Yesterday while walking through the city I saw a busker whose work made me reflect on what I find unsatisfying about puppetry. The busker made junk puppets out of driftwood tied together with a crazy tangle of fishing line and suspended from very crude hand controls. Sculpturally they were quite beautiful objects but the man seemed to be abusing them by performing them. He was dragging two of these objects along the street in a mock chase scene –yelling in a strange voice that belonged to neither object but served to indicate that they were ‘alive’. Somehow the brutal style of his ‘puppeteering’ had the opposite effect to convincing me of the ‘life’ of his objects, instead it highlighted the ‘uncooperative’ deadness of his tethered sticks. The sticks rolled and bounced about the pavement, dragged by webs of chaotic, dirty cords like a disarticulated skeleton caught in fishing net.
The whole effect of his performance was oddly mystifying. He appeared a crazy man, dragging a collection of sticks mistaken for bones and trying to awaken them by shouting and rattling them. I kind of admired the incongruity of his behaviour in the midst of the lunch-time city rush, but as an act of puppetry his creation was unconvincing. The sticks were not becoming puppets – they remained lifeless, tired assemblages.
When puppetry doesn’t succeed it is absurd and its improbability shines forth like a kind of madness. That derogatory term used for puppeteers, ‘dolly-waggler’ can be a sadly accurate description.
To be honest I have been left with this impression often when I have watched puppet theatre – as if I have participated in a failed séance where we have collectively failed to wake the dead. Sometimes I am more aware of the latent life or vitality of a puppet if it is not manipulated. In quietude and uninterrupted, the puppet’s suspended animation can sing.
It takes a rare artist to really master puppetry – to elevate the craft beyond the visibility of struggle and artifice. (I’m referring to puppetry where the puppeteer is visible here.) If I am to analyse what makes a puppeteer successful I would say it is the ability to appear in two places at once – that is, within their own body and that of the puppet’s. And further, from this divided place to disappear and re-appear within that charged sphere of the puppet/performer relationship. When the puppeteer masters the art of distanciation between their own body and the puppet’s and is able to shift focus to the puppet, then to back to their own character seamlessly – it is magic. Neville Tranter is outstanding in this regard.
See also Duda Paiva (who studied under Tranter)
When this alchemy is tapped by a skilled performer, then puppetry is sublime – when it falls short, it can be ridiculous. More often than not I am too aware of the ‘effort’ involved in puppeteering – the constant tightrope that is the unpredictability of manipulating dead matter. With their uncooperative joints; limbs that fall back-to-front, strings that tangle, eye-lids that freeze mid-blink and jaws that gape in a rictus smile – puppets are deeply unreliable colleagues. It can be excruciating to observe a puppeteer’s harried efforts to conceal their technical difficulties on stage. Watching the performer split their attention between the struggle of puppeteering and the illusion of effortlessness can feel disheartening and intrusive. It can appear like a futile excercise in grappling with something dead whilst pretending it’s alive.
I am so familiar with this struggle myself – focus is splintered in multiple directions. First there is the presence and intention within your own body on stage, subtle enough to enable the puppet to live, but vital enough to conjure a relationship between performer and puppet. Simultaneously intention and breath are being directed to, and through the puppet while the technical demands of operating the puppet are also in motion. (Where are the limbs located in space? Where is the gaze directed, is breath present? Is the movement imposed or ‘coming from the puppet’?) While all of this is happening some of your attention is also reading the audience to understand if they are engaged – are they immersed in the world you are creating on stage or are they unconvinced? All these streams of awareness must flow in a subtle, subterranean way – if one current of thought overwhelms, the balance is lost. You are at once intensely ‘in the moment’ but also inhabiting future moments as you navigate the complex multi-tasking of theatre making. If in one moment the puppet does not co-operate, the next moment must happen regardless – and it must happen in a way that appears fluid and unbroken. It is a path blighted by little ruptures that must be integrated into the whole – and somehow the audience must be protected from these blights to remain there with you in the moment.
In my last post I touched briefly upon Roman Paska’s description of puppetry as a kind of ‘necromancy’, an enlivening of the ‘awful otherness’ of puppets. Puppets, Paska suggests, are little corpses made to dance. I am citing the moments when puppetry fails as the moments when this deadness becomes apparent in its most unpoetic form. When puppetry succeeds and the little corpses do dance, this deadness becomes one of puppetry’s most disconcerting and beguiling qualities. As much as they may be corpses of a kind, puppets are also little prostheses through which we dance our own dance in the face of our own mortality.
I am aware of aspects of ‘awful otherness’ as I make and perform puppets – but it is also this quality that I am compelled by, even affectionate towards. Each puppet is a little memorial; memorial to an idea, a moment, an encounter, a likeness. Each puppet I make is an artefact which simultaneously affirms my being but also reminds me that I must die. Watching the documentary about artist William Kentridge recently, I noted his comment on art making as a way of reflecting back evidence of his existence.
There was some part of me that only knew I existed if I made some kind of external representation of it on a sheet of paper.
During the course of an artist’s life we leave behind us a ‘body’ of work. How interesting that we say ‘body’? ‘Body’ suggests a mirror of a kind, at once an aliveness and a dead thing – perhaps a reflection for the living, then stand-in for the deceased artist.
When asked how he views his puppets in relation to himself, Paska says that puppeteers view their puppets as extensions of themselves, almost as an amputee might feel about a prosthetic limb. Puppets function not only as an extension of the performers own body but as an artificially embodied desires that transcend the limits of the human form. Each puppet is a metaphor for the human condition.
Author Robyn Ferrell describes the psychological function of created objects this way:
Objects and graphics function as narcissistic ‘doubles’ as a protection against death: but doubling is uncanny because of a kind of primitive thinking, now surmounted but not eradicated [Freud] says. The splitting into two (e.g, the invention of the soul) was a narcissistic protection against death.
My puppets are my imperfect children, my impressions and ideas made concrete – they are ambivalence embodied, and perhaps, funereal objects of a kind. That is, objects that will endure in my absence and attest to some aspect of who I ‘was’.