Carving a new puppet for the theater. Photo courtesy of The Northwest Puppet Center

The Northwest Puppet Center is no stranger to the parents and children of North Seattle, but many probably have never noticed the cheerfully decorated white and pale blue building in the Maple Leaf area.

A fixture in the neighborhood for 12 years, it is one of about six puppet theaters in the nation. The Center not only houses a space for performances but also a museum and archival library as well.

Owners Chris and Stephen Carter perform and design the majority of shows.

"Often we're drawn toward world folklore, so we've done folk tales from Africa, Asia and we've done two Northwest Coast Indian stories," said Chris Carter. "We've also done some children's classics... Basically it's stories that appeal to us, that have magic and fantasy and we feel will make a good show."

Open for performances Wednesday through Sunday, the theater has eight shows lined up for this season. Five are comprised of their family series and three are special events with a limited run. Performances recently finished of, "The Raven and the Box of Daylight," a well-known tale of Northwest Coast tribes.

The Carters

The Carters were originally a traveling company. A trip to Europe changed their plans. "We were inspired by a tour we did in Europe where we visited puppet theaters and it was so magical and a wonderful place where families knew they could go on the weekends. So we decided Seattle needed one as well," said Chris. The Carters specifically sought out a Church for its size and amenities and decided on the 76-year-old Lutheran church at 9123 15th Avenue N.E.

Professional puppeteers since 1976, Stephen and Chris Carter bring a wide variety of talents and experience to their craft. The two met in high school doing children's theater. In college, Chris studied dance while Steven studied sculpture. After college they combined their skills and found dance plus sculpture could equal puppetry.

The Carters have trained with master puppeteers in Romania, Sicily and China. The company was honored with the International Organization of Puppeteers' Unima/USA "Citation of Excellence" for three different productions they designed and performed. "Stephen does the designing and woodcarving, I do all the fabric work, I make the costumes or if we have fabric heads, and our son does the controls and special effects," Chris said.

The Carters have been successful operators of an art center, not only due to talent, but because they are careful business people. "We run a really tight ship. Each of us do many different tasks and work really hard and that's how we manage to keep it going, by not having a huge overhead," said Chris. The Carters employ just two full-time staff members and one part-time. Their son Dmitri is a performer part-time, helps design shows and is the development director and grant writer. Bethany Collins is their full-time business manager; she runs the office, the publicity and marketing.

"We look for non-traditional ways to advertise that will get us to our target market that aren't going to cost us a lot of money," said Collins. A lot of their core audience consists of school children and their families. The Center donates gift certificates to every school auction, keeps up their mailing list, web-site and networks with teachers and other organizations. Additionally, the magical and welcoming air of the Center continues to draw viewers. "We're small, we're friendly and we know each other," said Collins.

Creating appeal for adults and children

"If you have kids and live in Seattle, you pretty much know about the Puppet Center," said Annie Hayward a mother of two. Hayward has seen at least six shows at the Northwest Puppet Center and recently brought her youngest daughter, Sarah Jane to see "The Raven and the Box of Daylight." Hayward is consistently impressed by the artistry of the performance as well as the design. Her daughter is impressed with the magic. " I liked it when the raven made the stars," said Sarah Jane.

The Carters also welcome adults to their shows. A special event geared toward adults is the Marionette Opera. In May of 2006, they will perform "The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great," a fairytale-satire with live instrumentalists and singers. "It's fun for us (the opera) because it's something different. They are aimed at adults, whereas many performances are aimed at kids and we also work with some of the best musicians around. The audience reaction is fantastic, because it's a lot of classical music fans who haven't really gotten to know the magic of puppets," said Chris.

Above all, the Carters love what they do. "We have a lot of school kids in here and we like telling them that this is a job and we make money doing it. A kid growing up thinks they could be a doctor or a teacher, but they don't often think, 'Hey, I could be a puppeteer,' " said Chris.[[In-content Ad]]