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Puppeteer goes smaller with 'Giant'

By Jack Helbig, January 25, 2008

When I spoke with Chicago-based puppet master Blair Thomas two years ago he was working with songwriter Michael Smith on Smith's adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen."

Well, the success of that show -- it has run for two consecutive holidays at Victory Gardens -- has led Thomas to do another puppet adaptation of a fairy tale. This time he is doing Oscar Wilde's lyrical little tale "The Selfish Giant," opening Saturday at Chicago's Field Museum.

The project, however, predates the opening of the "Snow Queen. "  (Chicago Children's Theatre Artistic Director) Jacqueline Russell came to me a couple of years ago to talk about projects she was thinking we could do," Thomas said, "and we kind of bantered around some ideas. We decided we would do something from Oscar Wilde's fairy tale collection, 'The Happy Prince.' "

At the time, Thomas was looking for small projects that could easily and cheaply be transported from show to show. Thomas was not interested in epic puppet projects. He had done plenty of that at Red Moon, the puppet theater he had founded and then walked away from when the company got too large.

"Jacqueline Russell wanted us to create something we could tour," Thomas said, "something we can pull out of a hat. Something we could fit into a small rental van."

Thomas thought of doing a show that would require only one puppeteer and a musician. When the idea of adapting Wilde's fairy tale about a grouchy giant who learns to love, it felt right to Thomas.

"It seemed like it would be fun to bring that story to life," Thomas said. "I say that because it was clear I could create a show that would fit the requirements -- fit in a rental van."

Thomas, who was just finishing up his work on "Snow Queen," brought Michael Smith into the project. As in "Snow Queen," Smith wrote a cycle of songs that tell the story.

"The puppets are part of a wordless performance," Thomas said. "That was another thing I follow: Keep it simple. I like lots of fantastical imagery and puppet tricks. But I don't want to try to get too fancy. I wanted to allow the whimsical part of my imagination to flourish -- and have fun."

The show not only pleased Thomas, it fit his plans to expand Fast Fish, the youth theater division of his theater company, Blair Thomas and Company.

"The challenge we had this time was how do you create a visual narrative that is in a large enough scale to hold the attention of children," Thomas said. "Luckily, I work with some astounding designers. The premise of our version is that here is a large giant (to) tell us his story. He opens up some trunks on stage and the set and puppets just spill out and are brought to life to tell the story.

"I am very much influenced by being the father of 4-year-old twin boys," Thomas said. "I want to set up a way to make both puppet shows that are more serious (like Thomas' puppet version of Wallace Stevens' poem "!3 Ways of Looking at a Black Bird") ands shows that are popular and likable."

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