Born in Korea and raised in Hawai’i, Tom Lee is a director, designer and puppet artist. Mr. Lee began his career at La MaMa Experimental Theater in New York with the encouragement of Ellen Stewart and later, the St. Ann’s Warehouse Puppet Lab. His work often explores the synthesis of manipulated figures and objects using film techniques and animation. Tom Lee creates original puppet theater pieces, performs as a professional puppeteer, designs and fabricates puppets through Chicago Puppet Studio and serves to elevate puppetry through his teaching and mentorship.

Mr. Lee’s original puppet theater work includes Sounding the Resonant Path (La MaMa, Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, Pesta Boneka Festival Indonesia), Akutagawa (Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, US Tour), Shank’s Mare (Tours in US, Hawai’i, Japan and France) Kurokami (Asian Improv Arts Midwest), Hoplite Diary (St. Ann’s, La MaMa), Tomte (Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival), Ko’olau (La MaMa/Hawai’i tour), Eden (NY State Puppet Festival), Odysseus and Ajax (La MaMa), and The Great Zodiac Animal Race (Art Institute Chicago, Eighth Blackbird Studio, La MaMa, Detroit Institute of Arts).

Mr. Lee was a member of the original Broadway cast of War Horse (Tony Award) with puppetry by Handspring Puppet Company. In 2023, he designed puppetry for Mary Zimmerman’s production of Florencia en el Amazonas at the Metropolitan Opera and performed as a puppeteer in the production.  He is a principal puppeteer in Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera with puppetry by Blind Summit Theatre. Mr. Lee debuted as a puppeteer at the Lyric Opera in Richard Jones’ Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky.  He directed and performed puppetry for Petrushka with the New York Philharmonic at London’s Barbican Centre and performed in Le Grand Macabre at Avery Fisher Hall conducted by Alan Gilbert, both created by Doug Fitch and Giants Are Small. He has performed in Dan Hurlin’s Obie-award winning puppet works Hiroshima Maiden, Disfarmer and Demolishing Everything With Amazing Speed.  Mr. Lee was a principal puppeteer in Lee Breuer’s epic puppet opera La Divina Caricatura at La MaMa.

Tom is co-director of Chicago Puppet Studio, a part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival.  His theater design work includes puppets, projections and sets for theatre, dance, opera and film including  Florencia en el Amazonas (Metropolitan Opera), Monkey (Whitesnake Productions, Paramount Theater, Boston), Vancouver (Ma-Yi Theater Company, UNIMA Citation), The Steadfast Tin Soldier (Lookingglass Theater, Jeff Award 2019), A Christmas Carol (Alliance Theater), Pinocchio (House Theater Chicago), The Scarlet Ibis (Prototype Festival, HERE Arts Center), The Poacher (Harvard Theatre Dance and Media), many pieces at La MaMa Experimental Theater, in addition to work with choreographers Yoshiko Chuma, Christopher Williams, Lisa Gonzales and Jonathan Meyer.

In 2005, supported by the NEA/TCG Career Development Program for Designers, Tom spent two months studying traditional and contemporary puppetry throughout Japan.  Here he met Koryū Nishikawa V, headmaster of Hachiōji Kuruma Ningyō (cart puppet theatre company) with whom he has maintained an ongoing creative relationship. Together they developed Shank’s Mare, an international puppet theatre collaboration that has toured throughout the US, Japan and France and received the 2016 Arlyn Award for Outstanding Puppet Theater Design.  In 2023, Tom Lee and Koryū Nishikawa premiered their second collaboration, Akutagawa, at the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival to high acclaim.  Akutagawa will tour to Tokyo in 2024.  

Mr. Lee’s work has received support from The Jim Henson Foundation, The Japan Foundation NY, The TCG/Andrew W. Mellon In the Lab Program, The TCG/ITI Travel Grant Program, The Trust for Mutual Understanding, The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, The Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, The NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, Japan Foundation, Asian Cultural Council, The Puppet Lab at St. Ann’s Warehouse and artist residences at High Concept Labs at Mana Contemporary Chicago, Sarah Lawrence College, The Rhodophi International Theater Laboratory (Bulgaria), The Ringling Museum of Art, The Jim Henson Carriage House and The Art Institute of Chicago.

Tom was a guest faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College for ten years and was co-director of the St. Ann’s Puppet Lab from 2009-2011.  In 2021, he established the Chicago Puppet Lab with co-director Blair Thomas, seeking to develop and empower new voices creating original work for the puppet theater in Chicago. Tom has taught puppetry manipulation extensively throughout the US and internationally, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Lincoln Center Theater, Northwestern University, Metropolitan Opera, University of Chicago, Seoul Institute of the Arts and the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival.