It’s been a while since my last blog post. Life has its own rhythms and this winter has claimed my much-loved 91-year-old grandmother. And so my life as a theatre maker and student has been a low priority as I have swum in that strange amorphous space of grief.
My grandmother was an intriguing woman who was very important to me as a child. She lived on an isolated island off the northeast tip of Tasmania in the Bass Strait. Shy and reclusive by nature, she was a farmer. My grandmother preferred the company of animals to people.
At her funeral I sang one of her favourite songs, a song I heard her singing as I trailed behind her in the garden as a child. As I sang, the family cried and the song heralded a new absence. This family has now seen the passing of the older generation and the procession of the generations assumes its new order with the march of time. My parents have become the older generation, there are now grandchildren, and me and my siblings are in the middle.
Mid life is a strange and startling place.
Not only am I in the middle of my life, but I am also in the middle of writing a dissertation about puppetry. By asking questions about animate/inanimate, liminality, and the anthropomorphic instinct – I am also inquiring about the nature of mortality, the substance of life, the vitality and temporality of flesh and the way we recruit objects to symbolise this strange miracle.
At the funeral I was struck by the qualities of my grandmother’s coffin as a ritual object – it seemed both a cloak of modesty, hiding the corruption of flesh and also a peculiar wooden stand-in for her body. I found it curious that the family assembled at the funeral didn’t look directly at the coffin – like the elephant in the room, the mahogany box was acknowledged only by the grandchildren who ran forward to peer over the precipice as the it sank from view on its mechanised platform.
It’s ironic that death has kept arising (both literally and figuratively) during this period of my scholarship; as I try to grapple with the phenomenon of life imposed on lifeless objects, some of the loved ones around me (so vital, each in their own way) have ceased to exist. I am confronted again and again by the mystery of non-existence coming to those who once existed as I simultaneously search for answers to questions around why we impose existence onto the inanimate.
Very early on in this degree my first supervisor suggested that the question fundamental to this project is: “what is life?” At the time I recoiled from this idea as it seemed unanswerable and too grandiose, but now that I am further on in my exploration of puppetry, I see that at the core of this or any investigation is always the question of ‘life’. Life and death (the alive and the un-alive) are at the very core of puppetry;
Puppet theatre does not seek a permanent or total evisceration of the lines between the living and the unliving but the blurring of those lines. You are not supposed to think that a bit of cloth or papier-mache is alive; you are supposed to know that it is not alive and yet respond to it with the emotions you ordinarily reserve for living things. Sometimes it is better to weep for a puppet than to weep for a man; sometimes metaphor is more profound than literalism; sometimes art is better than reality…
We need to remind ourselves often that the word ‘to animate’ does not mean ‘to make move,’ but rather ‘to give a soul to,’ from the Latin word ‘anima.
Josef Krofta, founder of Czechoslovakia’s Theatre Drak.
One of the fundamental themes in my recent play ‘Hutch’ was this line between the ‘living and the unliving’ and how far I could go in playing openly with this paradox as a theatrical technique.
In Hutch I experimented with having the puppet both alive and dead on stage. As a series of scenes played out, the puppet character would appear either as an animated figure with a clear emotional relationship to its animator or it would appear as an object, simply as the puppet itself minus animation. Although I intended for this constant switching to be ambiguous and disorienting, it was possibly too confusing for the audience.
What I took for granted was that the audience would interpret the puppet’s changing states as an acknowledgement both of the liminal nature of a puppet and of the process of suspension of disbelief – but this is the approach of a practitioner asking questions, not an audience member experiencing theatre. What actually happened was that people received this duality as a discontinuity leading to confusion. I would argue that this duality is disorienting – but it seems that audience enjoys participating in the illusion as long as there is perceived continuity and they are not reminded that it is an illusion (at least, too often).
The experiment evoked a plethora of responses from the audience, ranging from confusion “why is the puppet now alive when before it seemed to be dead?”, to outrage. One responder implied that to make the audience aware of the puppet as both alive AND dead was to strip the puppet of it’s dignity and make it an object of mockery – “a sly wink between audience and puppeteer at the puppets’ make-believe existence”. Some had no problem with this slippage between alive and unalive and saw it as being in context within the surreality of the show – for them it heightened the sense of dread, of ‘anything could happen next’. For some, this constant transitioning was in part, hilarious.
After analysing some of the feedback I have realised that when the puppet is inert on stage it is not perceived as ‘inanimate’ it is perceived as being dead. And when a puppet moving it is not consciously read as ‘animate’ but alive. To play the character as being both dead and alive may be too much of a stretch of this anthropomorphic relationship if not handled carefully and consciously. Audiences attribute the puppet becoming inanimate not as a reference to its very substance but to the character ‘dying’. We understand its stillness as death – and to have a puppet living, dying then living again in the same continuum makes little sense conceptually. How then do I make this gesture of removing the puppet from my own body, treating it as a separate entity, and then a non-entity make sense? Do I dismember it (there again it is read as a body violated)? Do I deconstruct it, then re-construct it? It is impossible to get away from the analogy of body here?
By having the puppet consistently ‘alive’ you give it the opportunity to die a real death, to die in a sympathetic way. A full immersion in the ‘life’ of the character is invited from the audience. Perhaps this alchemy is broken if the duality of being both ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ is shown. If you stretch the trust and preparedness of the audience to journey with your puppet too far, it just breaks, leading to disengagement from the illusion.
Feedback made me aware that there is an intrinsic difference between the position of the artist and the position of the audience (obvious in hindsight) – the artist/maker sets out to investigate, turn the object every which way and understand how it ticks, the audience want to be transported, taken on a journey – to reveal the mechanism, expose the cogs as it were, does not necessarily enhance the journey for audience or allow for deep immersion in the mutual experience unfolding on stage.
Does the fact that we ourselves all die undermine our ability to be immersed wholeheartedly in our own existence? Does its shake our confidence in the very experience of ‘being’? I think so. We are all wounded by the deaths of our loved ones and by our own pending non-existence. Perhaps to see a puppet die and then come back to life breaks the rules of ‘being and non-being’. It both describes and potentially triumphs over the finality of non-being that we rail against. Perhaps this is where puppetry’s fundamental magic and most wretched transgression lies. The perceived linearity of a life-time – birth/ life /death – is the template to which we lend story its form. If the order of things does not resemble this template we experience ambivalence and uncertainty.
Through puppetry we play out our “shy-hope of resurrection” – we weave stories that suggest some continuation beyond embodiment and by making puppets create a ‘simulation device’ which potentially outlives our own physical body, becoming both a creative instrument of celebration and mourning.
All around the world constructed anthropomorphic images have proliferated and been offered in different ways as appeasement against the uncertainty of existence – objects no longer mundane but attributed with supernatural powers ie. idols, statues, effigies.
In a recent radio program about the parallels between superstition and religion, I heard this wonderful quote about the origins of ritualistic thinking and behaviour;
We haven’t invented our existence and here we are at this late date, after 13.7 billion years of the emergence of the universe and the evolution of life, and here we are waking up for these few short years in the midst of an increasingly uncanny cosmos and faced with the mysteries of life, death, suffering, birth, newness, growing old. And it’s little wonder we try to manipulate the scene somehow…
Anthony Kelly, Professor of Theology, Australian Catholic University
The word ‘manipulate’ is pertinent here. As human beings in an uncertain world we try to co-opt reality into a more secure narrative, a narrative we have more control over. As a theatre maker and puppeteer I ‘manipulate’ both the space on stage, the puppet and the audience. I co-opt people to partake in the world I have created. Just like the real world, this constructed world is not secure. It is a heightened version reflecting all the insecurity, instability and unpredictability that we experience and witness as mortal in this beautiful, baffling, uncanny existence.
While visiting New Zealand recently, I ventured into a museum in Christchurch which housed an antique toy collection. At the centre of it’s collection was a Victorian dolls house with an incredibly detailed interior. During the earthquake of 2011 the dolls house was shaken and the objects inside it toppled, creating a miniature version of the terrifying chaos happening outside. The curators decided to leave the dolls house in its post-earthquake state as a memorial to the event. This house of fallen dolls was both poignant and chilling.
Sometimes it is better to weep for a puppet than to weep for a man…