If you’ve ever participated in or been a spectator for Richmond’s annual Halloween parade, you’ve seen the hundreds of puppets that are central to its spirit. Created by All the Saints Theater Company, the puppets range in size from hand puppets and masks to large puppets 20 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter. A single person operates some of the larger puppets, while others require eight to 10 puppeteers to carry.
Lily Lamberta, who uses the pronouns they, them and their, is the force behind All the Saints Theater Company.
“The puppets are used to make us look bigger in the streets, to unify people through creative collaboration between different mediums – poetry, dance, music, sculpture, street art, folk art and ancient pageant style puppetry – in the name of change and resistance,” Lamberta explains. The puppets have the same purpose as historic puppets like Punch and Judy: To tell a story using archetypal images to create subversion, chaos and creative dramatizations. “The puppets are a platform for street theater, parades, protests, shows, music videos and collaborative creative actions to manifest healthy community and make political change.”
Radical puppets, however, take up a lot of space. As do the found materials to make them. Beyond that, not much is required beyond minimal electricity for lighting and power tools and an assurance of dryness. Because of an impending move, Lamberta was on the lookout for somewhere to relocate their puppet barn. They found the ideal location at EarthFolk, in an old, abandoned farmhouse in South Side purchased in 2014 by musicians Laney Sullivan and Jameson Price. The couple’s goal was to create a place where they could hold workshops about sustainability and earth-based living as a way to live in a more balanced way with the land.
All the Saints has launched a GoFundMe campaign with the goal of raising enough money to hire a moving company to move the barn to the EarthFolk property, where it can be used as storage and studio space for future workshops when it’s safe to congregate. Fundraising is needed for basic materials such as gravel to make a parking area and a solar set up so that the space can have electricity. The puppet group’s plan to leave the fundraiser up until it’s safe to invite people in. Once the barn is moved over, it will continue to clear space and organize the land to best protect its wildness, while making it accessible.
Lamberta saw having the puppets housed at EarthFolk as a natural fit where the puppets wouldn’t just be stored but could serve as a community creative location where people who want to be involved can have access: “EarthFolk is a perfect place because of the alignment in mission statements and active work surrounding community care, community ritual, earth-water protector activism, fighting capitalism with food security and sharing resources.”
For EarthFolk’s founders, it felt like the right thing at the right time and an unexpected collaborative opportunity to expand the artistry of the space. “We’re both community-based DIY groups and coming together during COVID seems like what grassroots groups need to do to be able to create and serve the wider community for years to come,” Price says.
All the Saints Theater Company started in Richmond when Lamberta left the Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theater in 2006 and came home to start working on the first annual Halloween parade. “I wanted to bring radical puppetry to Richmond as an offering for creativity in activism,” Lamberta recalls.
In the intervening years, the annual parade has held funeral marches for the dollar, for the Founding Fathers, for Joan of Arc, for the Confederacy, for Life as We Wished It and this year, had planned for the Funeral March for the Plague of Now. But due to the Plague of Now, it was canceled and the group instead performed in the park to tell the story.
All the Saints Theater Company’s annual Halloween parade has not only become a Richmond tradition, but scores of people have learned puppet-making techniques through annual workshops. Lamberta firmly believes political puppet street theater is the people’s art – puppets have been discovered on train tracks and in trees years after they were created. At this point, puppets are literally part of the landscape of Richmond, in people’s homes and in the streets. And because the materials used are free, recycled and harvested, they’re literally made of Richmond.
Richmond is a puppet town thanks to All the Saints Theater Company and the people’s support. “We’re on the map for Halloween, up there with Minneapolis and New Orleans,” Lamberta says proudly. “And I would say that we arguably have the best Halloween experience in the world.”
Donate to the GoFundMe and follow All the Saints Theater Company on Facebook or @allthesaintstheater on Instagram.