For more than 35 years, XPT: Xperimental Puppetry Theater, one of the most artistically daring showcases in Atlanta, has largely flown under the radar of mainstream audiences. But its history and wacky legacy means a lot to the artists and volunteers who participate each year.
This year’s production, running Thursday through Sunday at the Center for Puppetry Arts, continues the show’s tradition of irreverence with 12 adult-oriented, puppet-based live performances and films premiering. Each piece runs about 10 minutes.
“Back in the day when they started XPT, it was for the puppeteers who were doing all these children’s shows to have a chance to play and do something for themselves,” said program director Wade Tilton.
Eventually, the showcase opened submissions to the public, meaning that anyone with an idea could apply for a slot, encouraging a variety of different entertainments to be presented every year. In the past, this has included experimental filmmakers, performers and comedians from all over Atlanta.
“What’s interesting about it is the fact that we are so open to bring people in who just have an interest in the idea of putting on their own show,” Tilton said. “Some people don’t have that experience, whether they’re an actor or puppeteer, to put on their own show. It’s a very daunting thing.”
Those willing to take on the challenge receive a small grant of about $450 to help finance their projects, and volunteers interested in learning about puppetry, regardless of experience level, step in to help stage the show.
The program director said the scope of the work and time involved with staging XPT sometimes surprises the volunteers.
“I run into this situation all the time where people don’t have certain things done on time, according to the timeline we have set for the show, or not knowing what to do when someone drops out,” Tilton said. “When you’re pulling people in, it’s on a volunteer basis, no one is getting paid. And [some new makers] aren’t aware of the commitment they’re making.”
Still, this method of creation, where showrunners try to create film and stage projects on a shoestring budget in a few month, can lead to some rather inventive work.
This year, Keira Quinn, a SCAD-educated filmmaker who first contributed to XPT in 2016, will present her stop-motion animated film Politergeist. It involves a ghost cat, an old lady and even some live performance music elements that break the “fourth wall” of the film in surprising ways.
“It’s set up to be this long-lost black and white German expressionist short film from the 1920s that was found in a beat-up film canister in the bottom of an archive,” she said. “The first-time showing is happening at the Center for Puppetry Arts, and it’s being presented with a live musical performance from a pianist because it’s an old-timey film.”
From there, she said the story gets much crazier, with characters jumping out of the film to interact with the music.
“Doing this as just a stop-motion film would’ve been nice, but breaking that fourth wall, having the puppet come out and exist in two different spaces, was the core appeal of the idea to me,” she said. “Having it done through puppetry, where it literally exists in the real world onstage as a tangible object, that couldn’t be done with just a filmed version of the piece. It’s that element of two different media and puppetry specifically, where it’s real, existing in physical space. That’s what this needs to be.
“It’s experimental,” she said, blushing.
Quinn said she didn’t realize how much she’d missed collaborating during the pandemic, which caused the cancellation of XPT in 2020 and 2021.
“Every XPT I’ve done has been a fundamental growing experience,” she said. “This year, the most growth I’ve had is working collaboratively again. Because of Covid and time I needed after college, all the animations I did were one-person jobs, me hunched in a corner in the dark, moving paper very slowly. This project, I was back in an environment with people. I had people building things out of cardboard with me, building puppets with me, rehearsing with me and getting into the flow of things.”
Occasionally, the pieces in XPT can be deeply personal.
Rachel Wansker, an Alliance Theatre teaching artist, also has a project in this year’s show. Her live piece Miriam was inspired by a story she wrote about her grandmother.
“My project is a folk story about the day my grandmother passed away a couple years ago,” she said. “I was her primary caregiver. We were really close. It was just so horrible. I woke up one morning and I wrote this story.”
In the work, a woman named Miriam loses her home and family in a war. Amid her grief, all that she can bring herself to do is guard the remains of her house, which is just a façade. She stands with a shovel and protects all that she has left every single day. Eventually, she begins to sink into the ground, yet she cannot dig herself out. By the end, though, Miriam breaks free from the pain that is burying her.
Wansker’s creation addresses trauma and survival through art, and she hopes the audience finds healing and recovery through the story. Even the design of the Miriam puppet is distinct, for the figure is collapsible and painted to look like a porcelain doll.
“My grandmother had a magnet on her refrigerator that said, ‘Grandmothers are just antique little girls,’” she said. “Miriam is sort of modeled after that idea, painted with porcelain paint and in an antiquated dress.”
The puppet is also without hair. The piece is performed by female-identifying artists, for Wansker found power in that.
“The puppet is without hair so that she’s seen as the fully formed person she is,” Wansker said. “Against the background, her silhouette of her round head and pointed nose is very distinct. She’s a unique human with a unique story, and it’s not just another story of a woman who’s a victim of something. By the end, she literally reshapes her circumstances into a flourishing life.”
Tilton, running the full production for the first time, began studying puppetry in 2001 through XPT and the puppetry center. Now he’s in position to give a rising generation of creatives the opportunity to present their premiere pieces.
“What’s nice for me is seeing the new artists come up,” he said, “and hearing what they have to say.”
Benjamin Carr, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for Puppetry Arts. His book Impacted was published by The Story Plant in 2021 and is a Georgia Author of the Year Award nominee in the first novel category.