Curtain Call: New theater book details impact of Jim Henson's puppetry on stage and screen

"Out of the Shadows: The Henson Festivals and Their Impact on Contemporary Puppet Theater" by Leslee Asch explores Jim Henson's impact on theater.

“Out of the Shadows: The Henson Festivals and Their Impact on Contemporary Puppet Theater” by Leslee Asch explores Jim Henson’s impact on theater.

Inform Press / Contributed photo

Recently, I wrote a column about puppetry and the collections at the Ballard Institute Museum of Puppetry located in Storrs. It’s almost impossible to talk about puppetry without including Jim Henson who made puppetry bigger than ever and I did talk about him in my column. However, how many theater fans know that Joe Papp, the founder of The Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park, was a devoted supporter of Henson’s ideas for an international puppet festival? I mean, who knew?

The very first festival was hosted at The Public Theater at New York City’s Astor Place. It was called “Puppetry at The Public.” That’s Joe Papp territory.

I read about this in a brand-new book “Out of the Shadows: The Henson Festivals and Their Impact on Contemporary Puppet Theater” by Leslee Asch with a forward by Cheryl Henson, Jim’s daughter. This is a gorgeous hard cover book; one that rates as a coffee table book with its sleek design and gorgeous cover and colorful photos. However, this is far more than a beautiful display book. Categorize this historical treasure trove of puppetry as the comprehensive journey of one man’s dream to a global reality.

Author Leslie Asch worked with Henson for more than 20 years. She began her career as a puppet builder and eventually became the producing director of the Henson International Festivals of Puppet Theater. She is an expert in the field, but expertise is not the only thing that steps out of her shadow. Her writing is filled with excitement and passion that leaps off the pages as she recounts the theatrical experiences of worldwide puppet festivals. Best of all she takes the reader along with her until the reader can’t put the book down.

Thorough is an understatement here as we move from the single word “puppet,” which in Latin is pupa, meaning doll, to the domain of shamans and priests who added puppets as a bit of magic. Henson moved puppetry to television, where the likes of Shari Lewis and her hand puppet Lambchop and Burr Tillstrom of “Kukla, Fran and Oliie” were already bringing puppets to life on television. However, it was Henson’s television show that caused an artistic explosion in the genre. “The international popularity and success of ‘Sesame Street’ and the ‘Muppet Show’ opened the doors,” said Nancy Staub, executive director of the 1980 world Puppetry Festival at the Kennedy Center and Georgetown University. After that there was a coming together of puppets in many other art forms including ballet, opera, and even Broadway theater.

It is so sad that Jim Henson died so suddenly. Neither he nor Joe Papp lived to see how successful the international festivals became. This book includes gorgeous photos of puppets around the world and the incredible artwork involved in puppetry is really an eye opening and unforgettable encounter. Writer Leslee Asch has managed not only to introduce the powerful impact of puppetry on the world in regards to art, creativity, and imagination, but has provided a tour guide through the ages of puppetry in her chronological rending of “Out of the Shadows,” published by Inform Press.

Joanne Greco Rochman is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She can be reached at