Once we have dispensed with the idea that puppets are a quaint cute cheap children’s theatre we are still faced with a central obstacle to an appreciation of the value of puppetry as an important art form. We might call this the ‘so-what-factor’. After all is said and done we live in an age where we can find visual electronic images moving on a vast array of screens. We can walk through Times Square assaulted by televisions peering down on us from the sides of skyscrapers. We can pry into the most private acts of another human being through the computer. We can watch live televisuals from New Guinea or Antarctica. We can inhabit filmic science fiction worlds. The average person has nearly immediate access to the most fantastic phantasmagoria ever imagined. What is the point of watching a little puppet show?
I have asked several puppeteers the same question. And the answer I found was surprising: for even though we are surrounded by screens there is something that happens in reality that no cluster of digital images can touch. In 2005 I was on a journey through Europe looking for puppet theatres, following my curiosity about the nature of these moving objects. I stopped in at the Theatre Guignol Anatole to watch Guignol, that rascally cousin of the nefarious Punch, entertain a group of French kids outdoors at the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. What was fascinating to me in this largely traditional performance was how the French children were completely caught up in the reality of the puppet. At one point a Crocodile swallows the Gendarme by the side of a river. A little later Guignol shows up at the same spot and then the kids erupt trying to warn Guignol to go somewhere else. Guignol responds that there is no danger that he can see. He turns away for a moment and a brief glimpse of the Crocodile’s snout sends the French youngsters into a fit trying to get Guignol to notice the reptilian beast.
I later asked Pascal Pruvost, the Guignoliste, about that reaction. He told me that it was traditional in Parisian Guignol performances to get the kids involved. I then asked him if he thought children had changed as a result of all of the televisions, video games, films, DVDs etc? Absolutely, he replied He told me that some kids come having only experienced visual media. They are used to controlling the images in some manner. But Guignol was really interactive. The puppet was not under their control. They couldn’t press stop or repeat. At times he even used the puppet to exercise control over troublesome children. Did the change in their behavior hurt the show? Oh no! Because it was even more surprising for them to see the tangible reality of this very tactile character.
I found the same effect among high school aged students in Poland at the Teatr Groteska in Krakow. I was sitting amidst an afternoon matinee of teens on a field trip. The theatre was fairly full. They were talkative and noisy, as one would expect, until the lights were turned off. Then we all watched a rather dark intellectual folk tale called Balladyna. There were actors who had puppets on the ends of the hands. The puppets were designed from some sort of burlap type of material. Sometimes it was the actor speaking, sometimes the puppet. The Polish students were engrossed completely. Now these students had certainly been exposed to the plethora of screenal creations that we all are. But the puppets caught them with a dark intellectual work that they might not otherwise have fully grasped.
But then again I’m using children, teenagers and Europeans as my examples…
I had a chance to explore these dynamics on my own in the autumn of 2009 as our Reckoning Motions puppet troupe made a very large two month arc through North America from Whitehorse in Canada to the East Coast down to Florida across through Texas to Los Angeles and finally back up through the Pacific Northwest. We took a show called The Great Ziggurat, which was a reflection on power and towers. The show was certainly not designed to be easily digested in one sitting. My confederate, Carsten Hyatt, and I decided not only to not dumb things down but in fact to go against the grain and to make people reach for what we were saying. We purposely stocked the show with dozens of historical references. Many of the puppets were known personages. Carsten presented shadow theatre that focused on the meaning of language. (Think about that for a moment.) We made allusions to folk tales (Rapunzel), films (Vertigo & King Kong) and famous murders (Charles Whitman & the Kennedy assassination). And we used the biblical story of the Tower of Babel as an overarching theme.
We performed for a wide variety of types. (One of the great things about puppetry is that after it is determined that these aren’t children’s puppets people get a touch confused and then you can play anywhere.) We played in a rock club in New York City. We played in a tiny native village in the Yukon. We played for an anarchist art collective and we played at a fundamentalist Christian high school. We played for professional puppeteers and for people who had never ever seen a puppet show before. We played in theatres, gymnasiums, backyards and front rooms. And in one truly bizarre occurrence we played in a small drive-through wannabe Starbucks in South Carolina mini-mall. (Thanks to Danielle Howle for that one!) And here is the point of breaking down the odd demographics of our trip: It really didn’t matter the place, the age, the beliefs or lack of them. The majority of people got it. They enjoyed being wrestled with creatively, even intellectually. They took the bait and afterwards I could see people discussing what it all meant. In Bellingham a guy came up to us grateful for the breath of non-digital fresh air. One girl in North Carolina came up to us and said “That sort of disturbed me, because I could tell that you were trying to get us to think. But you were telling us how.” To which I responded, “Exactly.”
Our philosophy was this: Before you can get people having real discussions about the issues at stake they have to get out of the irrational mode that our society favors at present. I know that puppets can also be used for the same kinds of spectacular entertainments that surround us at every turn. But why leave them merely as amusements. Puppets can do so much more. And here’s a hint: At this moment, the field is wide open. The reason we could perform anywhere is that few people have seen a puppet show. We could have just told funny stories. But why waste the opportunity? Why not really say something? If we were musicians we would be quarantined to where bands of a certain ilk play. But as puppeteers? No one even knew what hit them. How many other arts are there like that left? (There are others.) In puppetry there is still an element of wonder and mystery. I asked a Bolivian puppet master once if he thought puppetry would survive in our media bloated age. It has to, he replied, people need puppets. But why? I asked. He spoke only one word. “Simplicity.”
There is so much more to say about puppetry… but I’ll leave this as an introduction. Meanwhile go look for an interesting puppet show.