Every time we finish a project we are facing multiple endings. You are no longer the performer who existed momentarily in the eye of the audience, the show which lived for a season no longer exists and the props and costumes lie inert in boxes, stacked in a pile in the shed.
My Masters supervisor Peter asked: “And what happens to the puppets between shows?” Well, some puppets die while others continue to live.
Upon reflection I build two types of puppet – there are those that are purpose-built specifically to express a particular idea within a show and those that I consider to be ‘alive’ in their own right. I have very little attachment to the purpose-built puppets once the show is over. With the other kind of puppet the relationship is more complex – I perceive them as a sculptural beings that emanate a vitality that is not reliant solely on my manipulation and continues beyond their ‘life’ on stage. These puppets live in my space and I regard them as entities that grace my life with their uncanny presence.
Am I conscious of which category these objects will belong to at the outset of creation? – it depends on the role that they have within the work. Sometimes I am building a puppet with the intention to fulfil a specific role – that is, I am not creating an object that aesthetically or philosophically engages me beyond the performance, I am simply making a prosthetic performer. Other times I am creating a sculptural entity that demands to be made and continues to resonate beyond its life on stage. As I make it, I come to meet it; it engages me deeply as an object and begs to be performed. With this class of puppets the performance gives voice to the subtle inner life I believe to be latent there, whereas the prosthetic actor exists only for the sake of lending form to an idea specifically within performance. One is a colleague, the other is akin to a prop.
The puppets in Hutch fell into these two categories. The miniature puppet of me is a sculpture, a solemn little effigy. The rabbit puppet is a cartoon – a giant sponge rabbit that encapsulates cuteness with all its accompanying layers of repulsiveness and vulnerability; sweetness and cruelty. It is literally and metaphorically a ‘sponge’, soaking up the audiences’ expectations and turning them upside down. At once, full of bouncy promise and yet utterly vacated – a grubby foam head lolling on an empty infant jumpsuit.
I have no desire to share my space with this creature! After Hutch I deconstructed the rabbit puppet; his eyes were removed for mending, his head and buttocks (both made of carved foam), were put through the washing machine. Imagine the eyeless face pressed against the glass during the spin cycle, its ears painting brisk arcs with the spin…His body was then un-stuffed and his flensed skin also washed. So in my backyard the rabbit’s head hung from the washing line, pegged at the ears while his buttocks dried amongst the parsley and his pink, newly washed skin shivered in a light breeze. Once dry, the rabbit was packed in pieces and consigned to the shed.
The little effigy (or mini-me as she was dubbed) lives in an alcove in my studio. I look at her daily – she is me, but not me. She is an enigmatic ‘other’ – her stillness and composure fascinate me – her qualities are distinctly her own.
On the shelves of my studio some puppets ‘live’ quietly in a kind of suspended animation, while in the shadows of my shed others lie ‘dead’ and forgotten.
Of late, I too have been in a state of suspended animation, a post-performance fog.
After months of focused and intense work with the show’s development, the build up to opening night and the tightrope walk of each performance with it’s new audience and unforeseen contingencies, I am disoriented and empty.
Theatre making is hard; you strive, sweat – you work. Sometimes you marvel, sometimes you cry – you definitely don’t sleep much and there is a certain delirium that begins to envelope your life. Then it’s all over and you wonder what all that intensity was about.
For me, these past two months saw every waking hour (consciously or un-consciously) infested with Hutch. I was profoundly disengaged from ‘real life’ and simultaneously engaged with a kind of ‘hyper-real life’. I both resented this period of creative ‘infestation’ and was relieved when it was over – but at the same time, I never wanted it to end.
Now it’s over, the production feels like a mirage – the fatigue, excitement, successes and failures have come and gone. Such is the transitory nature of this art form – the very thing that I love about theatre, is the very thing that leaves me in a void every time. The future looms like an empty storyboard waiting to be filled and I wonder if I can possibly summon the energy to do it all again.
But I also know that like the puppets in my studio, I am only hibernating for the time being.