It’s safe to say the region has seen nothing like it. Call it a small invasion, since by Sunday night more than 60 theater artists and musicians, representing 20 groups stretching from Washington to Maine and into Canada, will present about 30 different works in showcases across Carrboro and Chapel Hill.

They will use everything from farce to live music with video to tackle subjects ranging from Greek myth to championship wrestling, from the banality of ATM machines to the biography of Käthe Kollwitz, a visual artist who defied the Third Reich.

Their productions will have one thing in common: They will use puppets.

The RadiCackaLacky Puppetry Convergence is a four-day international gathering of performing artists interested in using their medium for political and social activism, in a movement that now refers to itself as “radical puppetry.”

Though the festival’s host company, Paperhand Puppet Intervention, is known for the family-friendliness of its annual pageants (including their current production of As the Crow Flies, which closes this Sunday at the Forest Theater in Chapel Hill before two performances next week at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh), its organizers stress that some visiting companies produce adult-oriented works that will likely be inappropriate for some children. (Performance schedules with ticket prices and capsule descriptions are listed on the festival’s Web site:

The seeds for the current festival were sown three years ago, when Paperhand’s co-founders Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman attended a similar celebration, The Radical Cheese Against Asphaltization of Small Planets Festival in Glover, Vt. Glover is the home of the Bread and Puppet Theater, a touchstone of activist puppetry since the 1960s. Burger noted that, in addition to letting artists show their work to new audiences, the gathering was an opportunity to come together and see what others were doing, what their messages were and where they were in the process of defining what radical puppetry meant.

The present festival is similarly designed to do more than give artists a chance to stay, camp together and confer. “I lived a while in San Francisco and the Northeast,” Burger says, “and I appreciated the art movements in those areas. One of the reasons I’m doing this is to bring this kind of theater and build this kind of community here.”

But what is it about puppets that make them a desirable–or even viable–medium to engage issues like crime, punishment and urban renewal? We asked two of the many visiting artists who will present their work to Triangle audiences this week.

Beth Nixon is only slightly breathless after an afternoon with 40 kids in Portland, Maine, creating a pageant whose themes reflect the experiences of Sudanese, Cambodian and Somalian families new to the region.

“The puppetry I practice is really flexible,” Nixon says. “If I feel like using masks, text-based dialogue, painting, drawing or singing, I can. If I want to be a giant or a tiny character, I can do any of those things. I can morph reality according to my imagination.”

The work she’s bringing to RadiCackaLacky, Awaken the Mud, uses unlikely characters–a mastodon and a wooly mammoth, to be exact–to inquire into our relationship with money by asking what it is we actually need from an ATM machine.

“So much energy goes into perpetuating this system and behaviors that sustain it,” she says. “Imagine what would be possible if we spent a fraction of that time diversifying just a little bit what we’re spending our energy on. What if you could go to a machine and, instead of 40 bucks, you actually received what you hungered or thirsted for, and maybe didn’t even know you needed?” Nixon asks. “With puppets, I can take liberties with reality–and make a lot more interesting things than dollar bills come out of those machines.”

For Nixon, the accessibility of an art form largely made from leftover materials–cardboard, old sheets, house paint–connects directly to the process of transformation. The result, she says, is temporary, but it just might stick. Perhaps the next time an audience member visits an ATM machine, she says, “they have a split second of a different experience.”

“We’re practicing for the life we want,” she concludes. “When we use tools to change things in a puppet show, maybe we’re one step closer to finding the tools we can use in the real life world.”

Though Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith has been performing for as long as she can remember, she came to puppetry just six years ago through an unexpected vector: sculpture. “I realized I could use my sculptures to make masks to perform with,” she recalls. After viewing a video of Julie Taymor’s Juan Darien, she studied puppetry at the Théâtre aux Mains Nues–the Theater of the Naked Hand–in Paris.

Her RadiCackaLacky offering, Psyche’s Dance with Death, explores the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche with marionettes.

“Puppetry allows things to exist as I see them in my imagination,” she says. “There’s just the sense that you can break so many laws of physics, and put so many creatures on the human form without a gigantic budget for special effects.

“And there is something quite extraordinary about the movement impulses that move through you to animate the puppet. You have such an intense focus on something that is outside of yourself, not yourself, but that is still somehow related to you–something you want to make alive, and you can, to an extent.”

Burger agrees that the act of animating these sculptural creations is what makes puppetry such a powerful art form. “Because [puppets] are alive and not alive, something in you kind of does a flip-flop. We respond to them in an instinctual way. People are able to project themselves into the characters they see.”

The act of building the puppets is “a collective gathering of our energies, and a collective expression of our desires as people,” he says. “A lot of hands go into creating these things. That, I think, is a strong message in itself: We’ve put our hands together to create beauty.”

RadiCackaLacky takes place in Chapel Hill and Carrboro Aug. 30-Sept. 3. See for details.