What's that Puppet Doing in My Play?
Smitten by puppet love, 5 playwrights compare notes on writing for objects brought to life
moderated by Gretchen Van Lente
As playwright Octavio Solis tells it, in the puppet world playwrights are the “low men on the totem pole.” Why? Because this is a world in which the power and the prerogative belong to either the puppet artist—the all-encompassing puppeteer/playmaker/director/guru—or to the puppet company, the collective of artists working for a common mean, whether that be political assertion or children’s amusement or creative expression. Puppet theatre began, in all likelihood, with the cave man: It was a tool of pageant and ritual, a pure experience. Puppeteers today are traditionally hidden behind a box, scrim or black hood, trying to convince an audience that the inanimate things they hold actually breathe with life. Story and dialogue (if any) are not seen as central. Rarely, in the history of puppet theatre, have playwrights been the driving force behind the creation of puppet works.
It wasn’t until the 19th century, in fact, that puppets engaged the imagination of dramatists. The Belgian poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, under the spell of Symbolism and fascinated by mysterious forces, wrote three plays for puppets in 1894. Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, which was performed in 1898 with puppets by the French painter Pierre Bonnard, created a stir because the play’s brutal simplicity and its grotesque puppet-like central figure challenged the sacred cows of both Naturalists and Symbolists. Among modern playwrights, only Federico García Lorca seems to have experimented with puppets. Like Goethe, García Lorca rebelled against the realistic theatre of the middle class by writing such lyrical and mocking puppet plays as Títeres de Cachiporra (1949) and El Retablillo de Don Cristóbal (1938).
Outside the realm of the puppet artist and puppet company, mostly director-auteurs (like Edward Gordon Craig, Ping Chong, Julie Taymor and Mabou Mines’s Lee Breuer) and agit-prop ensembles like the Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theatre are the primary agents who have seen the power of puppets and incorporated them into their experimental work. The perception remains that these are still the parameters of puppet theatre and that there is little room in the equation for the giant literary ego that is the playwright.
The following roundtable discussion, however, might change that impression. Five stouthearted American playwrights convened by telephone, on the eve of last Halloween, to testify that playwrights, too, can play in the puppeteer’s sandbox—that it is a misconception that only puppet-makers and puppeteers can animate puppets. Speaking from New York, Pulitzer-winner Paula Vogel talked about The Long Christmas Ride Home, her puppet play with actors that uses bunraku-style puppets designed by Basil Twist to tell the sad and funny story of a dysfunctional family on a holiday trip. San Francisco–based playwright Erik Ehn elaborated on the recent Los Angeles productions of two loosely related adaptations: Frankenstein, for Theatre of Yugen, which utilized a variety of forms, including shadow figures, toy theatre and doll-style puppets; and Mary Shelley’s Santa Claus, for Cornerstone Theater Company, with shadow puppets created by scenic and costume designer Lynn Jeffries. From San Francisco, Octavio Solis spoke about his play The Seven Visions of Encarnación, an enchanting allegory of mission-era California, played out in shadows cast on an enormous screen and directed by Larry Reed, artistic director of the company ShadowLight Productions. From Minneapolis, Kira Obolensky explained how she conceived and scripted Quick Silver, and even made some of the object table-top puppets herself. Developed in workshop under the auspices of 3 Legged Race and the Playwrights' Center (where it was presented last November), the play is a poetic look at the harsh underbelly of American capitalism that features three actors who speak and manipulate puppets. Lastly, Crystal Skillman of New York City discussed her writing process for The Ballad of Phineas P. Gage for my own company, Drama of Works, which used giant pageant puppets, toy theatre, shadow figures and bunraku-style puppets to spin the tale of an 1848 medical curiosity and folk hero.
What made these playwrights decide to write for puppets? The answer seems to boil down to something quite simple: Using the techniques of modern puppet theatre, these writers can see character and theme and metaphor literally manifested on stage. What writer wouldn’t jump at the chance to experiment with that? Furthermore, the playwright gains the opportunity to delve into the relationships between puppet, manipulator and human actor, dealing with weighty issues such as power and control, or even the supernatural, in ways a more traditionally written play could never so eloquently express. All the playwrights in this discussion, it’s important to note, created pieces in which the puppeteers were in full view of the audience either during or after the performance, to various effects. One might say they are reaching back toward that ritual in the cave—to what the original power of the puppet was all about. —G.V.L.
Puppets from Page
to Stage: Playwrights Leap into the Sandbox
PAULA VOGEL: I’m in the first flush or the first throes of puppet love. But I feel I’m a complete imposter. Yes, I’ve done seven years of reading for this specific play. Yes, I’ve watched the videotapes. No, I have not been to Japan. In the stage directions that start the play, I say, basically, that the play is based on a misunderstanding, and the misunderstanding is key. I don’t in any way wish to be appropriating. It would be astonishing hubris to think that The Long Christmas Ride Home could be anything like genuine bunraku. It is, rather, a play inspired by that art form. I wish to give myself the courage as a playwright to play, the way puppets make us feel the playful side of things, where boundaries are broken. I am simply in that fan box playing—I am a complete novice at this.
After following Basil Twist’s work around the country, I finally got up the courage to approach him: “Look. I have this idea, inspired by bunraku. It may be insane, but will you sit with me and give me a reading list and help me through this?” And he said, “Write the first draft.” I did, and sent it to him, and we talked it through. Not only has he been, in essence, training me in puppetry, but he’s also been training the actors, who’ve never worked with puppets before. He’s an incredible collaborator with actors, directors and myself. He has a very generous heart.
ERIK EHN: I’ve worked with puppets off and on for a while now, and the latest project is an adaptation of Frankenstein with a Noh theatre company here in San Francisco, Theatre of Yugen. [The show was designed and puppeteered by the artist Max.] We’re also bringing in different puppet traditions. As a playwright, I try to be pragmatic. Like Paula, I don’t want to pretend access to a tradition that I haven’t invested in. Whereas bunraku puppeteers must puppeteer the feet for 10 years before they can move on to the hands, I have a habit of throwing myself at an audience, and I’ll use broken eggs, fur coats, whatever material is appropriate to an effect in a given moment.
CRYSTAL SKILLMAN: Gretchen, who is the artistic director of Drama of Works, had an idea of writing a story about Phineas Gage, a man who survived a ghastly accident in the 1840s. She had some general themes in mind and was looking to collaborate with me and with the company. I wasn’t sure how much I’d be observing or just kind of “dramaturging,” but I ended up writing the play, The Ballad of Phineas P. Gage. I’ve gone on to write another piece for them, On the Backs of Fishes, which recently went to the Barents Region International Puppetry Festival in Finland. In writing Phineas Gage, I would see an image clearly, and the company would then articulate how to make that more specific to the piece. If there are clouds, are they pieces of paper? Are they sheets? Are they shadow puppets? Do they speak? I’d get so excited about the brainstorming, I’d go home and visualize the play even deeper and more intensely. I wrote a lot of characters with a clock for a heart, or a drawer inside their bodies where they would keep stones they collected. As a result of the collaboration, the play, for me, was like a photograph emerging.
KIRA OBOLENSKY: To date, I’ve done two plays with puppets. The first was Pocket Kafka, which takes place in a small third-grade microscope case and is performed on people’s dining room tables. Quick Silver, a play with puppets and actors, is the second. A fearless company in Minneapolis, 3 Legged Race (which is unfortunately going out of business), took a chance and funded the performance. Then the Playwrights Center helped with play development and the production. Assembling people I wanted to work with, I signed up a sculptor [Irve Dell, the show’s visual and co-puppet designer], a composer I had met at a Nautilus music workshop, and several actors who took puppeteer lessons. I used every person in town who could assist and help and who had ideas. I’ve felt like a hunter and a gatherer for the past two years, trying to see this piece to fruition. I’ve also been retraining myself, taking some animation classes and some puppetry classes. Because of my recent training, I made the heads of the puppets first, before writing Quick Silver.
OCTAVIO SOLIS: The name of our show is The Seven Visions of Encarnación, and it’s a Day of the Dead play. I worked last year—and am still working, in fact—with Larry Reed at ShadowLight, a shadow puppet company here in San Francisco. I would start by writing the characters out as dialogue, and then Larry would get the designers and the puppeteers drawing them in profile. (That’s how they’re represented in shadow.) After seeing the dancer or puppeteer move in profile, we’d change it and continue to look for the character. It was a strange sort of democratic process through which we would develop the character—and once we found the character in the puppet, I had to make adjustments in the writing. It was an unusual, ego-less process.
VOGEL:Unlike all of you, I’ve never worked with puppets before. Fortunately, The Long Christmas Ride Home is a very live collaboration with Basil. Mark Brokaw, the director at New York City’s Vineyard Theatre, and Oskar Eustis, the director at Rhode Island’s Trinity Repertory Company, had never worked with puppets. [Eustis’s production runs through Feb. 15 at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre.] The designers of the show had never worked with puppets. The actors never did puppeteering. In a very fun way, the puppets taught us how to write the play, how to produce the play, how to stage the play, and how to act and say the lines. It’s been very intense for me to listen to these puppets.
OBOLENSKY: In consultation with puppeteer Michael Sommers, we used found objects in Quick Silver—a train made out of sardine cans, for example, or a little hat that we placed on a finger. One character is a doctor who measures pain, and he’s made out of folding carpenter rulers. Another character has a refrigerator for a stomach and he consumes all the time—it became a way of reinforcing character. For us, the material itself was about getting at the essence of that character. It goes back to the idea of engaging an audience’s imagination and transforming something before their eyes.
SOLIS: I needed to change my writing style. I realized that my writing was getting very dense and kind of novelistic, and I wanted to find some way to take it back to the core. When I saw puppet work, I found that language had been so pared away. It was so elegant. I wanted to discover a new window, a new way of going into writing for the stage.
SKILLMAN:I felt the same way. I write in a very dense, heightened manner, both in style and language. I found that in working with masks and puppets, I could actually bring forth my ideas and push the envelope in a way that was too heavy or hard to follow otherwise.
VOGEL:I think I’ve come to puppetry more from the page—reading the García Lorca puppet plays very early on, and seeing Lee Breuer’s Prelude to a Death in Venice. I’ve been on the outside looking in, and I guess the impetus has been there for a long time. What to me is very powerful is that puppets don’t speak. You have the presence of silence on stage, and that impacts the language spoken by actors. I feel it almost makes theatre cinematic, in that we have to project the notion of interior on these puppets.
OBOLENSKY:There’s a sort of fantastic theatrical magic that happens the minute you bring an object to life. For me, that magic really speaks to the imagination—all theatre does not have to be about human psychology. That’s why I think puppets are so fantastic. You instantly get the beauty of a film close-up. You get a metaphor of movement and dance. You get at a kind of essence that you would not be able to achieve in a play without puppets.
How to Unwrite
a Play: Language Fails in Shadow of the Puppet
OBOLENSKY: As playwrights, we go into our hovels and write our plays, and then we come out into the world. For Quick Silver, I wrote a 120-page play and then got in the room with the puppets and quickly started un-writing it. Now I have a 40-page play that runs 90 minutes. Puppets come with these souls and these personalities—and they also come with physical limitations. What’s gorgeous about it is figuring out how to write for that—or un-write for that.
SKILLMAN:Forcing you to get out of that hovel is key. It’s so much easier with actors to forgive oneself: “Maybe this line will work,” or, “Maybe this monologue will be okay.” But with puppetry, I feel that I can tell more immediately what is a mistake, what is just too much: “This visual is so much more powerful than any of this half a page I wrote.”
OBOLENSKY:One of the things I find appealing about the art form is that it is something you can actually do yourself. I participated in the making of the puppets and designed them. You can take a class, you can learn how to do it, and it makes theatre-making much more immediate and primitive. You can have your own experimental lab and try ideas out. In contrast, a playwright waits. You write the play and then you wait for it to be produced; if you’re lucky, it’s produced right. With puppets you can get your hands dirty—it’s such a wonderful way of playmaking.
SKILLMAN:It also affects how you see the world when you go back to write because you’ve had that physical experience.
EHN: The collaboration between text and puppetry is like the collaboration between the gold and a diamond in a ring—where, really, it’s all about the diamond. Puppetry is the diamond, but the gold, the writing, has a place, too—it’s more about providing the necessary context. It’s like the way I would work with a musician or a choreographer, trying to create a necessary void in the text, a space that requires the invention of somebody else, a hole into which another person’s impulses can flow.
VOGEL: I don’t think I would be able to build a puppet. I’m completely inept at any visual art form. I can’t draw straight lines. I flunked out of sewing class. I very much respond to the notion of writing a script with a void in it, with a gap in it, with these little schisms that writing and language can’t solve.
SOLIS: For me that’s an issue of trust: trust in my own craft as well as that of the puppeteer. That was a real education. Larry would just turn to me and say, “Too many words!”
OBOLENSKY: “Too many words.” That’s the mantra, isn’t it?
SOLIS:Some places in Seven Visions, the alternative to a whole section of dialogue was to show the puppets dancing, which expressed everything. Or the answer was to turn the words into a song. It was not about butchering the language and chopping it up—it was about distilling it and elevating it so that the puppets could ride on it. Like Paula, I’m still learning the process.
VOGEL:I’ve always been fascinated with the difference between novels and theatre: How do you portray the interior? How do you portray thoughts and feelings? The Aristotelians dictate that everything has to be an action. (It’s why, I think, Jane Austen and Aphra Behn later turned to novels.) The great thing about puppets is that we automatically project onto them what they are feeling and thinking because they cannot speak. When we look at puppets, we see their interior. I often try, as an exercise, to have playwrights in a workshop write as a stage piece the moment in Portrait of a Lady when Isabel Archer enters a room and sees her husband standing beside her best friend. Through his body language, she suddenly realizes, “They’ve been having an affair.” There are no words spoken. To me, that’s exactly what puppets do. A puppet could indeed show that interior life with not a word being spoken. Does that makes sense?
OBOLENSKY:Beautiful. I want to embroider it on a pillow.
VOGEL:That’s because you didn’t flunk sewing class! (Laughs) Puppetry isn’t afraid of emotional hunger, spiritual hunger. Today we see plays being written in which everything is supposed to be neat and tidy at the end. I don’t think that a puppet is “containable” in the same way.
EHN: A play in a drawer means something different than a puppet in a drawer. A puppet in a drawer is completely dead. But if you have a play in a drawer you can show off to your friends or hang onto this literary escape hatch. A playwright exists in the performance world and in the literary world at the same time. Collaborating with a field that so completely requires the life of the stage brings new egalitarianism to the position of the writer.
SOLIS: The general tenor that I’ve felt from our conversation has been one of humility.
OBOLENSKY: Better than humiliation.
The Acting Life
of Puppets: When Objects Collide with Human Actors
EHN: In some Japanese forms, there’s a real continuity between performer and puppeteer. A lot of noh and kabuki vocabulary came out of an envy of puppets; the human actors began to move in a more puppet-like fashion, because they understood the power of the puppet. I like seeing the puppet manipulated. I like seeing the relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet. I like preserving or upholding the relationship of the writer to the writing, as well. Everyone on stage becomes something of a puppet and a puppeteer at the same time. The world of the play radiates out for me from the idea of the puppet contract.
VOGEL: In The Long Christmas Ride Home, three actors, who portray adult characters in the second act, must puppeteer three puppets who represent their characters’ younger selves in the first act. I find it incredibly moving to watch actors manipulating puppets—to watch that journey with double vision.
SKILLMAN:In my play, Phineas P. Gage is a railroad worker who has a three-and-a-half-foot iron railroad spike go through his skull and brain and out the other side of his head—and survives. When I was working with Drama of Works, we were excited about the idea that this specific event is the thing that actually sparks the puppet play’s action. In that moment, the puppeteer, who represented Phineas’s soul, would separate from his body, signified by the puppet. At times, the soul goes back to the puppet when he is in control of the body. The audience literally sees the idea in a kind of Brechtian way.
VOGEL:I don’t know if anyone else feels this way—that the use of puppets actually promotes a kind of sadness and appreciation for the human form—an awareness of our aging, of our fallibility, or our variability. It’s something about the collision of the puppet with the humans. It makes me return with new eyes when I watch the actors.
SKILLMAN:There’s something to that idea of perspective, the distance between the puppeteer and the puppet. It can be very emotional and intimate, like in the story of Pinocchio, when, at the end, he can look at himself as a puppet and have these kinds of revelations. Now there’s two of him: There’s what he was and what he is.
SOLIS:There’s something magical that Larry Reed does after Seven Visions is over: He invites the audience to come backstage behind the curtain and take up the puppets and play with them in the light, so they can get the experience of learning how these things come to life. It’s a terrific gesture of making them part of the experience in more ways than just as an audience.
OBOLENSKY:It’s almost like the magician letting the magic trick reveal itself.
VOGEL: How refreshing in this time, to be shown the manipulations behind the curtain.
SOLIS: I think we have to make it clear that we’re not working with puppets as an alternative to working with actors. These worlds need not be mutually exclusive. Puppets can be very good acting teachers. They’ve been great writing instructors. We have to break down that wall that says you either work with puppets or you work with actors, and that these two worlds can never intersect.
VOGEL: I wonder if we could have an actor-puppeteer volleyball league.
The Haunted Stage
EHN: Puppets accord better with my idea of what a human is than actors can sometimes. They’re obviously created things; they’re creatures. We’re not distracted by a real or imagined personality. They’re in purer states of absolute being—by not having individual souls, they have soulful-ness. This may seem abstract, but it’s very real; as William Blake says, in art, the linear or the abstract is more reflective of the absolute than the literal.
VOGEL:In terms of puppet as icon or as extraction—being closer to the ideal than the literal or the three-dimensionally fleshed out—I think it requires a participation from the audience that goes against the grain of adult cynicism or jadedness. When you’re watching puppets, to not respond emotionally is not an option.
OBOLENSKY: One can’t help but think of when we were little, playing with dolls. You start to witness an audience that talks back, that gasps, that appreciates the wonder—that sense of wonder that we’ve all sort of forgotten how to experience.
SKILLMAN: It’s not just the story that is important, but how the story is told.
SOLIS: I had a very real experience with that when we did Seven Visions in San Francisco. The narrator of the piece is a skeleton, which is basically a cut-out on a stick, manipulated across the screen so that it looks like a giant cinematic figure on a 30-foot screen. We’d been working with very powerful halogen lamps, but right before we were about to start one night, there was a blackout in the neighborhood. We had no option but to continue the show by candlelight. The effect was astonishing. We suddenly realized how close to ritual the whole practice of puppetry was. I had this strong sensation of being in Plato’s cave.
VOGEL: I remember the first time I ever went into an empty theatre, and it felt haunted. It felt sort of filled with the spirit of the undead. Somehow or other, by virtue of familiarity, I’d forgotten that charge, that thrill. But every night when I go backstage and see the puppets in Long Christmas Ride Home hanging there, the sight of these undead spirits hanging on a wall, waiting to come to life again brings that original memory back. It brings back the power of the haunted stage.
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