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Keith Shubert, master puppeteer and collaborator with LEAF since 2010. Photo by Jennifer Bennett
A week from today, LEAF festival will once again grace the Blue Ridge Mountains, launching attendees onto a “Fantastic Voyage” with its biannual celebration of culture, community, and the arts on the idyllic banks of Lake Eden.
“We want to bring people to a state of powerful presence,” Performing Arts Director Ehren Cruz said. “Life is a journey, life is an adventure; let’s be grateful for this opportunity we have to create, to share, and celebrate.”Romping in the puppetry village, October 2016. Photo by Jennifer Bennett
The Fantastic Voyage for the most part is, actually, yours. This October’s theme encompasses all the tiny hairs of being human: taking our tendency to get caught up on expectations, ideals, and struggles, and juxtaposing that with an appreciation for life’s processes, inspiring a mindfulness toward community, creativity, and opportunity. All while riding the melodic notes of the vast assemblage of musical acts from across the world.
“In times where so many people are feeling afraid—whether it’s political, or social drama, or even mother nature, we are at the hands of situations that are outside of our control,” Cruz said. “I feel it’s important that we gather together and recognize that there’s still a lot of amazing people out there.”
Cruz spends his whole year canvassing the globe looking for groups, performers, and teachers that represent the heart of LEAF so he can bring them to the next festival. It’s not enough for a musician to come onstage and just perform, according to Cruz. The artists that invite you onto their frequency, and give you the chills at the same time they ignite your soul tend to fit the bill.
“At the festival, we transform lives out there—my life has been transformed,” Cruz said. “I see people touched by these incredible artists, and they carry that with them and that helps nourish their souls.”
Distinguished Puppeteer Tarish Jeghetto Pipkins and Amy Winehouse from last October's LEAF. Photo by Jennifer Bennett
Julie Hruska, founder of Awakened Life Yoga, said she takes great honor in teaching yoga at LEAF, for the union it brings. Amongst the diverse global family in attendance, the act of each member coming together to move and breathe, and be conscious together in a single space builds a beautiful bond, according to Hruska.
“Teaching yoga at LEAF reminds me of the importance of feeling free in your practice,” Hruska said. “Each person is unique and their bodies are different; teaching at LEAF reminds me to encourage students to honor what feels nourishing in their practice, regardless of what that may look like.”
Hruska describes the event as being a feeling of all-caps JOY, citing gatherings such as LEAF as critical for understanding cultural connection.
“With all the stress and challenges many people face in the world today, it’s a beautiful experience to join together with others from numerous backgrounds to celebrate the gift of being alive, vibrant and present,” Hruska said. “LEAF creates an atmosphere of acceptance that reminds us that we are not alone on this journey.”
Something Cruz wants to stress about LEAF is the inclusivity of family, namely, making LEAF safe and available for all in attendance. With this, the festival exhibits eight adventure villages, each with different themes for enterprising children, parents, and grandparents to dig into. One such faction is the famous puppetry village, where inside we find master puppeteer Keith Shubert, dressed as the wandering clown Toybox, entertaining guests of all ages throughout the weekend.
Toybox the clown and his admiring fans, October 2016. Photo by Jennifer Bennett
“Since I have been with LEAF so many years, there are many children who have grown up with Toybox as a fun-loving and inspirational part of their lives and childhoods,” Shubert said. “I have met a few children at LEAF who have seen our puppet shows, and have come back to the festival in following years with new puppet shows they have created and presented as part of our group.”
Shubert has been involved with LEAF since 2010, helping curate puppetry acts and bringing artists from around the country, and the world at large. Shubert said an incredible part of his experience is in his ability to see the ways his and others' work has inspired guests.
“What makes LEAF special is really the variety of experiences at the festival,” Shubert said. “There are fans and audience that come for the music, but there are also groups who come for the circus arts, or the puppetry, or the poetry.”
Through all 20 years of the festival, Cruz said this is probably one of the most conflicted times in life. In light of such contention, LEAF serves as a communal sanctuary, a welcoming place for people of every background to feel healing, creativity, and inspiration. Being there for the community right now is expressly important, because after all, sometimes the best way we can support is through each other.
Get day and weekend passes for fall LEAF here.