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Small-scale puppets, large-size enjoyment

June 12, 2008|Zachary Pincus-Roth

Ninjas, dinosaurs and dragons will invade Disney Hall this weekend. But not to worry --they're only a few inches high.

The venue is hosting its first-ever Toy Theatre Festival, celebrating a form of puppetry that involves two-dimensional puppets attached to rods (as opposed to, say, marionettes, which are three-dimensional and controlled by strings).

Toy theater was popular in Victorian England, where drama fans could buy kits with paper puppets that had faces sketched to look like the performers in a popular new play. The kits came with miniature sets, a proscenium that looked liked those in the actual venue and an abridged script for creating your own performance. Toy theater's popularity waned in the 20th century, but contemporary puppeteers have revived it.

Barbara Leonard, the festival's artistic director and the Music Center's artistic director for education, is particularly excited by the form's all-encompassing nature. "The artists -- they're the architect of the theater, the playwright, the scenic designer, costume designer, the producer, director and actor," she says.

Leonard researched toy theater by traveling to puppetry festivals in St. Paul, Minn., and Preetz, Germany, and meeting with members of Great Small Works, a company that runs an annual toy theater festival in New York City. Most of what she found, surprisingly, was aimed at adults. So she commissioned five artists to create new works for kids and rounded up six others. (REDCAT, the venue attached to Disney Hall, has its own evening programs of adult toy theater this weekend.)

The tabletop performances will be scattered around Disney Hall's lobby areas, rehearsal rooms and main auditorium, ranging in length from 15 to 70 minutes, and in style from the traditional to the avant-garde. Toy theater versions of classics will include "Alice in Wonderland," the opera "The Peony Pavilion" in both Chinese and English, and a "Macbeth" by Dov Weinstein's Tiny Ninja Theater. Beth Peterson is presenting a pageant inspired by the Maya Angelou poem read at Bill Clinton's first inauguration, "On the Pulse of Morning."

Laura Heit has created "Matchbox Shows," a miniature, circus-themed cabaret with puppets at the ends of matchsticks and the action taking place in a matchbox -- yes, that small. The show is captured on camera and projected live onto a huge screen behind her. "My finger will be 3 feet long in the projection," she says. "People are always very drawn to that change in scale."

Local school groups will perform shows on natural disasters and American history, and a modernized "Romeo and Juliet." Plus, the garden level will have workshops where families can construct their own toy theaters.

"I think when you make things small, they become special," Heit says. "They become almost magical, because you've reinvented the scale of the world."

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theguide@latimes.com

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TOY THEATRE FESTIVAL

WHERE: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.

WHEN: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat. and Sun.

PRICE: Free (reservations recommended)

INFO: (213) 972-8500; www.musiccenter.org

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