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Think Small: ‘Toy Theatre Festival on Tour’ Comes To Brookline

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Barbara Steinitz and Björn Kollin of Berlin, Germany, perform “Schnurzpiepegal (Like Master, Like Dog)." (Courtesy of Toy Theatre Festival)

Barbara Steinitz and Björn Kollin of Berlin, Germany, perform “Schnurzpiepegal (Like Master, Like Dog).” (Courtesy of Toy Theatre Festival)

BROOKLINE, Mass. — With Great Small Works’ “International Toy Theatre Festival on Tour: Toy Theatre Cabaret” coming to Puppet Showplace Theatre in Brookline this Friday and Saturday, June 28 and 29, perhaps we should begin by clearing up some confusion around the term “toy theater.”

It’s often misunderstood as something for kids to play with or theater for kids, when in fact it usually refers to a style of puppetry: live performances of small paper, dollhouse-sized versions of regular big live theater.

“It was originally a 19th century form of home entertainment in which you could purchase kits modeled after the great hits of the live stage,” says Trudi Cohen of Great Small Works and a co-organizer of the event. It involved paper reproductions of characters, sets and whole theaters that people could assemble to perform in their Victorian parlors.

Great Small Works performs a “Living Newspaper." (Courtesy of Toy Theatre Festival)

Great Small Works performs a “Living Newspaper.” (Courtesy of Toy Theatre Festival)

“We came upon the form during the first Gulf War in the early ‘90s when we were looking for a way to talk about the news in a new, immediate way,” Cohen says. “It’s accessibility and how inexpensive it is and direct really appealed to us at the time.”

Great Small Works’ adoption of the form was part of a revival of toy theater that they helped foster by launching their biennial “International Toy Theater Festival” in 1993. The tenth one, featuring some 40 different performances, wrapped up in New York last weekend.

Facto Teatro of Mexico City performs “Don Chico Con Alas (Don Chico with Wings).” (Courtesy of Toy Theatre Festival)

Facto Teatro of Mexico City performs “Don Chico Con Alas (Don Chico with Wings).” (Courtesy of Toy Theatre Festival)

The tour brings three of those shows to Puppet Showplace Theatre each night. Facto Teatro of Mexico City, which just hosted its own toy theater festival there (“The genre is spreading and we’re quite pleased about that,” Cohen says), performs “Don Chico Con Alas (Don Chico with Wings),” based on a story by Mexican writer Eraclio Zepeda. The title character decides to build a pair of wings to ease his travels through his home land in the jungle mountains of Chiapas, Mexico.

Barbara Steinitz and Björn Kollin of Berlin, Germany, perform “Schnurzpiepegal (Like Master, Like Dog),” based on Steinitz children’s picture book. It’s a funny love story, performed out of a suitcase, about an opera-lover and a chocolate-maker who are considered outsiders by their neighbors because, unlike everyone else, their dogs do not look like their owners.

Cohen of Cambridge and her husband John Bell of Great Small Works perform a “Living Newspaper,” using texts and images from the daily news to consider the death of Trayvon Martin in spring of 2012 and American gun violence. Bell will also present a history of toy theater.

“We just feel that it’s very expansive. Anyone who has a story to tell can use toy theater to tell it,” Cohen says. “You can do all kinds of theatrical effects without having a million dollars. You can have trap doors and all kinds of lighting effects and explosions.”

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