Sandglass Theater – Working toward a Puppet Dramaturgy in El Salvador
Spring 2015 Grant Recipient
Sandglass Theater (Putney, VT) collaborated with Teatro Luis Poma (San Salvador, El Salvador) on a puppetry production of G.E. Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, an 18th Century German play about racial and religious intolerance. The project activities included workshops in puppetry to build Teatro Luis Poma’s capacity for working with puppets.
Working toward a Puppet Dramaturgy in El Salvador
Our project in El Salvador spanned three trips. On the first, we ran a workshop, introducing the Teatro Luis Poma actors to puppetry. We have a method that we teach, during our Summer Intensive in Vermont. It starts with breath training, and linking our breath to the exercise puppets that we use. We begin with a sequence of breathing exercises that locate the breath in our bellies. This is fundamental work, as we want to have our upper bodies relaxed, so that our faces do not overpower the puppets and so that our shoulders and hands don’t hold the puppet tightly. In our training, the puppeteer becomes invisible not by wearing a mask, but by remaining a very quiet presence behind the puppet. Indeed, the puppeteer needs to remain quiet in every part of his/her body, except the belly, where the drama happens. A tight grip, for example, means that the puppet cannot respond to outside impulses. The breath needs to be able to flow fluidly through the puppeteer’s wrist, if the puppet is going to breath in the experience of its world. A “breathable wrist” is one of the biggest challenges for our puppeteers, because it is not something you can do, it is something you have to allow to happen.
After a series of exercises that locate the breath in our bellies, we pick up the puppet. The first exercise is simply about sitting and standing. It has three steps:
1. Finding the fixed points in space and in the loose cloth of the exercise puppets, so that the cloth become knees, waist, sternum. We call this “Mechanics.” It is related to classical Mime training. The knees need to be in the same place every time, and the puppeteer needs to “feel” when they hit the table. Essentially, the puppet cannot stand if it can’t push off from the surface on which it is kneeling. So a fixed sense of where the knees are is vital. Likewise the waist and, especially, the sternum. The sternum of the puppet is also created by fixing the point in our sense memory. For us, it is the most important joint in the puppet’s body. For the filling and emptying of this part of the puppet, we experience all of the puppet’s openness to the world, or the opposite.
2. Once we have the mechanics in hand, we can connect the breath. We do not talk about “movement” of the puppet, but about filling and emptying the puppet’s breath. The puppet stands on an inhale, sits on an exhale. The inhale begins with a small exhale, that allows the puppet to push off from the surface on which it sits. That inhale then also ends with an exhale, that allows the puppet to settle into the world it has risen to meet. Standing, for the puppet, is also an opening to the world, a taking in of the world’s sensory content. Sitting for the puppet is a release. It begins with an inhale, something to let go of. The exhale allows the puppet to drop down to it’s knees. At the bottom of its breath, it either inhales, or it releases completely into death.
3. Every hope or dream or sensory experience of the puppet is an inhale, and every inhale is different, depending on the “content” of the inhale. When the puppet stands, it breathes in the world, fills with openness. This breath is informed by our imaginations. If we do not actively imagine the world outside the puppet, there is no content to inhale. Our breathing is strongly linked to our imaginations. This is the first step in understanding that animating the puppet is not about what our hands do with an object, but about how our imaginations create a world that the puppet can respond to. The inhale is not only a rising into a physical world, it is a rising into an emotional one, as well. In this exercise we add simple text that gives the breath content. “It’s coming!” is one possible text. Whatever “it” may be is in the imagination of the puppeteers, and, therefore, in the vision of the puppet. The specific “it” determines how the puppet inhales, and how it rises. The exhale content might be “It’s gone.” This is a release, and a release is more difficult than most of our puppeteers expect. It is a vulnerable moment. We cannot do a release. We just have to allow it. This is, for the puppet, a very human moment. This is where we find the puppet’s soul.
This first series of exercises surprised our Salvadoran actors, and set the stage, as it were, for a working atmosphere filled with interest, challenges, respect, and engagement. We went on to many training exercise that involved puppets with full bodies, and with both puppet and actor, but this foundation is, in a sense, a first step in creating that relationship, one in which the puppet is every bit the actor’s equal. It allowed the puppets to resist the actors’ plots and intrigues, or be caught up in it. It allowed the puppets to see beyond the actors, into the deeper meaning that even the actors did not perceive.
And this is also the beginning of a puppet dramaturgy. Puppets may be onstage with actors, but they are not of the same world. Puppets define a different world, and, therefore, contextualize the actors. In Natan el Sabio, the puppets were the central characters, the ones that the plot acted upon. The actors played the characters who propelled that story, who acted upon the lives of the central figures. In this sense, the actors’ characters were not characters at all, but more abstract forces or fates. They had the texts of characters, but those texts became more abstract. It was the texts of the puppets that held the human story.
Puppets help us read theater texts differently. They help us see plays less horizontally. In a puppet dramaturgy, we are not interested in the reality of all of the characters, but in the myriad ways in which some characters are manipulated by the world in which other characters exist. Natan el Sabio presented us with a set of characters who were a family. Outside of this family were characters who either aided or impeded the need of this family to come together. This is the basis on which we decide which characters were puppets and which actors. It defined the staging of the play, and set the main characters, the family, in a world that was much bigger than theirs, a world of great arguments and self-interests, and this created a heightened drama.
– Eric Bass, Sandglass Theater
This video, streamed and hosted by HowlRound.com, is of a moderated conversation from Sandglass Theater’s 2015 Puppets in the Green Mountains festival, featuring Eric Bass (Co-Artistic Director, Sandglass Theater (with Ines Zeller Bass); Co-Director, Natan el Sabio) and Roberto Salomon (Director, Teatro Luis Poma, el Salvador; Co-Director, Natan el Sabio). The conversation provides background and descriptions of the piece, a brief history of the collaboration between Sandglass and Teatro Luis Poma, the working process, and the situation in el Salvador, among other topics.