Arts & Culture

Stories, films, puppets: The 18th annual Proctor Arts Fest explores new art forms this August

The Proctor Arts Fest might be the oldest continuously-running arts festival in Tacoma, but that doesn’t stop it from reinventing itself. This year, the festival (on Aug. 2) adds to the usual lineup of music, craft vendors and juried art show by bringing in some different art forms: storytelling, puppets and film, as well as adding some other practical features.

“We have kept gradually growing,” said co-chair Eugene Kester, who has worked with the festival for 16 years.

The festival’s also expanded the list of community partners. This year, the big collaboration is with the brand-new local Destiny City Film Festival, which will open at the Proctor’s historic Blue Mouse Theatre next Thursday and run throughout the festival and Sunday.

“The thing that’s exciting is the film fest,” Kester said. “Usually we’ve had to work out something for the Blue Mouse” ourselves.

One part of the film festival that coincides with the Proctor Arts Fest, running 4:30 p.m. Aug. 2, is Story Alchemy, an event that sees local live storytellers share stories in various genres based on a theme – compassion – inspired by the winning entry in the film festival’s screenplay competition: “Blue Bunny” by Jenny Prange Boran.

“We were trying to think of prizes for the winning screenplay,” explained Destiny City operations manager Brook Ellen West, of the genesis of Story Alchemy. “Someone suggested a reading, but we wanted to do something more than just a 15-minute reading – we didn’t think people would come to that!”

And so, inspired by the strong theme of compassion and empathy in the winning screenplay chosen in May, West began inviting local storytellers to participate.

Among them are Megan Sukys and Tad Monroe of the Broadway Center’s Drunken Telegraph shows, Jackie Casella from Tacoma literary site Creative Colloquy, writer Tanya Chernov and West herself, who writes for the Post Defiance blog. There’ll be poetry, read fiction, an essay and true-life personal stories, plus an open mike for audience members to share their own five-minute stories. (Sign up at the Blue Mouse 15 minutes prior to the show.)

“Stories are how we learn and communicate,” West said. “A lot of times when people make an independent film they’re concerned mainly about getting the best actors, the best location, the director. None of that makes up for not having a good story. A story is the star of the show, it’s what moves the audience. At the Destiny City festival we’re reminding the audience that stories are essential.”

Story Alchemy isn’t the only storytelling gig at the Proctor fest, though. Earlier in the afternoon local author Judy Cullen will be reading four freshly minted stories inspired by works in the juried art show, a regular event for the festival and one that sets it apart from other local arts festivals. Adhering to the strict story-form of drabble, which requires exactly 100 words to tell the tale, Cullen will visit the show the day before the festival after the works are hung to decide which ones she’ll write a story for.

“I’m expecting there are stories behind all the works,” Cullen said, “but I’ll look for which one jumps out at me, speaks to me.”

Writing her stories overnight, Cullen will then read them aloud at the art show inside Mason United Methodist Church at 1 p.m. Aug. 2, before presenting printed copies of both story and art to the artists. She’ll then publish them on her blog,

Cullen, a writer and scenic designer, likes the drabble form for its precision and limits.

“It’s like haiku,” she said, “and I use both as writing exercises. My natural tendency is to be vociferous – this forces me to be efficient.”

Cullen acknowledges the issue of creating stories about artwork that may, in fact, already have its own backstory.

“I struggle with that,” she said. “The last thing I want to do is write about someone’s art that they have a huge static interest in. But the beauty of art is that if it’s a good work it will speak to people, maybe in response to something deep inside them. It will blossom into many voices. That’s the miracle of art, that it makes that connection. It’s defined not by what it is but by the totality of what it can be.”

But it’s not just storytelling that make this Proctor Arts Fest different. On the three entertainment stages are some new performers: Portland’s Tears of Joy puppet theater, singer/songwriter Natalie Gelman, bluegrass/Americana band Barleywine Revue, two jugglers, taiko and marimba ensembles, and pianist/singer Billy Mac who’ll give a tribute to the Beatles for their 50th anniversary year.

Also added this year is a second covered outside eating area (in the Chirp and Co. parking lot), popular body painter and reality-show effects artist ContoursFX and a book sale at the library. There’ll also be the usual Proctor favorites: the dog show, Steve Curran’s karate demonstrations, a sidewalk sale and more than 130 arts and crafts vendors, many local. The Proctor Farmers Market will also be in operation for much of the day.

“It’s a family community event,” said Kester, who volunteer Maura Desimone describes as “the grandfather of the festival.”

“One of the things that’s kept me going (for 16 years) is that in this time we live in, communities are not that close-knit,” Kester said. “We live and work in various places. So we need things that pull us together, give us a sense of community. Events (like the festival) are great things for us, that’s what pulls us in.”