For 10 days this summer, small-town Perry, NY will host puppeteers from across the world for the biennial New York State Puppet Festival (NYSPF), featuring shows, workshops, parades and more. With the town set in motion preparing for the event, visitors and artists are welcome to stay in town and engage with the arts.
NYSPF, which takes place from June 23 to July 3 this year, is coordinated by Shake on the Lake, a nonprofit Shakespeare theater company started in Perry by co-founders Josh Rice, the Artistic Director, and Pilar McKay, the Managing Director.
The 2022 festival line-up features shows catered to both older and younger audiences. Performances include Shank’s Mare by fifth-generation Japanese puppet master, Koryu Nishikawa and New York-based puppeteer Tom Lee, Rice’s puppet wrestling entertainment show “Kayfabe,” the exhibit “Relentless! Bread and Puppet’s Political Theater 1963-2022,” and other works from both international and local artists.
This diverse array of performers was cultivated through Rice’s studies in the arts after leaving Perry. Rice attended Sarah Lawrence College where he was introduced to puppetry and performative arts. After gaining experience in puppetry, Rice toured internationally doing puppet shows and came back to Perry with a desire to bring his arts experience to his hometown.
“[I thought about] who would be really cool to bring to my hometown to show people what this world could be like and the different versions of puppetry,” Rice said. “And the people are just enjoyable. They’re lovely human beings who you’d want to spend time with and have the community meet.”
As Perry natives, Rice and McKay wanted to make the festival accessible to local residents. They are offering “pay what you can” tickets to ensure the experience is not a financial burden to anyone interested in attending.
“When people are so blown away that they can walk from their house to a theater in their town to see something world-class, their gratitude and appreciation that that is made accessible to them is so incredible to hear and see,” Rice said.
Beyond Puppets, Introducing Perry to the Arts
The puppet festival is one project of various initiatives sparked in Perry to spur growth and create a permanent place for the arts in town. McKay is one of many young leaders working to reinvent and develop Perry.
After high school, McKay studied Rural Sociology and Agricultural Economics at Cornell University and then studied Social Research Methodology at UCLA. Since returning, McKay has sought to revitalize the town and expand economic opportunities by opening a brewery. Understanding the economic benefits in the arts is what drew McKay to Rice’s original Shake on the Lake idea.
“If you can get the right formula and magic in place, a rural community can be benefitted in terms of what arts does for the community and it can also be benefitted in terms of economic reasons,” McKay said.
In order to start Shake on the Lake in 2012, the first step was receiving funding. Shake on the Lake initially benefited from grants provided by the National Endowment for the Arts. After receiving smaller grants and support from the Arts Council for Wyoming County, Shake on the Lake built its reputation and eventually became a nonprofit.
“It’s not the same philanthropic environment in rural areas as it is in cities where our county doesn’t have an arts fund,” McKay said. “We can’t knock on the door of the city council. There is no city council. There’s a village board, there’s a town board, but their resources are limited. So the programs we have been able to take advantage of were interested in what we were doing.”
Beyond funding challenges, there’s the work of introducing the arts to rural New York, performing outreach and connecting with the community to draw people in. Perry had little exposure to Shakespeare previously, so McKay and Rice worked to teach folks about theater traditions and the works of Shakespeare.
In addition, the two have contributed to projects catered to specific subsets of the community, including those with dementia and incarcerated people.
“If we can also grow our base by creating work that appeals to them and then also hopefully work that they’d want to invest in moving forward, then they can see that we’re authentically trying to engage,” Rice said. “And that’s kind of how we’ve always tried to approach all of this is how we can authentically show up and show people that we are really interested in the community.”
In the next few years, McKay and Rice are hoping to continue adding programming catered toward underrepresented groups within Perry. For example, after noticing a lack of farmers coming to shows, they decided a next step should include creating bilingual performances and programming specifically for farmers in the area.
“We see that the need is endless; the amount of resources we have are not,” McKay said. “So how we’ve intended to grow is a slow growth where we add stuff in programming and be really mindful about it.”
“Pilar and I never did this to make money, and we haven’t,” Rice laughed. “Surprise! But the wealth that we have accrued in friendships and artistic partnerships and community involvement and engagement and enrichment is endless.”
Building on the Past, Envisioning the Future
Perry has a history of art and puppetry that stems from a story within the Seneca Nation of Indians. According to the Native American legend, Silver Lake, a lake in Perry, was home to a sea serpent that would pull anyone who made too much noise on the lake into the depths below.
Playing off this myth, a hotel owner in 1855 created a model made of canvas, tubes, and bellows and floated it out into the middle of the lake. The large contraption was soon spotted and reported by a group of fishermen. This “sighting” resulted in a boom in tourism to Perry and also marked the first instance of puppetry on a large-scale in the rural town.
To pay homage to this legend, Shake on the Lake collaborates with community members to create a large-scale puppet of the Silver Lake Sea Serpent that is paraded around the lake. Rice wants to continue learning about the history of Perry before European settlement and use the arts to honor rather than exploit that history and culture.
McKay stressed the importance of honoring past history while also telling the story unfolding in the present. While moving the community forward, McKay sees a responsibility to make sure the stories of her community are not lost.
Rice said his 30-year goal is to reestablish Perry as a rural community known for its arts and its culture. Taking inspiration from nearby towns, he hopes Perry can one day bring in artists from around the world to gather, thrive, and perform.
“Whether Pilar and I are still steering the ship, or the next generation have taken over and are leading it to the next places that theater is going to develop into, it’s really exciting,” Rice said. “I think the joy of it is that there is still more to achieve and more to bring and more to do.”