9AM. Misty and unruffled downtown Vancouver. A window-washer, taking a breather from his work, spotted a handful of bulbous puppet creatures wandering the grid of streets below. One of them, a policeman with a swollen head, stopped a cyclist in the middle of the road. Another skipped down the sidewalk, its tentacles jiggling. The window-washer turned on his camera phone, took some shaky footage, entitled it “Aliens spotted from rooftop,” and posted it on Youtube.
More than 70 bulging bags of foam rubber costumes were trucked from Big Nazo, a puppet lab in downtown Providence, to Vancouver. There, puppet creatures popped up at the 2010 Winter Olympics medal ceremonies and outdoor celebrations. Canadian and American volunteers donned these wearable foam rubber puppet costumes and roamed the streets, dancing with revelers and teasing children.
Remember the time you used your coffee cups on a table to describe someone’s location, or felt that the plastic bag dancing in the wind had a life of its own? Heinrich von Kleist, the prominent 18th-century German writer, argued that puppets possessed a grace humans would never attain and ‘acted’ with absolute purity because they lacked consciousness and the capacity for self-doubt.
And at the same time, these previously inanimate objects take on a personality and a sense of intrigue. Puppetry isn’t just the three year–old’s sock puppet, or a chorus of stringed marionettes in the style of Pinocchio. Any object can be a puppet, and we make and use and see puppets all the time, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Playwright Gregory Moss (MFA B’08 in Literary Arts) says, “There’s something deeply and instantly empathic about puppets that takes me right back to childhood, when you believe your dresser has a voice and a personality, and everything, all the objects around you, seem to be alive and communicating in some way. That’s what I like—the sense of illuminating the inner life of objects, even if that life is only human projection.”
Putting down roots
A lot of puppeteers start small. In Providence, many independent puppet acts find their way into Blood From a Turnip (BfaT), a puppet showcase—affectionately dubbed a puppet salon—held five times a year at Perishable Theater in downtown Providence.
“The saying goes, ‘you can’t get blood from a turnip,’” says Vanessa Gilbert, artistic director of Perishable Theater, “but you can definitely get a life substance from something that doesn’t seem animate.”
The brainchild of Gilbert and scenic designer Jeremy Woodward, it was conceived in February 1997 when the duo was looking at ways to galvanize the community around short puppet pieces. None of the pieces in BfaT runs over 10 minutes, and it’s open to any form of puppetry, stop motion animation included. Performers have ranged from graduates of the puppetry degree program at the University of Connecticut, to individuals who were holding living room puppet shows in the mill buildings of Olneyville.
“I think we have more of a psychographic at Perishable than a demographic,” says Gilbert, “because it takes a certain kind of brain to be interested in what we do: people who like new things, or risk takers who don’t need to know what something is before they experience it.”
BfaT scouts for volunteers and invites performers to play; most of this is done by word-of-mouth. Their formula is simple: if anyone has a puppet show and wants to try it out, BfaT doesn’t usually say no.
Keren Klimovsky, a PhD candidate in Brown’s Slavic Studies department, was first invited to perform in BfaT in March last year. She built her own rod puppet, Lu, who looks a lot like a gangly French maid, except that she has green skin and is under two feet at her full height. Lu has rods extending from all her limbs, which makes her very flexible and easy to articulate physically. Lu can be contemplative, seductive, occasionally NSFW, and speaks with a vaguely Eastern European accent. Before BfaT, Lu made a brief but uproarious appearance at the Smoke and Mirrors graduate student cabaret where she fielded provocative questions about eating chocolate and marrying puppets of other colors from a curious audience.
“Puppetry is like the reverse of an exorcism experience,” says Klimovsky, “because I become the puppet’s voice, but I’m not me. I help Lu talk, but Lu’s also the one doing the talking. Your physique changes, and you assume the quality of your puppet character. It’s completely liberating.”
Klimovsky first fell in love with puppetry after taking a class on puppetry in Brown, facilitated by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Paula Vogel.
“I had a puppetry boom in my head,” says Klimovsky, “I’ve always been very attracted to masks and puppets as expressive objects onstage, but I didn’t think that I would have the artistic ability to produce them on my own. After taking the class, I realized that the field was really diverse, and that I didn’t have to be perfect artistically to produce a work that was of value.”
Another puppetry class participant, Mia Rovegno, a graduate of the Brown/Trinity Consortium (MFA B’09, Directing), directed The Maids by Jean Genet for her directing thesis last year—with a twist. She included a short toy theater piece before the start of the play, which was performed to rave reviews in the Citizens Bank Theater in downtown Providence last year.
The Maids follows Solange and Claire, sisters and housemaids who construct elaborate sadomasochistic rituals while their mistress is away. Their rôle-playing circles around their longing to murder their mistress, and the love/hate relationship they share with her. In the toy theater show, whimsical paper puppets danced through light and shadow with miniature clothes in a small box. The audience huddled round, focusing on tiny figurines symbolic of the larger themes of a very adult piece.
RISD has been another hotbed for the puppet movement. On March 13, seventeen RISD students paraded through the RISD auditorium for the Creature Creation Show with a host of colorful, toothy, bug-eyed, and tentacled foam-rubber puppet creatures. They had conceptualized and built these characters from scratch during RISD’s six-week winter session, with Big Nazo’s Erminio Pinque as their mentor.
Each creature had distinct character traits. One busted out dance moves to techno beats, another had a split personality, and yet another loved sashaying in front of a crowd. The creatures paraded across the stage in front of more than 200 audience members, accompanied by live music and video-projected segments in which the same creatures pranced through the streets of Providence, startling passers-by in restaurants, bus stops, and Kennedy Plaza and attempting to eat fire hydrants.
“We enjoy getting the puppet thing happening in other venues,” says Pinque. Last fall, Pinque helped to design a mask for The Widow’s Broom, a production by the Festival Ballet Providence. The Festival Ballet had decided that the lead dancer, who plays a broom that comes to life, should actually look like one. The dancer donned a mask of striated brown, which more closely resembled a broom handle extending from his head.
“It’s one step closer to turning a dancer into a puppet. When you take a dancer who needs full peripheral vision and is accustomed to having nothing above his head, it’s a really big undertaking. But everyone understood the extra power achieved by having the dancer costumed this way,” says Pinque. He has hopes to tackle The Nutcracker next, particularly the role of the giant king rat.
That mesh of dance and puppetry in The Widow’s Broom solidified the dancer’s representation of an object, bringing together two art forms that are perceived very differently by the public. But are they all that different? The dancer brings an emotional and human dimension to character—and arguably, the puppet does too, except that we are the ones projecting emotion and humanity onto synthetic and man-made characters.
Putting out branches
Puppetry has been seeping into Providence, but those who were hooked on puppetry in Providence have also been carrying their love for the art beyond state borders. “What’s really great is to discover puppet things going on that I never even knew existed,” says Pinque, “it’s like how a fish might crawl out of its little pond and start to breathe air.”
Laura Manns (R’09, Illustration) is one of those fish. She worked with Pinque in an independent study during her final year at RISD because of a puppet epiphany she had in her Stop Motion Animation class the year before.
“I got the flu but still managed to make it to class, and that was the day we were learning how to build the puppets. While I was assembling the body for Mr. W. B. Catlady, I was already in love with him. He was a static doll at that point, but I drilled his head, arms, and legs into the balsa wood body and he was my baby,” says Manns.
She went on to score an internship with eminent New York puppeteer Basil Twist, working on The Addams Family on Broadway. She was the project manager for Bernice, the giant squid, operated by twelve puppeteers (one per tentacle), with appendages that ranged from between three and twenty feet. Manns had another puppet job lined up for her once the monster gig was over. She now works in Hoboken, NJ, for Puppet Heap, where she takes on independent projects and also helps maintain Jim Henson’s puppets by rebuilding or restoring them. She is currently working on dummies for the ventriloquist Terry Fator.
Fred Fraleigh, another student of Pinque’s, moved from Providence to Hollywood to work in the costume and special effects departments of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Men in Black II, Where the Wild Things Are, and Lady in the Water. Hellboy II director Guillermo del Toro didn’t want CGI effects on a monster seraph called the Angel of Death. He said: “I want real wings, but I not only want real wings, I want double wings. And I also want each wing to have six eyes that blink sequentially and look around.”
So Fraleigh, puppeteer and creature suit fabricator, fashioned the feathers out of a plastic similar to “the sort of material that garbage bags are made of,” while an animatronic technician developed an array of motors and software to instruct each eyeball to roll the way it was supposed to.
Puppeteers are not the only ones traveling out of Providence; plays travel too. They are helping to shape American puppetry into a genre that’s moving away from being strictly kids only.
Renowned playwright Paula Vogel, who taught in Brown for two decades, wrote The Long Christmas Ride Home, a puppet play that premiered at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence in 2003. It has been performed at various venues throughout the United States, and involves three young children characterized by puppets, performing alongside live adult actors. The play dramatizes a dysfunctional family in a car on the way to visit grandparents, a family overflowing with parental abuse and repressed sexuality, along with an adulterous marriage.
Vogel’s heart-wrenching play mimics the bunraku puppet theater of Japan, where three puppeteers manipulate the head, hands, and feet of each puppet. Wooden bunraku puppets are usually between two to four feet in height. There is one magical moment in Vogel’s play where the tormented grown son of the family breathes into his fallen child-puppet, and we see an inanimate being come back to life.
Gregory Moss, a student of Vogel’s, specialized in Dramatic Writing when he was at Brown. He wrote puppets into punkplay, which is currently being performed in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Garage Theater. Moss wrote punkplay at Brown two years ago, a raw and rollicking play about the ’80s, punk rock, and the turbulence of adolescence, among a host of other things. The puppets in punkplay are a direct reference to the ’80s kids’ television show Pee Wee’s Playhouse. The puppets on Pee Wee’s Playhouse were designed by punk cartoonist Gary Panter, who had a talking chair and a talking globe. punkplay’s puppets are similar: talking furniture that acts crazy and irresponsible.
It’s a small world, after all
As an audience, we understand that the puppet isn’t real; it’s the puppeteer behind it who gives it life, but all the same we can’t help wondering whether it lives. When we watch Avenue Q, we can see the black-clad puppeteers directing the characters’ movements, but we’re watching the puppets perform and tell us a story.
There are niches of puppet work that require professional training, like bunraku, which is such a highly-revered form of puppetry in Japan that one must train for at least thirty years to become a main puppeteer. But object manipulation is pretty much accessible to anyone on the planet.
Playwright and Brown MFA alumna Ann Marie Healy once performed in a shadow puppet show that involved a tap faucet floating behind a cloth screen like a fragile dragonfly, and an ominous rotary egg beater with a creaky handle that killed off the delicate faucet in the end (with some clever use of spooky music and ketchup). That tangible quality of a puppet, something we can reach out and touch, and anthropomorphize, gives this genre a whole new dimension.
We do puppetry in our everyday lives, too. As Pinque says: “If you’re a police officer, you’re wearing your own little suit that has the authority to stop traffic. Just like puppetry, you transcend your physical identity by morphing into what you have hidden inside, or something you want to be outside.”
Kleist wrote: “Puppets require the ground only to touch on, and by that momentary obstruction to reanimate the spring of their limbs; while we require it to rest on, and to recover from the exertions of the dance: a moment which is clearly not dance in itself, and with which there is nothing to be done except to make it disappear by all possible means.”
Like the dancer in Kleist’s essay, we all have our acute moments of self-reflection, where as actors or human beings we question our actions and our ideal of human perfection. We will probably never be able to attain that perfection or rid ourselves of that nagging stage fright, but puppets can.
CORRIE TAN B’10 could be that window-washer.