HowlRound; Staging The Glass Menagerie with Puppets

There are two things about Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie that suggest a staging including puppets. The first is that the piece is a memory play. Puppets love memory plays. The second is that Laura lives in a world of glass animals. She lives there so much that she is of that world, the same scale, herself made of glass.

In 2013, I was invited to direct a play for Theater Waidspeicher of Erfurt, Germany. Waidspeicher is a puppet theatre, one of the network of puppet theatres that arose in the German Democratic Republic, and transformed into a city-owned theatre after the fall of the GDR. The company is a repertory company with a fine ensemble of well-trained actor/puppeteers. They tour internationally and are a pride of the vibrant medieval city in which the theatre is at home. Waidspecher means an attic for the indigo colored dye called woad. The theatre was once an attic where this dark blue plant was stored.

Thinking about what piece to offer, I decided to offer an American play—or at least an adaptation of something American and classic. My reading led me to Williams, and from there on, I read no further. The Glass Menagerie jumped out at me.

Laura in the world of her glass menagerie. Photo by Lutz Edelhoff.

To repeat, puppets love memory plays. One of the strengths of puppets is that they always live in a separate world from humans, a world of different laws and realities. Puppets are our dreams, our memories, and we, inversely, can be theirs. One of the first things I look for in deciding if a play is right for a puppet dramaturgy is what the worlds of the piece are. How is the definition of these worlds enhanced by playing one of them with puppets? The narrator of The Glass Menagerie, Tom, moves between two worlds. He goes between the world of his physical body in 1944 and the world of his memory, seven years earlier. In playing the piece with actors, Tom remains physically the same in both of these worlds. In playing the piece with puppets, Tom can leave 1944 as an actor and emerge in the 1930s as a puppet. In playing the piece with puppets, Tom can also see himself in his memory. He can be in two worlds at the same time.

Tom (Martin Vogel) talks with Amanda (Kristine Stahl) on the fire escape. Photo by Lutz Edelhoff.

Laura, Tom’s sister, also lives in two worlds. She lives in the world of Tom’s memory family, with Tom and with their mother, Amanda. They live in a house in St. Louis, a house that Laura rarely leaves. All of the action of the play takes place in this house, or on the fire escape. But within this house there is another world. In a cabinet in the living room is Laura’s collection of miniature glass animals. They are delicate, fragile, breakable, and transparent. Some of them are extinct, like the unicorn, Laura’s favorite. When Laura opens the cabinet, when she looks at or handles these glass figures, she enters their world. In her own world, she is an outsider, frightened and different. She is crippled, both physically and emotionally. In the world of her glass animals, she is with her own kind. She is among creatures whose nature she shares.

This invites a dramaturgy that, for me, is quite exciting. In puppetry, there can be several puppets of one character, of course. In this case, there can be two Lauras: one “human” doll, in the same vein as the puppets of Amanda and of Tom. And one glass Laura, made of a glass-like material, in the world of the menagerie. And they can all be one size. The worlds can intersect.

Laura (Karoline Vogel) and The Gentleman Caller (Heinrich Bennke) as Tom looks on. Photo by Lutz Edelhoff.

If making theatre were this simple, this production would stage itself. There are of course complications. The Glass Menagerie was written for actors, speaking actors. Puppets do many things well, but speaking is not necessarily their strong suit. Many of the most notable puppet traditions find other ways of transferring text to puppets. The Bunraku, Japan’s classic puppet theatre, uses a narrator who reads all of the puppets texts from a position next to the puppet stage. Other, more contemporary, stagings experiment with offstage singing or doubling puppets and actors. The Waidspeicher staging of The Glass Menagerie required first of all editing (with permission from the German publishers), but also several devices to give voice to the puppets. One of them was to divide the text into live voice and recorded voice. The recorded voice created a kind of memory within a memory—those moments of memory when we remember the sense or feeling of something, but no longer the exact words in real time. Our recorded texts were also manipulated electronically, leaving an essence, like skimming a passage when we read. This also opened up an opportunity to let the puppet-actors work against the text, to contrast, to play the inner meaning of a scene, the subtext.

Puppets are good at creating spatial tension, but intimacy is a challenge. Sometimes we chose to bring the memory close, to move to live actors, then back to puppets. This let us play with scale: Jim, the Gentleman Caller is given the tiny broken glass unicorn as a gift from Laura. In the puppet scene, the unicorn is the same size as Jim. As he leaves the scene, he becomes, again, an actor, and the unicorn is a speck of glass in his hand. Memory is like this, I believe. When we are young, we swim in a giant lake. We go back to see it as adults and find that it is barely a puddle.

Laura in the “flesh” and made of glass (resin). Photo by Lutz Edelhoff.

On the other hand, there is a special intimacy between a human actor and a puppet. It is, in part, an intimacy of scale, an intimacy of caretaking, in the way that a child protects her dolls. Tom’s relationship with his mother, Amanda, is volatile, but there is a moment in the play when he is clearly pleased that he can accommodate her. Appropriately, it is a moment outside of the apartment, a moment shared on the fire escape, free of the constraints of the small rooms that cage them together. She joins him outside, in the moonlight, and for once, they do not criticize each other. Instead, he tells her that he has found a “gentleman caller” for Laura, and that the man is coming very soon. I believe that Tom shows, in this moment, a rare warmth for his mother. We staged this scene between the actor Tom and the puppet Amanda. She has crossed into his world, where the stairs on which she sits are in his scale, not hers. When she leaves the fire escape, to reenter the house and make ready, he must lift her to the next step. He takes the puppet, the memory, in his hands. With this action, he helps both Amanda and his memory of her reach a next level. This staging also addresses the potential of Amanda becoming merely the one-dimensional witch that Tom so often experiences. In puppet theatre, the life of a puppet can be established in the puppet’s relationship to an actor as much as in the performance of the puppet itself. It is Tom’s physical relationship to the puppet Amanda that helps build her complexity.

What does this unlock? What does this production address that is furthered by its form, its medium? For one thing, I was always troubled by one aspect of Williams’s play. It is this: If the play exists in Tom’s memory, how can he “remember” what happened between Laura and Jim, or between Laura and Amanda? He was not in the room. Of course, we can say that he is a writer, so he can write the memory any way that he likes. And no matter how the play is staged, there is an element of writer’s license. Memories are not facts. Their truth lies in what they evoke, not in what really happened. The puppets in this production give Tom room to observe his memory, to manipulate it, to be visibly haunted by it. When Tom the actor takes the hands of Laura the puppet, he is not made of the same flesh as she is. He is the caretaker of her essence. When he turns away from the puppet house of his memory, his sister and her menagerie really sparkle like the perfume bottles in the windows of the towns he passes through.

“Don’t grab at me, Mother!” Tom (Martin Vogel) fights with Amanda (Kristine Stahl). Photo by Lutz Edelhoff.

This does not diminish the power of the play with actors. But it does give us new ways to discover the play, to feel its power. Puppets have their own dramaturgy, a visual one. They speak to us from another world and another material. Like memory. Like glass.

Kathrin Sellin, the puppet and set designer and builder for Theatre Waidspeicher, created a beautiful set of puppets for this production. The four characters of the play appeared like porcelain dolls in a period dollhouse. They contrasted strongly with the “glass figures” made of transparent resin.

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Read the article by Peter Sampieri, 2013 Intensive participant, about training with Sandglass Theater.

Published in the Winter 2014 issue of the Puppetry Journal, the quarterly magazine of the Puppeteers of America