Under normal circumstances, interviewing a puppet would seem absurd. But at the Puppet Network, a Fort Lauderdale workshop founded and directed by Jim Hammond, it’s easy to suspend disbelief.
Mr. Punch, the 350-year-old co-star of the English puppet show Punch and Judy, was in a chatty — and boastful — mood.
“I have taken down many people before the Berlin Wall was taken down,” Mr. Punch says between signature cackles. “I’ve taken down monarchs and I’ve made the beginning of many revolutions.”
Hammond, 42, effortlessly makes Mr. Punch tell his story. In fact, with a little imagination and the skilled touch of his hands, any of the hundreds of puppets in Hammond’s workshop come alive.
Tiki totems, Japanese Bunraku puppets, shadow puppets and smiling, three-foot-tall couches hang from the ceiling, lounge on shelves or peek over walls in his 800-square-foot space in downtown Fort Lauderdale’s Flagler Arts & Technology Village.
Hammond has always been a puppeteer, or at least he has no memory of not being one. As a 10-year-old in upstate New York, he put on a show with homemade puppets at his sister’s birthday party. His first job was as a puppet maker for an amusement park.
Hammond earned a graduate degree in puppet design from the University of Connecticut and worked on productions big and small, including the touring company for Julie Taymor’s The Lion King. In 1995, he moved to South Florida and started his own company.
He and his staff of six draw on centuries of puppeteering tradition to create intricate sets, props and puppets for local theater, filmmakers and television. He recently collaborated with Miami artist Pablo Cano on a shadow puppet play called Dog.
“What we try to do here at Puppet Network is tap into the long history of puppet theater around the world,” Hammond says. “We tap into the brilliant puppeteer minds of the last ten thousand years and refresh those ideas for our new shows.”
Beyond crafting characters for imaginary worlds, Hammond’s mission is to make his passion contagious. He performs for students who visit his workshop, and his company often holds free classes, teaching visitors how to fashion puppets from household items like water bottles and sneakers.
“It use to be that everyone was an artist, and every person had and has that ability,” Hammond says. “We’ve segregated that, and what I want is not only to bring puppetry back to its tradition, but art back to its tradition where everyone has a piece of the action, creating something really cool for all of us.”
In 2009, Hammond and his crew founded the South Florida Day of the Dead as a way to engage the community. In the three weekends leading up to Nov. 1, Hammond invites people to learn about Día de los Muertos, the Mexican remembrance of the dead, while building puppets and skeleton masks, and then to participate in a Day of the Dead procession as puppeteers.
The event has so far produced two dozen skeleton puppets, each 13 feet tall, and has grown into an arts district staple.
“We’re lucky to have the quality of experience, passion and expertise that he brings,” says Doug McCraw, founder of the Flagler arts district. “Jim has been a wonderful ingreidient and catalyst for what we’re trying to do here.”
The festival is just one way Hammond hopes to inspire others to tap into their innate creativity.
Making puppets, he says, “harkens back to a simpler time — in part a time when you’re a creative child wanting to make something out of nothing to make a mark on the world in a manageable, small and compact way.”
Miami Herald photographer Tessa Lighty contributed to this report.