Entertainment, On A High Note

How we became “Puppet City:” A preview of the Nashville International Puppet Festival

The Nashville International Puppet Festival returns this weekend, courtesy of the Nashville Public Library and its resident puppet troupe, Wishing Chair Productions. Sports & Entertainment Nashville asked Brian Hull, writer/director of Wishing Chair Productions, for an insider’s view of the festival and the history of puppets in Nashville.

Minnie Pearl is just one of the puppet that appears in "String City: Nashville's Tradition of Music and Puppetry." PHOTO COURTESY NASHVILLE INTERNATIONAL PUPPET FESTIVAL

Minnie Pearl is just one of the puppet that appears in “String City: Nashville’s Tradition of Music and Puppetry.” PHOTO COURTESY NASHVILLE INTERNATIONAL PUPPET FESTIVAL

Tell us a little about the shows you’ll be performing for the puppet festival.

“String City: Nashville’s Tradition of Music and Puppetry” is a show like none other, I assure you. It takes us through the history of country music recording in an hour and 15 minutes and features 93 puppets of varying styles, along with original recordings of the artists. The show will be performed Thurs., June 16, and Fri., June 17 at 5:30 p.m. in the Ford Theater in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and is free—so get there early or reserve a ticket on the festival website.

There are puppeteers visiting from Russia, Japan, Belgium, Italy, Argentina and other notable American troupes—and every show is good; you can’t go wrong. Also, we’re having a big parade on Saturday morning, June 18, that will be quite a spectacle.

How did Nashville’s lead puppet troupe choose the name “Wishing Chair”?

Tom Tichenor [revered puppeteer in Nashville for decades] built a throne-like chair that sat in the children’s department called the Wishing Chair/Birthday Chair. Children would sit in the chair on their birthday and make a wish. When I was hired, we knew we would be using the Tichenor puppets and building new ones as well, so we needed a name that gave homage but would continue the puppet tradition with new work.

How was Wishing Chair Productions a natural progression for continuing the work of Tom Tichenor?

The Wishing Chair puppeteers (Brian Hull, top row, left). PHOTO COURTESY BRIAN HULL

The Wishing Chair puppeteers (Brian Hull, top row, left). PHOTO COURTESY BRIAN HULL

Tom built so many puppets; the volume of his work is astounding. And the puppets are excellent—many beautifully handcrafted works of art that deserve to be recognized and utilized—so we do, telling stories every day at the main branch and on our Puppet Truck. Other libraries across the country, and in Canada at one time, had puppet programs that were deemed “non-essential” when budget cuts were necessary. But the Nashville Public Library always held on to this tradition, mostly because of the respect given to Tom Tichenor and what he started. Now we have grandparents bringing their grandchildren—and they fondly remember their own grandparents bringing them to the Tichenor puppet plays.

How has Tichenor’s work influenced and inspired your creative work?

Tom had a style that was unique and his own—and he never stopped creating. Nick Coppola, a puppeteer who worked with him on the Broadway Musical “Carnival,” told me he never saw Tom without something in his hands; always sewing, building, creating.  We must remember that he was 15 years old when he did his first performance of “Puss in Boots” at the Nashville Public Library in 1938. There is a quote we use a lot from an animator: “Animation is like eating a mountain with a spoon—you just have to start eating.” Tom understood this and is a great example.

Can you speak to a few memorable moments in your work with the Wishing Chair Productions?

At first, the numbers were small: My first original show created for summer reading, “Tall Tale Circus,” was different in that it was big and loud and had juggling and music and crazy characters—and the numbers jumped and kept going. We created five multicultural puppet shows and grants would arrive, making it possible to build more. About 11 years ago the Puppet Truck was created to take the shows into the community, and out of that came the library’s award-winning “Bringing Books to Life” program. Through the help of Sister Cities of Nashville we connected with the Magdeburg Puppet Theater and their visits and ours launched what would become our International Puppet Festivals.

The Nashville International Puppet Festival brings in puppeteers from all around the world from Russia to Japan. PHOTO COURTESY NASHVILLE INTERNATIONAL PUPPET FESTIVAL

The Nashville International Puppet Festival brings in puppeteers from all around the world from Russia to Japan. PHOTO COURTESY NASHVILLE INTERNATIONAL PUPPET FESTIVAL

What other projects are you involved in, including your company BriAnimations Living Entertainment?

A new project, an adaptation of “Kaytek the Wizard” by Janusz Korczak, will premiere at the festival and will travel outside of Davidson County at the publisher’s request. I am thrilled about this show, as this multi-layered story is relatively new to American audiences (although written in 1933), but perhaps more important of all is who wrote the book. If you don’t know who Janusz Korczak is it would be worth it to research and find out. Also, I write and direct shows for Dollywood’s Little Engine Playhouse (associated with the Imagination Library). These mini-musical children’s book adaptations run through the summer at the park [Dollywood].

Most of the Nashville International Puppet Festival takes place at the public library’s main branch (615 Church Street). Other festival locations are Church Street Park, Capitol Park and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The festival is free of charge; however, some events are ticketed and available online. Parking is also free for the first 90 minutes in the library lot (with library validation), with additional free parking Saturday and Sunday in a state lot. Visit the Nashville Library Main Branch for more information.