The 2023 Crankie Festival: Moving Stories and Jubilant Movement

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Renowned Baltimore crankie and paper-cut artist Katherine Fahey saw her first unfurled at a house show in Philadelphia where artist Erik Ruin performed. Half-way through his shadow puppet show, the screen started moving. What was this? she wondered. Fahey was transfixed. 

Most people seem to have that reaction when they see this type of performance for the first time. Perhaps it’s the theatrical packaging that sparks initial curiosity. First off, there’s the box. They’re typically made out of wood, but any kind of boxed-shaped object will do. Crankie boxes have been made out of suitcases, matchboxes, or as the theater duo Alex and Olmsted showcased during the most recent Baltimore Crankie Festival, a loaf of bread. 

So what goes into this box? A long scroll that helps to illustrate and illuminate a narrative. Some artists create them out of fabric or apply paint, ink, or drawing materials to paper scrolls. For her performances, Fahey uses intricate paper-cut silhouettes. Once the scroll is finished, it’s loaded into the above-mentioned box which has a viewing window where it’s attached to two wooden spools, to be hand-cranked while a story is told, a song is sung or a tune is played.

Alternatively, the scroll could be an abstract, moving panorama. There really aren’t any limitations to what this art form can encapsulate. “It’s interesting how visual artists, activists, and theater people are drawn to the crankie,” Sarah Olmsted Thomas, half of Alex and Olmsted, said. “It becomes a well. It becomes what you want it to be.”

Olmsted Thomas saw her first crankie while completing an apprenticeship with Vermont’s iconic puppetry group, Bread and Puppets. Fitting, as Bread and Puppets’ co-founder Peter Schumann apparently coined the term “crankie” and started the genre’s revival in the 1960s. To her, “there was something so recognizable. There was a quality to it that was kind of eternal.” Her partner, Alex Vernon, saw his first at Black Cherry Puppet Theater in Baltimore. It happened to be one of Katherine Fahey’s shows. Vernon was impressed by the visuals and eager to learn about the mechanics. 

“Puppetry has such a gray zone around the edges,” Vernon said. But when considering my question, he decided, “The movement is what makes it puppetry. It’s vital.” 

“With movement in mind, you’re inherently bringing it to life,” Olmsted Thomas added.

While speaking with Eric Bass and Ines Zeller Bass of Sandglass Theater, I learned that they had a similar approach to Alex and Olmsted. “What Ines and I bring to the crankie world is that we’re puppeteers,” Bass said. “People come with music and add visuals or vice versa. We come with theater. We’re looking through the crankie through the eyes of a puppet.”

“Or through the eyes of metaphor,” Zeller Bass chimed in. “Our visuals evoke a mood without spelling it out for everybody.”

Since 2013, Sandglass Theater has hosted their own signature crankie festival in Putney, Vermont called “A Rafter of Crankies.” They were inspired by three women that performed at their theater–Katherine Fahey, Anna Roberts Gevalt, and Elizabeth LaPrelle. “I immediately latched onto it,” said Zeller Bass. “Any little box, round or square, I would cut a hole in it. It was so hands-on, beginning to end. It is so tactile.

Movement appeared to be the theme of the 2023 Baltimore Crankie Festival, which takes place every year at the Creative Alliance. Puppets weren’t the only thing moving, as dance was a massive element to the event. Things really got popping during “Crank that Beat,” a collaborative performance between Beat Box Dads (Jamaal “Black Root” Collier and Max Bent) and visual artist Jes Raschella. Without hesitation, they got everyone up and moving. 

As Teaching Artists, Bent and Collier perform for elementary school students. They created “Alphabeats,” a video series that explores the percussive nature of phonetic letters, their ASL symbols, and lots of jubilant movement. They shared aspects of that during their performance with a number called “Don’t Forget About YOU” which prompted the audience to use ASL to sign out the five vowels. They transitioned into a moment of mindfulness where everyone took a deep breath. Then Bent knocked out some beats and Collier shared a story of his journey as a musician, getting the audience to chant out the colors of the rainbow.

When he was working on the crankie and performance piece, Bent was looking forward to the dreamlike opportunity to tell a story in a nonlinear way. He shared that they would blend stories together with songs and compared it to his own musical process. “It’s almost like sampling,” he said. Raschella was particularly excited about pairing her visuals with body movement. Not only a prolific caricature artist, she is also a circus artist trained in stilt-walking and hula-hooping.

My personal highlight from this year’s Baltimore Crankie Festival was a surprise performance by Ethiopian dancer Melaku Belay, nicknamed the “Walking Earthquake.” Accompanied by a crankie, Belay told the origin story about “Eskista,” a traditional Ethiopian cultural dance. “Eskista” means dancing shoulders and much to the audience’s delight, Belay enthusiastically demonstrated the dance. Later on, as the house band Geraldine played, one of their members, Jocelyn Haversat, started clogging on the other side of the stage. Belay joined her on stage, showcasing a wonderful pairing of two unique dance styles. Then his friends joined him on stage, where the group exploded in the collective joy of the Eskista dance.

Every year, the Baltimore Crankie Festival sells out weeks in advance. “I’m sorry-not sorry it sold out early,” Josh Kohn said with a sense of satisfaction. As the former Performance Director of the Creative Alliance, Kohn has been involved with the Crankie Festival for years. Anna Roberts Gevalt and Elizabeth Laprelle organized the first festival in 2014. Kohn took over when they moved away from Baltimore and has been co-organizing the festival with performance artist Emily Schubert. 

While talking about curating this year’s festival, Kohn emphasized the importance of balance. “Emily is deeply entrenched in the puppet community. Every year, I look for new artists who haven’t made a crankie before, to add some spice.” With these extra bells and whistles, Kohn likens the festival to an old time variety show. 

“One of the things I love about the festival is the community of people,” Fahey shared. “It’s so fun to get together, to geek out on what we made. Every year I message Anna,” said Fahey. “She was really the force to start the crankie festival.”

Thinking back to the first festival, Fahey remembered that it was a fun challenge putting together the bill. Now the festival is at a point where people ask if they can perform. “It’s always so exciting when a new person makes one. They found a way to tell their story!”

Photos courtesy of the Creative Alliance

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