. He build smarionettes, largely because they are difficult to make.
Starting as a comic book artist, Burchill said he started sculpting maquettes — heads and full bodies – to help him better visualize his characters. "The more I did sculpting, the more I fell in love with the third dimension, as a storyteller," he said. "What I discovered is that a marionette show is just a live action comic book; and, as a storyteller, every puppet I create starts as a line in a script."
His contribution to the exhibition is a set, and puppets from stories he's written with Adam Bolivar. "Adam's influenced by H.P. Lovecraft classic horror stories — and I'm much more influenced by classic science-fiction — like HG Wells," Burchill explained.
Steve Overton said the exhibit might be "held over" into the summer, at the request of the Puppeteers of America Pacific Northwest Region convention in August. Learn more about the Portland Puppet Museum online at www.puppetmuseum.com.
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