REVIEW: FestiFools

Festifools has established its place in Ann Arbor’s Art scene.

Minnie mouse dressed in fancy orange!

Even before the official starting time of the festival, the east side of UMMA was filled with Trucks, student artists, puppets, and fascinatingly dressed volunteers. There was a call for volunteers to gather 1 hour early before the start of the festival, and many had risen to the call. It looked almost like Halloween, but a more jolly version-I saw at least a handful of red queens, Alice, clowns, and people dressed in colorful gowns, sashes, and laces. People should definitely have more change to dress in those cool clothes. What a waste that they were stuck in the drawers throughout the whole year! I was also one of the people who volunteered to help carry the puppets. Student artists and Mark Tucker, the founder of the Festival and the instructor of the Michigan Learning Community(MLC) course at U of M where students create the puppets throughout the semester for this festival, were busy bringing the puppets to life with cable ties, bamboo poles, and iron bars. Student artists explained how they wanted the puppets to move, and some volunteers embraced themselves for the big march with drums in hand. Then the game was on!

The festival took place starting in front of State street in front of Angell Hall until the diag. The crowd was lined up on either side of the street. I was honestly surprised at how many people had shown up – there were triple lines of people on either side of the street from the starting point of the march to the end. Toddlers, children, adolescents, grown-ups, and elders all gathered to have fun, laugh at the jolly movements of puppets, and especially the youngsters had the privileges of occasional high-fives with the puppets. Although the puppets were certainly a grandeur, they were not the only thing to see at the Festival. Student organizations and local communities have come to join the fun! There were people marching while playing percussion(Groove-y!), an actual marching band, people dressed up as clowns that played tricks in the march, a cool belly-dance club dressed in red and black, and other amazing people. The march went on for about an hour. I and the person behind me who were helping the carry different parts of the puppet came to a consensus-it was a workout, but definitely a fun one.

Puppets loaded off the truck, ready to come into life!

I really enjoyed how the whole community, whether they took the role of the audience, artists from the university, or performers outside the university, came together to have a festive afternoon. The festival was truly a community event in the sense that it could not have been as festive without any of the groups. Also, I really appreciated the atmosphere of the day where a father and daughter can casually wear jocker hats, matching rainbow ties, and banana Hawaiian shirts together and take part in a festival in a local area. It’s not a scene that can be found everywhere, but something that a lot of people can benefit from having in their lives at some point. So thank you, Mark Tucker, for founding this lovely community event!

PREVIEW: FestiFools

The Festive, Foolish puppet festival is coming back to Ann Arbor after a two-year quarantine!

It’ll be on Sunday, April 3rd, from 4 pm to 5 pm on State Street – South University Avenue to William Street (Please refer to the map for more information!). This event is led by Mark Tucker, the founder of the FestiFools, and the puppets are created by students at the University of Michigan Lloyd Scholars for Writing and the Arts, a Michigan Learning Community focused on enhancing creativity by practicing arts and creative writing. I personally had the privilege of taking a peek at the puppets from prior events at Alice Lloyd Hall, and they are fantastic! I can’t wait to see them come to life on the streets. It’s not only the puppets – Street performers including students from the University of Michigan and outside U of M will join to add more fun! Please see this link for more info, this link for the official recap for Festifools 2019, and come out to play this Sunday!

REVIEW: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!

Truth be told, across all societal provocations, nothing makes me want to take flight faster than a sniffly horde of fruit-juice-charged youth excitedly tugging at their weary caretakers’ outwear. Yet for the sake of reviewing Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (The Musical!) from the most irrelevant age bracket’s perspective, I was ready to face even the most high fructose children of Ann Arbor.

Family engagement is a major part of most forms of educational entertainment fed to American children, and this show was no exception. Prior to the show, the Michigan Theater compiled a fun guide to facilitate viewers’ interaction during the performance that included detachable finger puppets and a musical cues document. Also, before the puppets took the stage by storm, an enthusiastic man led the audience in a collective warm up dance that had entire families jumping up and down in anticipation for the pigeon-ness that was to follow.

Mo Willems’ original children’s book series for Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! has a minimalist aesthetic – most pages consist of one subject, most memorably the blue feathered protagonist, and a stylized speech bubble containing expressive text. However, director Jerry Whiddon and the show’s set designers went beyond Willems’ original minimalist aesthetic and transformed the stage into a colorful and flashy puppet world in which the sounds of a bus sputtering are personified into 30-second-long gibberish monologues. My favorite set elements were the two dynamic mini doors framing the main scene; actors would occasionally pop out of its segments to deliver funny additions to the musical number. Besides the wonderful gibberish bits and intense hot-dog eating noises, the performers shone with Jessica Hartman’s playful choreography with each musical number.

As far as the narrative goes, little bits and pieces of the performance triggered vague memories from my childhood experience with Willems’ works. In the original picture books, the Pigeon puts forth countless attempts to convince the reader to let them drive the bus. This component is often credited as a great introduction to teaching kids philosophical topics like the moral implications of giving into persuasion or viewing punishment and disappointment through new perspectives. In comparison, the musical adaptation seemed to capitalize on the concept of ‘finding oneself’, or one’s purpose, and the overall process of growing up – as told through the perspective of a wide-eyed periwinkle-colored pigeon. Indeed, Willems’ writing even suggested that the Pigeon was undergoing an existential crisis, which would shed light on much of the erratic behavior exhibited by the main puppet. The Pigeon’s bumpy journey from under-appreciated bird to important bus-driver’s assistant is reminiscent of many cartoonish underdog characters who discover their purpose within the universe’s workings near the story’s resolution, like Rudolph, Wilbur the pig, or James and his giant peach. Because it is a universally ideal human experience, especially for children and confused adolescents, this approach comes across as heartfelt and fulfilling in ending.

REVIEW: 12th Annual FestiFools

On Sunday afternoon, puppets came alive and fools came about.

It was another cold day, but luckily the sun came out to be foolish with everybody. I had been with the FestiFools class (housed by Lloyd Hall Scholars Program) earlier that day — so I rode from the studio to Main Street with the puppets and their makers and then helped them unload those massive papier-mache sculptures. Seeing all them all lining the side road gave them a new element of livelihood an hour later when they took to the stage.

Many puppets this year were politically-charged, which also added a layer of humor to the already-foolish theme. One such sculpture completed in part by the event’s founder, Mark Tucker, was a “scary go-round” featuring giant caricatures of Putin, Trump, and Kim Jong-un. Their realistic facial resemblances added to the scare factor of the piece. It was surrounded by several fish- and Nile-themed sculptures: fantastical underwater creatures, a jellyfish umbrella, a large pyramid, a Sphinx featuring another head of Trump as well as hieroglyph-esque political cartoons of his presidency, and more.

Scary Go-Round
Sphinx with head and presidency of Trump (one of its makers and director of LHSP pictured)

I’d like to think the politically-charged pieces were crowd favorites, given the laughs and supportive comments from onlookers around me. The mayor of Ann Arbor also had a puppet head resembling him, which another person wore while he escorted him around the stage (up and down Main Street).

Mayor of Ann Arbor next to mayor of Ann Arbor

Alongside puppets, marching bands (ones with real brass instruments and more FestiFools-esque ones with buckets as drums) add music to the scene; dance groups and jokesters perform and interact with the crowd. A group of belly dancers in particular were fascinating, especially when following a large praying mantis led by several people at once.

Maybe I’m biased after having seen several of these puppets in the studio the week before when they were unfinished, but they all turned out incredible. While yes, some parts fell off during the procession, that’s what they’re made to do.

Hundreds of Ann Arbor fools with and without families lined Main Street for that hour on Sunday afternoon. In fact, they gathered on the sidewalks at least a half-hour before it began and stuck around during the half-hour following, eager and excited for the foolish energy that lingered.

During the event, several puppets also interacted with the crowd — particularly children. I jumped in to assist a friend’s Lego Princess Leia puppet, which had a sad face on one side of the head and a happy face on the other. When Leia got high-fives from kids to her U-shaped lego hands, her happy face would greet them.

Princess Leia as a happy Lego

One of my favorite parts of FestiFools is the last five minutes: all of the puppets and their makers gather in the intersection nearest the trucks in which they came, dancing and smiling as though the catharsis of the event. If FestiFools was a musical, this would be the final number with all cast members present, where any plot issues get resolved. The drummers and musicians don’t necessarily battle but instead give the stage one last, large energetic push, and then the crowd parts to let them dance their way back to the side street.

I highly recommend going to the next FestiFools! It takes place right on Main Street once every April. While a great chance to be your true foolish selves, consider letting that foolishness shine other days of the year, too.