Why do I make puppets?

7 July 2011  – A note to ‘Secessionist’ puppet (currently being created)

You frustrate me and allude me, yet you demand to be made. For weeks now I have molded clay, creating your hands, feet, belly, genitals, and face. I have birthed you from Pinkysil moulds – squeezing your hard pale form from a silicon womb – I have Dremelled away all your flaws, your ragged edges, carved shallow sockets for your joints, drilled channels in your shins in preparation for spring-leg-bones, I’ve fashioned wooden beads for knee joints, ankle joints – but I have failed to give you fluid movement.

Now you lie dismembered on my work table –  I have failed to animate you.

In moments like these, on the long, lonely slog of trial and error, I honestly wonder why I am doing this. Investing all this time in the creation of puppet whose purpose for being is so singular, so specific to the poem on which the work will be based.

(this puppet is being created for a performance based on the Poem ‘Secessionist’ by Andy Jackson:  http://www.library.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/210125/Secessionist.pdf



Making a puppet is not any easy process – puppets are emissaries or ‘ambassadors’ to human beings from the world of things.

According to Kenneth Gross, English-born, Israeli poet and playwright Dennis Silk imagined objects or thing-theatre to have an intensity and power that led him to feel critical of puppet theatre that was merely ‘cute’ or ‘comforting’. Of this style of puppeteering he says “ The soft [puppet master] doesn’t know he has a dangerous object in his hands. He’s like a sapper defusing the mines he plants”.

I get the impression that Silk felt that ‘cute’ and ‘comforting’ puppetry was a lazy choice that betrayed the real strength and symbolic potential of animated objects. Silk writes with almost religious intensity about the power latent in the world of ‘things’. Of this power he writes:

“We’re afraid of the life were meager enough to term inanimate. Meager because we can’t cope with those witnesses…If a cross is a witness why not a loaf of bread, or a shoe-tree, or sugar tongs, or a piece of string? We should have an All Soul’s Night for dead objects, and confer on them some hours of life we deny them.”

(Dennis Silk, The Marionette Theatre, 1996 )

As a maker I am acutely aware that I am simultaneously creating something dead, an inanimate object – and something alive, an object with specific characteristics made with the intention to appeal to onlookers’ anthropomorphic tendencies.

Of the process of puppet making Michael Meschke speaks with great deliberation and passion – he insists that a face must not be too finished as it doesn’t leave space for the audience’s imagination.

‘But how, on an unchangeable mask, can one mirror the entire spirit [?]…perhaps one must try to reproduce a distillate of her most important feelings and behaviour patterns…

A human portrait that is too well-defined can block a spectator’s imagination from responding to the many variations that the face expresses.’

(In Search of Aesthetics for the Puppet Theatre, Michael Meschke.)

When I come to create a puppet I am attempting to create a face that is highly modeled and refined but which has a still and open expression, a neutrality that is both full and empty. Quiet and active – alive and dead. I also desire to imbue what I create with beauty – not a conventional beauty but something compelling that captures the attention of the onlooker.

 Meschke: ‘What makes sensitive puppet faces appeal so strongly to us? Why is the impression they make on us so important, when at the same time, they are so unreal, a mere illusion?

When the human hand attempts to capture beauty it expresses our longing for the absolute. We are reminded of how we ourselves could be reminded of the dreams we cherish, in the midst of our impoverished insufficiency, of a paradise lost or perfection always worth seeking…

Perhaps then, anthropomorphic instinct arises from a state of incompleteness – although in desiring a mirror, an actual reflection is not sought, but an enhancement, a distillate of what we imagine we could be, what we imagine might make us complete.

A certain existential loneliness pushes me to make puppets, to create these little simulacra, to behold the human form in all its mystery, banality and vulnerability.


2 thoughts on “Why do I make puppets?

  1. A beautiful alluring essay. There’s a lot to explore here, but the thing that took my attention (because of my own interests of course!) is your comment on unconventional beauty. After reading Rosemary Garland Thomson’s book “Staring: How we Look”, I think the phenomenon of stare-inducing people have something in common with puppets (or at least the sort of puppet you’re talking about). Seeing someone deformed or otherwise physically unusual, there is a gap between what we expect to see in a human and what we actually see – the observer feels a deeply ambivalent frisson of affinity and repulsion, sometimes awe and fear. The usual human response is to try to tame that response by resolving it one way or the other – often by coming up with some “reason” why the person is that way. Your quote of Meschke’s (“a human portrait that is too well defined can block a spectator’s imagination…”) makes me think there is a similar dynamic with puppets – an incompleteness or strangeness (as long as the object is human enough in appearance) can create that same kind of psychological pull and tension.

  2. About this Blog:
    I really like the mix of critical thought with personal observations, and your speculation whilst creating the puppet.
    I found the story of the doll at the Rosary Gardens Nursing Home terribly poignant. The pain of the dementia patient is palpable.
    And your note, about being pushed to create puppets, is surely a credo for the work:
    ‘…to behold the human form in all its mystery, banality and vulnerability’ .
    What an brilliant journey for an artist.

    About the [creative performance] work:
    The show at La Mama last year with Andy, was mesmerizing. The imagery, feelings and rhythms in the verse were beautifully, subtly ‘incarnated’ through the puppet’s fluid movement.

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