Puppeteers ready to spark wonder, spin tales in Smith Wilkes

As far as reasons for running five minutes behind, procuring vintage Japanese rod puppets is a better one than most.

Chad Williams, co-founder of WonderSpark Puppets, was at a Springville, New York, flea market when he spotted the vintage treasures, and he simply had to have them. His alarm was going off for a call with The Chautauquan Daily, but he seized on the opportunity.

“That was crazy, but I got them,” Williams said.

WonderSpark Puppets, a New York City-based puppetry company founded in 2009 by Williams and his wife Z. Briggs, will perform their show “Fox Fables” as part of the Institution’s Family Entertainment Series. They will have two shows, one at 5 p.m. and one at 7 p.m., Tuesday, July 19, at Smith Wilkes Hall.

Puppets are their passion. Briggs, who is the manager for The Jim Henson Foundation in addition to her role with WonderSpark Puppets, has been in puppetry for years — she’s what Williams calls a “lifer.” Meanwhile, he came to the craft a little later on, after working as a filmmaker.

“(Briggs) needed a second hand with a puppet show,” Williams said. “I needed a career change. And so we went up to Vermont and performed a show together, and everyone was super-supportive, and I don’t know, it just really clicked.”

In developing shows, Williams and Briggs often draw inspiration from traditional fables and folktales. “Fox Fables” is based on a number of Aesop’s fables, including one about a fox who loses his tail, which they used for the structure for the show.

“The story itself is a story about loss, losing something very special, something that comprised a lot of your identity and then asking the question, ‘Are you the same afterwards?’ ” Williams said.

The fox goes on a journey of self-discovery. While that narrative serves as the emotional core of the story, Williams emphasized that WonderSpark leans into the silliness, blending whimsy with heart.

“Fox Fables” also has Jewish roots. In addition to the original fable, the show is inspired by Rabbi Berechiah ha-Nakdan, who historians think lived in the 12th or 13th century. The rabbi wove Aesop’s fables into his sermons and wrote, translated and compiled a collection of fables, titled Mishlè Shu’alim, which translates to “Fox Fables.” Briggs and the couple’s children are Jewish, and Williams said that Jewish audiences throughout New York recognize the reference.

WonderSpark specializes in hand puppetry, a tradition that goes back centuries. Williams draws inspiration from international and historical styles and is always striving to hone his technique.

“Every show I’m trying to get better, trying to perfect every single tiny motion and give meaning to every movement that each puppet does,” Williams said. “I have two puppets up at once, so I’m constantly shifting my consciousness between each puppet while keeping the other one alive. If I do a good enough job, the audience will believe that these characters are real and talking and walking.”

Williams said that a puppetry renaissance is sweeping the nation. Puppets are on Broadway, in film and TV, in schools, and more.

“There’s something really powerful about the art form that everybody connects with,” Williams said. “For us, it’s an easy way to tell very interesting, specific stories that you just can’t do with actors on a stage.”

Tags : Family Entertainment Series

The author Ellen E. Mintzer

Ellen E. Mintzer is the theater beat reporter for The Chautauquan Daily this summer. She recently earned her Master of Arts in arts journalism and communications from Syracuse University. As a freelance arts and culture journalist, she’s written reviews and features about theater, opera, dance, film and more. Ellen loves weird niche comedy, psychological horror and provocative contemporary theater. (A Strange Loop is the best work of art she saw this year.) She is absolutely thrilled to be spending her summer in Chautauqua and covering its theatrical offerings and beyond.