Arts & Events » Theater

Hands of Dissent

Puppets bring art and protest to Richmond streets.

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Lily Lamberta's rationale for her work seems simple: "I've always played with puppets," the 25-year-old Richmond native says, laughing.

But her new puppet theater, All the Saints, is not typical escapist entertainment, she says: "All the Saints is creating guerrilla theater, creating street theater in the name of war and capitalism."

She's taking things to the street Dec. 21 at 8 p.m., bringing her style of theater to the corner of Beaumont and Parkwood avenues in the Fan. Lamberta chose the location for its accessibility and natural surroundings. "There's a beautiful tree about 30 feet tall," she says. "The big idea behind my theater is making things ceremonial. It's important to call this a ceremony."

Using large-scale papier-mché puppets, the event will feature characters that represent various "bad ideas," she says, and will conclude with the raising of a 12-foot angel puppet to the treetop by a crane created for the show. "Then we will invite our grave digger to bury the rotten idea of the day," Lamberta says. Eggnog will be served afterward.

All the Saints is partly based on Bread & Puppet Theatre, established by Peter Schumann in '60s-era New York City to protest his Lower East Side landlord. The original group intensified their performances during the Vietnam War, deriving its name from their conviction that art is as integral to life as bread.

Lamberta's group takes it name from Happy Anne "All the Saints" Kuhn, Lamberta's childhood neighbor, who died of cancer in February. "She just reminds me of patience and peace," Lamberta says. "I believe that anybody who raises their voice and their fists against war, or our administration, or consumer confidence — I believe they're a saint. It's really just about the history of the people who are living in this time."

Lamberta, who grew up in the South Side, attended Longwood College, earning her bachelor of fine arts in theater performance. Then she interned with Bread & Puppet, living on its 100-acre Vermont farm, where she learned puppet-making and more.

But in September she returned to Richmond to be near family and establish All the Saints. "We're such a baby right now," she says. "But I feel like we'll be able to carry on for some time."

She expects some opposition in a town she believes to be largely politically conservative. Asked how she expects to be received, she answers: "Not very openly. But I believe no theater should be preaching. I think that you should make theater up for interpretation and up for digestion. I want to share truth so that people can enjoy it, and also maybe the next day wake up with a new fact. Like the Iraq War casualty list. You put that in a silly show, and [it] would haunt you. But you can't just throw that at somebody. I don't want to have theater that's Democratic or Republican. I just want to have radical theater that people can enjoy. I want theater to be available to everybody."

Though she established the group just months ago, Lamberta worked alongside a small group to organize the recent Halloween parade from Byrd Park to Oregon Hill. "I've never seen anything like it in Richmond," says Chris Lumpkin, 34, who helped with security and performed. "It was like Mardi Gras in Oregon Hill." It was an event, he says, "of, by and for Richmonders. The menagerie kept growing as pedestrians followed, so everyone was a participant."

Pedestrian involvement is key to street theater. Although participation is rarely confrontational, it is possible. At this parade, a man driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle with his toddler buckled in the backseat veered toward Lamberta as participants walked and played music along Laurel Street. It was a scene highlighting how incendiary some find the exchange of different ideas, and the culture's deadlock of authentic dialogue many say they recognize. Those involved say the brief scene underscored a need to raise the profile of political issues that don't receive expression and to create opportunities to air them peaceably with art.

There are obstacles, like money. Public events and parades require expensive permits and fees. Her group accepts donations, but Lamberta says she has no plans to seek government grants.

There are also the demands of time. "It does take dedication," she says. "But I have certain responsibilities to [Richmond], and among those, I believe, is to bring back what I learned, like how easy it is and how cheap it is to put on a show."

All the Saints aims to host monthly events, such as performances and parades, but also community suppers. "I'm glad to be doing this in Richmond," Lamberta says. "If you see us on the streets, join us." S

All the Saints performs at the corner of Beaumont and Parkwood avenues in the Fan Dec. 21 at 8 p.m.

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