HISTORIC Maldon is a perfect backdrop for a puppet festival, writes GENEVIEVE BARLOW
Puppets come in many forms, on sticks, in gloves, in the form of shadows behind screens and on strings manipulated by unseen forces.
It's not politicians we are talking about, although don't be surprised if caricatures of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott appear at a festival that celebrates puppetry in all its forms, in the central Victorian town of Maldon over the March long weekend.
This first-time festival is modelled on a similar one, which ran annually at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains until 2008.
Organisers think Maldon's historic backdrop is the perfect setting for the festival and plan to exploit this to maximum effect.
One show Hutch, about a woman's fear of rabbits, will be performed, for example, underground in an old gold mining lead on the town's edge.
Another, featuring the misadventures of two naughty boys Max and Moritz, is in the town's vintage machinery museum and another will have puppets entertaining tourists on the steam train that runs between Maldon and Castlemaine.
Artistic director Richard Hart says the town's preserved buildings and veranda-covered footpaths, plus its compactness, will be a hit.
"Practically everything is in walking distance. There is accommodation nearby and plenty of great venues."
Richard predicts the audience will be surprised by the diversity of the art form.
"Puppetry is not just for children," he says. "It can be for everybody. It can be confronting. It can be serious and it can be totally ridiculous. By its nature it tends to be a naturally comic medium, but it doesn't always have to be used that way."
There are 20 shows, costing from $5 to $30 a ticket. One show is free. Many are limited to audiences of 50 people or less.
The underground show is for 26 audience members who will be given small stools to sit on and carry as they move around.
There's the bound-to-be controversial Sunday night "adults only", torch-lit show, called Slam Noir Sock Hop, to which audience members have been asked to bring their own torch.
Richard Bradshaw, who appeared on The Muppet Show along with Muppet creator Jim Henson, will do a show featuring shadow puppets.
Richard Hart is, of course, also performing. His shows - one is for under-fives and the other is for all ages - feature Dreamer, who travels while asleep in a magic bed.
His show for all age groups is about an ocean quest featuring, among other things, an accordion-playing crab and an opera-singing cleaning shrimp.
Like many others, his shows feature music. Some are live.
For Richard, a performer since 1978 who set up his own puppet performance company called Dream Puppets 16 years ago, the first-time gig as an artistic director is a challenge.
"The purpose of the puppetfest is to show off the range and diversity of puppetry," he says.
"We've got naughty and intriguing stuff and there's also the political."
He says the festival is being fuelled by an interest in puppetry that persists despite the axing of the former Victorian College of the Arts post-graduate studies in puppetry arts several years ago.
"It goes through phases of popularity in terms of people wanting to do it," Richard says.
"The big thing is, it helps puppeteers and gives them a forum, so they all turn up."
- Tarrengower Puppetfest, Maldon, March 10-12, details: tarrengowerpuppetfest.org.au