Puppet Mania Master Puppeteer Blair Thomas Shows off His Amazing Talents at the Chicago International Festival of Puppet Theater
Helbig, Jack, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Chicago International Festival of Puppet Theater
- What: "Hunchback"
- Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Studio Theatre, 1620 N. Halsted St., Chicago
- When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday
- Parking: Some free parking on the street, paid lot nearby
- Tickets: $22
- Box office: (773) 722-5463
- What: "Master Pedro"
- Where: Storefront Theater, Gallery 37 Center for the Arts, 66 E. Randolph, Chicago
- When: 7 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Saturday
- Parking: A little street parking, paid lots nearby
- Tickets: $15
- Box office: (773) 722-5463
You wouldn't think it when you met him, but Blair Thomas is a master puppeteer with an international reputation.
A lanky, quiet, self-effacing man in his late 30s, Thomas is a founding member of Chicago's premiere puppet theater, the Redmoon Theater.
And along with Jim Lasko, he is responsible for many of the company's best-known shows.
He and Lasko produced an acclaimed version of "Moby Dick" that included life-sized puppets of Ahab and his crew and a whale puppet that took several people to operate.
Thomas and Lasko also created the puppet version of "Frankenstein" that sold out its run several years ago at Steppenwolf's Studio Space in Chicago.
Redmoon continues to flourish; their version of the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" just opened at Steppenwolf last week - but Thomas has moved on to other projects.
As co-curator of the First Chicago International Festival of Puppet Theater currently underway in Chicago, he helped lure puppet troupes from around the world to perform at the event.
And as a puppeteer, he continues to create shows decidedly smaller than the spectacles he once orchestrated for Redmoon.
His current project is a puppet version of Spanish composer Manuel deFalla's opera, "Master Pedro's Puppet Show."
Based on an episode from Cervantes' "Don Quixote," Thomas' show is being produced as part of the puppet festival, along with "Hunchback."
The festival brings together puppet troupes from around the world, including the Saigon Water Puppet Theater, the acclaimed Janie Geiser & Co. and the Slovenian Horse Puppet Theater.
Thomas became interested in puppets when he was a kid, growing up in Jacksonville, Ala.
"I had my own puppet troupe. I got a marionette as a gift, built a stage and enjoyed it so much I got more marionettes," Thomas says.
Eventually, Thomas became good enough at working the marionette that he performed in area schools and even transformed the family basement into a puppet theater.
The funny thing is, as Thomas got older, he thought he had outgrown puppets. He set them aside for theater. For a long time he thought his future lay in directing.
In the mid-'80s Thomas moved to Chicago and began knocking around Chicago's burgeoning off-Loop theater scene. He worked for a while with the Igloo Theater.
"I worked for them for a short period," he said. "I tried to integrate with them, but it didn't work out. It was hard because I wasn't formed yet, I didn't know who I was or what I wanted."
Later, Thomas joined Wisdom Bridge, where he worked in the outreach program.
"I did a lot of work there that shaped the vision of community that came to fruition with Redmoon."
Later Thomas began directing at The Organic Theater. It was there, during a production of Irene Maria Fornes's play "Danube," that Thomas became reacquainted with the power of puppetry.
Puppets play a central role in that tragic-comic anti-nuclear war play, and the experience of integrating them into the show rekindled his boyhood interest.
In 1989, Thomas co-wrote, directed, and operated the puppets in "You Hold my Heart Between Your Teeth," a haunting, bittersweet story of a high school romance gone wrong told from the jilted girl's point of view. …