The first weekend of April is pay dirt for pagan celebrations. The Hash Bash and the Dance for Mother Earth Ann Arbor Powwow (this year being held at Saline Middle School) have been around since the 1970s, and they were joined in 2007 by FestiFools, to be held this year on Sunday, April 5.
Conceived by Mark Tucker, the convergence of giant puppets on Main Street is like Mardi Gras without the drunks. Or a parade without the military trappings. The event is free and doesn’t last long—about an hour—and all you have to do is show up and let yourself shiver in amazement at the mad primitive dance and insistent gargoylish stares of several dozen giant papier-mâché puppets.
How large? At least fifty in the twelve- to fourteen-foot range last year, says Tucker. Many are art students recruited by art prof Nick Tobier, but the core group comes from the art class for nonart majors that Tucker teaches at U-M’s Alice Lloyd dorm, part of the Lloyd Hall Scholars program. “A few years ago, I had this idea of doing public art, because if there was an audience for it, it would raise the bar,” says Tucker. “We started doing murals, then started doing sets for the Burns Park Players. It’s in the air—like the Lion King. Lots of people doing plays with puppets.
“We’re artists, not event makers,” Tucker admits cheerfully; the event is largely unorganized and even chaotic. Anyone with a puppet can show up. “The first year when we turned onto Main Street we had no idea what would happen. [In 2008] we tried ‘choreography,'” he says, putting the word in air quotes. Two lines coming from opposite ends of the street were supposed to execute a kind of do-si-do in the middle. “There was so much congestion, I didn’t exactly see it but heard it was kind of a traffic jam.”
Is there an etiquette for bystanders? Tucker reluctantly confesses that he wishes there was a little less audience participation. “The first year we were so happy to get encouragement. [Last year] that worked so well, uh—well, it worked too well. Everyone was in the street, everyone had a camera.”
The first weekend of April might be a pretty good weather bet in some climes, but in Michigan it’s about as reliable as any of the other months with an “r” in them. Amazingly, the weather for the first two FestiFools was uncharacteristically balmy– and Tucker modestly credits that as much as anything else for the success of FestiFools.
This article has been revised since its publication in the April 2009 Ann Arbor Observer. A no-longer-accurate speculation about the event’s future was deleted, the size of the puppets was corrected, and credit was added for U-M art prof Nick Tobier.