HowlRound, The Myths of Puppet Theater

Eric Bass
May 14, 2014

Every object has natural properties. For the moment, I will use the words puppet and
object interchangeably. The puppet is, after all, an animated object, and while object
theater is different from puppet theater, it will aid this discussion to let that
distinction wait until later. The natural properties of the object are determined by the
materials, and by the size, shape, and function of the object. These properties are true
of figurative puppets, as well, and one can add to the properties of the puppet, the
puppet’s character, which has been built into the puppet at the workbench. That
character is not only a matter of the facial expression or portraiture. It is also a matter
of the limitations of the function of the puppet. A puppet cannot do everything that we
would expect of a living actor. It is built for a specific range of movements, actions, and
gestures. These limitations give it its character as much as any sculptural elements.

The Myth of Control
There are two myths about puppet theater that need to be exploded. The first of them
is the more obvious. It is the myth that the puppeteer controls the puppet. This myth
is, of course, supported by numerous catch phrases in our language and culture: He
played him like a puppet. Puppet government. All suggest that the puppeteer makes
the puppet do whatever he or she wants. Although some puppeteers do try to impose
their will on the objects of their art, most know that this is a disservice to both the art
and the object. Our job, our art, is to bring the puppet to life. To impose control over
the object is, in both spirit and practice, the opposite of this.
As puppeteers, it is, surprisingly, not our job to impose our intent on the puppet. It is
our job to discover what the puppet can do and what it seems to want to do. It has
propensities. We want to find out what they are, and support them. We are, in this
sense, less like tyrants, and more like nurses to these objects. How can we help them?
They are built for a purpose. They seem to have destinies. We want to help them arrive
at those destinies.
A simple example: What are the properties of a ball? It rolls, and sometimes it
bounces. To put a ball onstage and have it never bounce or roll is a denial of what that
ball is. Even if the ball does nothing, it can be said to be waiting to roll or bounce. A
figurative puppet’s properties may not be quite so obvious, but they are there, and so is
its character. Analyzing the character will not get us very far. We have to discover who
our performing partner is. This is true of its actions, its gestures, and its voice. Our
cleverness in thinking of great things for the puppet to do or say will not help the
puppet live. They will only draw attention to ourselves. If we try to impose them on the
puppet, the piece we are performing will not be about the puppet at all. It will be about
us, the manipulator. Or it will be about the conflict between us and our puppet.

The practice of our art, then, requires that we be the exact opposite of a controller. In
fact, it requires that we step back and allow our puppets to perform their roles, their
actions, their moments of life on the stage. It requires from us a generosity. If we try to
dominate them, we will take from them the life we are trying to give them.
This practice of discovering the puppet’s intentions can take a long time. Often we
build a puppet to play a role in a script we have written. If we are sensitive to our work,
we may take the puppet and propose the actions and text of that script. But it is very
likely that something will not fit, that the puppet does not seem to embody those
actions or text easily. It might seem as though the puppet is fighting us. What can we
do? Rebuild the puppet? Rewrite the script? Possibly a little of both, first one, then the
other, until we find the place where everything fits together. This can be a long
process. The art of the puppet has very little to do with what we want, and everything
to do with what we allow ourselves to discover, support, and follow.

The Myth of Manipulation
This brings us to the second myth. This myth is more illusive. It is the myth that we
manipulate the puppet with our hands. What is manipulation, after all, than the
moving of an object with the hand? This word does not serve us well.
For a moment, let’s look at a bigger picture. We come to the puppet theater. To see
what? The puppet? I don’t think so. I think that we come to the puppet theater to
experience the world that the puppet experiences. That world is a reflection of our
world, so it is of great interest to us. We come, then, not to see the puppet, but to see
through the puppet, and out into its world.
About thirty-five years ago, I did a performance in a beautiful Zen temple in Rochester,
New York. I remember the temple as having been built without nails, but rather with
wooden pegs. As I and the rest of our ensemble entered the temple, we saw a very large
drum lying horizontally on a high stand, like a huge barrel suspended in the air. The
drum had two skins, one at each end, with the barrel in between. A monk was playing
the drum and its sound was deep and reverberated through our bodies. I asked the
monk if he would let me play the drum. He generously handed me the two sticks and
stepped aside. I took my stance at one end of the drum, raised my sticks above my head
and began to beat, trying to emulate what I had seen the monk doing. Very quickly, he
stopped me and said, “You are doing it all wrong.” Wrong? What was I doing wrong?
“You are playing the skin of the drum.” What should I be playing? “You should be
playing through the skin, through the second skin, and out into the world.”
This seemingly mysterious statement is not so mysterious as it seems. For me, it is the
same with the puppet. We should not, in fact, be playing the puppet at all. We should
be playing through the puppet, and out into its world. We do not manipulate the
puppet at all. It is a means to evoking its environment. And that environment, that
world, is not a material world. It is a sensory one, and we, the audience, can only
experience it through the senses of the puppet. How can our hands manipulate
immaterial sensations?
In fact, our hands are only the middle men in this transaction, like the puppets
themselves. Our hands are sensors, not actors. The are transmitters of our breath. Like
all performing artists, like musicians and dancers and even good lighting technicians,
it is in our breath that the living performance is found.
Breathing Through Our Hands
Breath is how we experience the world. Everything that we experience we breathe in.
We pass, for example, a window of a shoe store. There, in the window, we see that pair
of shoes that we have been dreaming about. We gasp. In a sense, we inhale the shoes.
If we do not inhale, we do not really see them. It is the same for nature. We inhale the
sunset, the vast sky. We inhale the view of the mountains, the distant skyscrapers
approaching a city. Our inhale connects us to the world.
Even in our dreams, our breath connects us to the world of our imagination. We dream
we are being pursued. In our dream we are running. We awake, suddenly, panting,
gasping for breath. And yet our bodies have not moved. We have been asleep in bed.
But our imaginations have been running. Whatever we imagine, our breath
corresponds.
And so we have an equation: It is not our hands manipulating the puppet that brings
the puppet to life. It is our breath corresponding to the world of our imagination.
Between our breath and the imagined world, our hands take up the puppet. We allow
our breath to go through our hands, through the puppet, and out into the world. And
we allow the imagined world to go through the puppet, through our hands, and into
our breath. If we assert more than the minimal amount of effort needed to support the
puppet, we lock the piece into being about our hands and the puppet. If we keep our
hands receptive, to let our breath flow through them, and through the puppet as well,
we have the potential to unlock a richer content, and a richer experience.
Our first act of generosity is to let the piece be about the puppet, not about us. Our
second act of generosity is to let the piece be about a greater world outside the puppet.
This is where our breath and the breath of the audience meet to make meaningful
theater. Ultimately, a work of theater is about how the piece is performed, even more
than what the words say. In puppet theater, we can choose to impress the audience
with our muscle, skill, and presence; or we can choose to invite them to follow an
inanimate object into a world that reflects their own. We meet our audience there.
the-myths-of-puppet-theater-howlround

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A1H_6115Babylon photo by Kiqe Bosch

Punschi Gang_title_newPunschi photo by Caleb Carr 

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