If you’ve gone to an elementary school in Cincinnati anytime between the ’80s and now, chances are you remember a Madcap Puppets performance. Giant puppets, music and acting have brought Madcap performances to life since 1981, teaching children the fundamentals of puppetry and theater.
When John Lewandowski, artistic and executive director of Madcap in Westwood, checked the mail last September he wasn’t expecting much more than some bills and junk mail. Instead, he got a letter from a recent University of Cincinnati graduate who received her master’s in theater. In the letter she recalled seeing Madcap as a little girl and saying, “That is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”
“One thing we try to do with our shows is demystify the process of making theater,” Lewandowski says. “We explain to kids that you can do this as a profession, you can study this at the university. It takes a lot of work and a lot of training, but there is a clear process you can do if you want to do art or theater — and kids need to know that.”
For the past 33 years, Madcap has specialized in touring productions where actors pack up their puppets and costumes, go to different venues and put on a show. Each year Madcap performs more than 800 of these touring shows in a 20-state range working with local companies such as the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, Know Theatre of Cincinnati and Pones Inc.
They also offer various workshops, professional development for adults who work with children and residencies where they go to schools/organizations for one to three weeks to teach children about puppetry, storytelling and puppet making.
Madcap’s current home is an old bank, where evidence of a vault door and teller-stations remain. Crammed with costumes, offices and more than 600 puppets, there is simply no room to host productions there, making touring shows the bulk of Madcap’s revenue.
However, in March, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley announced that the city would give Madcap $500,000 for a new building. With the help of these funds, other benefactors and donors, Madcap has raised a majority of the $2 million it needs for its new building on Harrison Avenue.
“We are now transitioning from being essentially an only-touring theater to becoming a vital part of the community,” Lewandowski says. “Our programs and projects and activities — that’s the backbone [of the new facility].”
The new 21,000-square-foot building will feature a 200-seat theater, an 80-seat black box theater and an exhibit hall. While Madcap will continue to do the touring productions they are known for, they will be able to do performances right in their own theater, creating a more family-oriented venue.
All of the things Madcap currently features (residencies, workshops, professional development, puppet building, etc.) will continue at their new facility.
Beginning in August, when the bottom two floors of the new building are complete, there will be free community workshops every Saturday morning to teach people how to build their own puppets, further expanding Madcap’s business. The two biggest changes, though, are the exhibit hall and the 200-seat theater.
The exhibit hall will feature some of Madcap’s handmade puppets as well as puppets from touring exhibits from other puppetry companies and famous American puppeteers. The theater will allow Madcap to create and perform shows right in their own venue all year long.
“People here locally will be able to see a much larger variety of puppet theater that they’ve never even imagined existed — kids’ shows and adult shows,” Lewandowski says.
Madcap works extensively with the Westwood Coalition, a group dedicated to revitalizing the neighborhood, and is active in developing the plans for the revitalization of a new business district and town square.
Madcap’s ultimate goal is to raise the artistic level of its work and attract attention to Cincinnati by becoming one of the major Midwestern and national centers of puppet theater.
“Everyone in Westwood has this feeling that having family activities is really the key,” Lewandowski says. “My hope is that in our efforts in the business district, we will brand the business district as a family arts destination.”
Madcap’s current productions include Aladdin, Twain’s Twisted Tales, The Enchanted World, Once Upon a Clock, Long Lost Stories and Fantastic Fairytales. Performances run almost every week at different venues across Greater Cincinnati.
MADCAP PUPPETS presents Aladdin 7:30 p.m. Friday at Fitton Center for Creative Arts and The Gingerbread Man 10 and 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Kennedy Presbyterian Church. For more information, visit madcappuppets.com.