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Carved out of a legacy and all grown up, the puppets take Atlanta

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"I only discovered wood carving two years ago, but I'm loving it," Haverty says. "I always felt like I was struggling with making foam puppets, trying to make clay into something I like. But with wood, carving a block down to something I like, the wood will really tell you what it wants to be – the grain, and the imperfections in the wood will guide you."

The show also includes a segment of silhouette animation from Kristen Jarvis, a musician and puppeteer who also happens to be Haverty's wife. They fell in love while taking the same puppetry class at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and she worked as a puppeteer in the Center's 2005 production of Gilgamesh.

In dramatizing the Faulkner classic, told from the perspective of the deceased mother, Jarvis essentially makes shadow puppets and films them frame by frame in the basement. "It takes forever – I don't know how she has the patience," Haverty says.

He acknowledges puppets can be high-maintenance artistic partners. "It's a bitch sometimes. There's a lot of fighting in this show, so strings are always breaking, hands are falling off – a lot of puppets means a lot of upkeep."

Puppetry also can take a physical toll. Haverty says that all the puppeteers he knows take glucosamine/chondroitin to prevent further cartilage damage from repetitive gestures. Bending their bodies into awkward angles and giving their arm muscles serious workouts, they wear kneepads, back braces and Crocs to maximize comfort. Haverty says he visits a chiropractor at least once a week.

The frustrations and physical kinks might be universal for puppeteers, but they also seem to be minor sacrifices. Ludwig, when he's not working on a show for the Center, travels the country to check out the field's latest breakthroughs and crazy ideas. "There's this explosion of original work in the hotbeds of puppetry, not just here, but in the Arizona puppetry scene, the Boston puppetry scene, the Amsterdam scene, the Vermont scenes. In New York, artists may wrangle puppets for 'Sesame Street' by day, and do their own thing at night. It's fun to see people reinventing the wheel and rocketing it into outer space."

"When Haverty sprung the idea of starting Haverty Marionettes to friends over a bottle of wine at Ted's Montana Grill in early 2007, he said, 'Let's get professional about this. Let's grow the puppetry community. Let's invest in it and expand it, and expand Atlanta's idea of what puppetry is.' People in this town are starting to be all right with puppetry for adults, and that's not something I would have said 10 years ago."

At about that time, Matt "Lucky" Yates was "rotting" in an unhappy marriage and living on a North Carolina Native American reservation in 1996. He found a job at the Center for Puppetry Arts box office after moving to Atlanta that same year -- a job he clung to like a lifeline. For the first day on the job, his first duty was to go into the theater and watch the current show, so he'd know what he was selling at the box office. The play happened to be Space, a lighthearted musical about astronomy by Jon Ludwig.

Yates compares watching the show to divine inspiration. "I'm telling you, when I saw it, it really was like that hokey light came down from heaven, with angels singing inside me," recalls Yates, now a fixture at the Center. "I'd done funny, obnoxious comedy shows in college, but when I saw Space, I thought, 'Oh my God, this is it! This is exactly what I want to do!' I remembered how much I liked puppets as a kid, but I never dreamed of puppetry as a job as an adult until then."

Puppeteers all seem to have conversion experiences. They may have grown up watching Jim Henson's felt-laden ensemble from "Sesame Street," but never expected to get into puppets as adults. Instead, they were aspiring actors or playwrights, and puppetry caught them unawares.

More than 30 years earlier, Vincent Anthony experienced an epiphany similar to that of Yates – as a fledgling actor in New York City.

"I went to an audition of Pinocchio at Nicolo Marionettes in 1963," says Anthony, now the Center's executive director. "I held a puppet in my hand – it was Nicolo, the group's mascot puppet – and that was it." Despite his lack of puppetry experience, it was as though the puppet pulled a string deep within Anthony, and not the other way around. Thanks to the audition, Anthony toured the country "playing" Pinocchio for months.

For years Anthony learned the craft in New York, but he wanted to relocate to the South. Choosing Atlanta as a base, he founded the touring puppet company Vagabond Marionettes with Susan Larkin and Mitchell Edmonds in 1966. At the time, Atlanta had no history of puppetry, which was exactly the way Anthony wanted it. "I wanted a town that didn't have a lot of other puppetry to compare my stuff to," he says. "I wasn't confident in my ability to do it all, so I wanted a community that would match my ambitions, a place that could start at zero and move up."

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