On April 22, 2010, Time Out – Chicago published an image from Fudgie’s Death in their coverage of the Banners and Cranks Festival in which I was performing.
Growing Up Linda was an ensemble actor-puppetry performance in which a woman who believes she’s the daughter of a famous ice cream mogul must come to terms with her troubled past. In Fudgie’s Death, a segment from Growing Up Linda, table-top pop-up books transform into full-screen cinema in a neo-noir tale of desperation and depravity.
You’ve probably never heard of cantastoria. But Al Roker laying out what’s going on in your neck of the woods, Meryl Streep portraying Brecht’s indomitable Mother Courage, some hipster providing ironic commentary to a grade-Z science-fiction film: All owe a debt to this once flourishing, now marginal theatrical form, which combines narration with images displayed on flat panels or moving paper scrolls. This spring, former Chicagoans Clare Dolan and Dave Buchen will curate what is likely the U.S.’s most elaborate examination to date of this subterranean art.
Dolan, 43, first encountered cantastoria when she began working with Vermont’s fabled Bread and Puppet Theater in the ’90s, or, as she puts it, “like, a million years ago.” “I loved how simple it was and how effective in combining painting, singing and narrative,” she says, calling from her home in Glover, Vermont, shortly before starting a shift at her nursing job. Researching the form, she soon encountered a seminal book by sinologist Victor Mair.
Mair’s Painting and Performance (1988) traces an oral tradition that paired storytelling with illustrations from its roots in sixth-century India. After the advent of the printing press, it became intertwined with book arts: Street performers would use painted banners to tell stories and then sell books with matching woodcuts and text. “The more I read, the more excited I got,” Dolan says.
She teamed up with Theater Oobleck member Buchen, 44, now based in Puerto Rico, to put together the Banners and Cranks Festival under the auspices of Links Hall’s Artistic Associates program, which offers funding and space for curating performance projects. (Full disclosure: I served as a Links Artistic Associate in 2008.) While Buchen organized performances, Dolan worked on an accompanying exhibition of scrolls and paintings at Packer Schopf Gallery.
Among the items she gathered are scrolls from a women’s theater collective in West Bengal; panels from Vermont’s Awareness Theater Company, which brings together performers with differing levels of physical ability; and banners from the Milanese Teatro del Corvo, mixing reproductions of garish traditional paintings with its own, more abstract designs.
NYC-based Great Small Works will participate in the festival; in its “Happy Norouz,” performers in Persian costume interact with paintings by Iranian painter Ahmad Azadi. In a phone conversation, company member John Bell emphasized the form’s impact. “It was a huge influence on Brecht. His famous alienation effect, which distances the actor from the situation, is embedded in the cantastoria situation: You have a narrator talking about events and a separate image,” he explains. “The Threepenny Opera starts out with cantastoria. ‘Mack the Knife’ is a cantastoria song.”
The fest also features locals such as Oobleck, improvising a story as a paper scroll unrolls, and Blair Thomas, along with artists from around the country. The scale of the three-week event posed some difficulties. As Buchen recalls, “Given our resources, we were advised to invite one out-of-town artist. We invited 12.” The pair turned to Kickstarter, a website matching artists with funders. The strategy added over $4,000 to the initial $3,000 budget, though Buchen notes it didn’t all come in netroots-style small increments.
“We wouldn’t have made our target without a woman in Australia who gave us $1,000,” he says. Playwright Mickle Maher made a key suggestion. “Mickle told us to ask for the largest amount, go for broke. So we threw in that we’d make an original cantastoria for anyone who gave us a thousand dollars. We’re making one to ship to her.”
Dolan and Buchen have been struck by the number of visual artists and performers working independently in the cantastoria tradition. So the festival may be a key step in a growing revival of illustrated theater. Though Montpelier, Vermont, hosted a similar, smaller festival in 2007, Bell says, “I’ve never heard of something on this scale taking place. It’s a form that used to be ubiquitous. Now it’s coming back.”
Banners and Cranks opens Friday 23.