“Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi!" (“The King is dead. Long live the King!") was first uttered in 1422 after the death of France's King Charles VI to announce the coronation of his successor—a phrase that is still used in Britain whenever one ruler departs and makes way for a new monarch. I was reminded of this linguistic tradition when I heard the sad news of the demise of Mum, Philadelphia's only full-time puppet theatre.
Twenty-three years ago, Mum Puppettheatre had set out to “make art that moves, creating theatre beyond the scope of human actors, often without words, [integrating] the plastic, visual and performing arts by creating stunning, emotionally compelling and breathtakingly
Mum managed successfully to translate its mission into compelling productions that enchanted or challenged audiences of all ages. It received much financial support, numerous accolades from many different organizations, and 13 Barrymore Awards.
As a Barrymore Judge for five years, I saw quite a few productions at Mum, each of which presented new worlds in the nooks and crannies inhabited by puppets of all sizes. One of the most extraordinary productions of any play that I have seen in Philadelphia took place at Mum: Peter Shaffer's Equus, directed by William Roudebush, with choreography by Robert Smythe and music by Aaron Cromie.
Like my fellow Barrymore Judges, I was so impressed that I wrote one of my first reviews. To present the production's uniqueness, I wrote the review from the perspective and in the language of horses:
“The music and the sound of fury pulled at the audience as if we [the horses] were pulling out their guts. Imploring them to hear our pain, the pain of the youngest creature in the stable, a scrawny young boy (Tobias Segal) [ . . . ] We hit hard in our production of Equus. Right into the overweight belly of satisfaction and normalcy. [ . . . ] We inhaled with the pride and awareness that we were all part of one of the rare moments in theatre when all the arts come together. When there is an ensemble spirit creating the sound and fury of existence."
All the staff members of the theatre were let go, and the board disbanded. As was the tradition at Mum to give the audience “a chance to look behind the scenes" and hold the puppets after each performance, for the very last act of the house, Philadelphians were invited to explore the building and buy anything they wanted: from clothing and backdrops to puppets, props, and posters from past productions.
I felt very sad in seeing one of my favorite theatres being dismantled, but when I discovered a heap of little bodies on a shelf from Mum's production of The Puppet Master of Lodz, all dressed in concentration camp outfits and wearing a yellow Star of David on their uniform, I scooped all of them up in my arms, wanting to rescue them. At that moment, a fellow with a black top hat came by and helped me to store them gently in an old box. He also assisted me to pack carefully all the remaining masks I bought that afternoon. The mysterious helper turned out to be the multi-talented Aaron Cromie, whose music, masks, and acting had given me great joy over the course of time.
“Hello, Henrik, I'm so glad you came. Thank you for your support." The puppet then applauded with its little hands and said “everything helps" before taking a final bow. I saw this scene with a laughing and a crying eye: sad that one of the most beloved small theatres in Philadelphia had come to an end, but happy because the 48-year-old puppet master seemed relieved and ready for a well-earned vacation and life change.
Robert told me that he will spend the summer conducting workshops at two theatre conferences—the O'Neill Puppetry Conference in Connecticut, and another in August at the Ko Festival of Performance in Massachusetts—before starting a two-year playwrighting fellowship at Temple University in the fall. Yes, the old puppet master is dead. Long live Robert Smythe. May his artistic reign continue and bring forth many new kingdoms.
A big thank you to everyone, and if you ever need the masks and the puppets back for an encore, get in touch with me. In the meantime, I shall take good care of the puppets, the masks, and the memories of a unique treasure chest of theatre arts.
While some Philadelphians of all ages may shed more than a tear or two, I have a sense that each and every one of the artists who made Mum a cultural center will continue to contribute to this city's theatre scene in one way or another.