This essay was written for Unima Australia’s website earlier this year – it reflects upon the experience of touring in Ireland.
In October 2013 poet Andy Jackson and myself took our collaborative work of poetry/ puppetry, ‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ on tour to Ireland – it was a mutually surprising experience for performers and audiences alike.
Puppets are controversial things it seems, burdened with presumptions about what they are, what they represent and where they belong. Upon arriving in Connemara for Clifden Arts week people were curious, they openly interrogated us about how poetry and puppetry could be combined, given that their understanding of puppetry was that it was ‘kids stuff’ – would a fusion of puppetry and poetry not be a tasteless and crass thing? I actually enjoyed the candour of the people I met in Ireland – one person openly said ‘That sounds awful’ when I described our project.
Poetry has a long and esteemed history in Ireland, so to suggest it could be performed with puppetry seemed sacrilegious. I was reminded about how little is known about the potential of puppetry as an art form and how it carries a stubborn low-brow historical association with it.
Interestingly, although there was a photo of Andy, the puppet and myself in the festival program, a few people we spoke to did not recognise my puppet as a puppet. Indeed after the performance we had many passionate debates about the semantics of whether the thing I had created was a puppet. People were adamant that puppet was not the correct label for the object I had made or the style in which it was performed. It intrigued me that there seemed such a strong dissonance between people’s associations of puppetry and what I had created.
Perhaps the most moving and startling feedback I received from an engrossed audience member was the comment: “Now that I have seen him, I am sorry I called him a puppet.”
Despite the reservations that people expressed about what collaboration between poetry and puppetry might entail – we did have a solitary audience member walk out of one performance clutching her disappointed child (clearly she had expected to see a ‘show for kids’!) – ‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ was well attended and the reactions were startling in their appreciation and depth of feeling. During performance it was as if the whole audience was hushed, poised and utterly ‘with’ us for the duration. People came up onto the stage afterwards, moved beyond words, tears flowing, hands extended.
As an artist I found this performance a profoundly liberating experience – ‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ is a sparse work with very ‘naked’, simple elements – poem, puppet, song. The effect that it had on people however was not simple and reminded me of the power of language and the uncanny lure of the puppet on stage. I was powerfully reminded that there doesn’t need to be elaborate production values, multitudinous effects or a convoluted story to hold people and to hold them rapturously – for it was rapture that ‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ provoked.
‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ is risky in its simplicity and preparedness to share human truths. It strives to evoke emotion with the space around one beautifully crafted poem, two bodies on stage (one extraordinary, Andy has Marfan Syndrome and writes about non-normative embodiment and identity) – and finally, a little puppet, lovingly crafted in the image of its sitter – a tiny, animated mirror.
I re-discovered that silence and stillness could be as dynamic as action. To simply be and breathe with and through the puppet in response to the emotions expressed on stage can be as daring and transcendent as grand dramatic gesture. To resist the impulse to ‘fill’ space with movement is a difficult thing to do – and to maintain ‘aliveness’ in a moment of emptiness demands absolute commitment to and belief in the life of the performing object.
In these moments I came to know the ‘puppet’ I had created in a different way – he seemed to be an entity unto himself. He became an instrument of expression straddling the thin divide between life and non-life. Such an instrument is hard to categorise, to name. Perhaps the puppet is the ‘ambiguous mirror’ in this performance.
In Ireland audiences were generous, astute and quick to enter into discussion. Here we found a culture steeped in poetry and music. Here we felt welcomed with our offering of poetry, puppetry and song. Andy and I felt greatly affirmed as artists and were reminded of the reason behind the desire to make work and keep offering it to audiences. It is the deep satisfaction of communion through the acknowledgement of our shared humanity.
The transfiguring of loss and vulnerability into metaphor and poetry; the joyous triad of a tiny sculpted man, his living, speaking flesh-double and my hands, our intentions – flowing.
Many thanks to Dr Robyn Rowland AO, Arts Victoria and all our supporters on Pozible – we couldn’t have done it without you!