Puppet Homecoming 2018

In September, Wit’s End company members Cecilia Cackley and Genna Beth Davidson went up to Brattleboro, Vermont for Puppet Homecoming. This Puppeteers of American regional event was held in conjunction with Puppets in the Green Mountains, an international puppet festival organized by Sandglass Theater. In this post, Cecilia and Genna Beth have a conversation about their experiences at Puppet Homecoming. 

Cecilia: Puppet Homecoming was a great experience. What shows did you find the most inspiring or interesting?

Genna Beth: Can I say all of them? Haha, each one was so different, and all were virtuosic. A Hunger Artist was just my cup of tea. I loved the cleverness of all the different puppetry styles (toy theatre, hand and rod, shadow, pure object manipulation); each one used to it’s full potential and perfectly chosen for that part of the story. And who doesn’t love the strangeness of a Kafka story? The performer was also just so amazing! Jonathan Levin basically did a one man show. So much talent! Which show was your favorite?

Cecilia: I really loved Meet Fred by Hijinx Theater in association with Blind Summit. I’ve really enjoyed the work by Blind Summit that I’ve seen in the past, but the collaboration with Hijinx and the themes of how a person with a disability navigates the world were extra powerful. I was laughing the whole time, just on the edge of crying. It really made me think.

Besides seeing the shows, we also went to some different workshops. Which ones did you do and which were the most helpful?

Genna Beth: I learned about silicone, writing grants for funding puppetry, and about race, gender, and sexuality in puppetry. Learning about silicone opened me up to new possibilities for crafting puppets, but I think the one that stimulated my mind the most was the one on race, gender and sexuality. I think everyone in the workshop was white and many talked about mistakes they’ve made with appropriation. Who should be telling what stories? And for me it raised a questions about taking on work to build puppets for stories that aren’t mine to tell. You were going to come to that workshop too but hung back at the writing grants one to talk more with that presenter individually. What did you learn?

Cecilia: I felt a lot better after that workshop, because I learned that my frustration at writing grants for puppet work is something a lot of people share! The presenter, Roxie Myhrum  from Puppet Showplace Theater in Boston, had a lot of concrete tips for how to think about describing puppets in grant applications and marketing materials. I was just sorry that we took so long to get started with that one that we didn’t get through all her slides!

It sounds like we both got a lot out of this weekend in Vermont. Do you think we should go back next year? What other things would you like to try if we return?

Genna Beth: I definitely want to go back next year! We didn’t get to check out the marketplace, so next year I want to make a point of that. Also I got to speak with a few people from across the region but it was hard to find time to get to know more people. So I’d like to find a way to make more friends next year too. You?

Cecilia: I agree with all of that. I wonder if it would be easier to make friends if we performed in one of the showcases or slams. Maybe that would give us a starting point for talking to people?

Genna Beth: YES! Good idea. I think we can have something prepared for the slam next year. I’d really like to make that a goal. Perhaps my lightbulb heads puppet show about depression. But who knows, we have a whole year to figure it out.

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The puppet Mr. Ruraru from the show Mr. Ruraru’s Yard by Puppet and It’s Double from Taiwan. 

A Summer of Shadow Art

Last summer, we went on our first out-of-state tour, taking the shadow show Saudade to six different venues in Minneapolis. This summer, we haven’t performed any shadow work, but I did have the opportunity to see three very different shadow and silhouette based pieces of art in DC and New York City.

Back in the spring, we performed Saudade at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, for the opening of a new exhibit of contemporary and historical silhouettes called Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now. While I knew a little about the history of silhouettes, mainly that they were an inexpensive form of portraiture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was interesting to see more complicated compositions, such as this depiction of a magic lantern show by Auguste Edouart.

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A silhouette of a magic lantern show in the 1800’s cut by Auguste Edouart.

One of the contemporary artists featured in the exhibit is Kristi Malakoff. Much of her work involves the transformation of two-dimensional objects into three-dimensional artwork and her piece in the exhibit is this beautiful three-dimensional silhouette sculpture of children around a maypole.

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Kristi Malakoff’s silhouette sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In 2016, we had the opportunity to perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an annual event that presents artists from all over the world. We performed as part of a section of the festival about migration, titled On the Move, but most of the festival focuses on particular regions or countries around the world. This year, the Smithsonian presented artists from Armenia and Catalonia, including several kinds of puppet artists. The Ayrogi Shadow Theater is a group of performers who travel around Armenia performing shadow puppetry. They trace their traditional storytelling back to the 1830’s and in contrast to more complex and colorful shadow puppets found in the region, use a simple style of puppet made from cardboard or leather.

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Shadow puppets by Ayrogi Shadow Theater from Armenia at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. 

Finally, I was able to visit the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City while I was there for work in early August. I’m very familiar with the DC museum but had never had an excuse to visit the Heye center in New York, housed in the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House downtown. I went primarily to see a new exhibit about Taino Heritage and Identity, but I also happened upon a set of rooms titled Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound. Of course transformation is at the heart of all puppetry, and I was especially moved by the piece The Harbinger of Catastrophe by Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka‘wakw). The box sits in the middle of the room and the shadows it casts stretch to fill the entire floor and walls so that the viewer walks through and disrupts them as they move around the space. It was an immersive experience that I’m still thinking about. If you have a chance to see the exhibit before it closes in January, I highly recommend it.

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The Harbinger of Catastrophe by Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka‘wakw) at the American Indian Museum, NYC. 

3 Caja Lambe-Lambe Videos

Living in the United States, I don’t have the opportunity to see very much caja lambe-lambe puppetry live. I mostly have to rely on the Internet to show me what other puppeteers are creating! Videos are not the best way to watch caja lambe-lambe, which really does depend on the forced perspective created by looking through the peephole, but they are better than nothing. Here are three I’ve recently found:

This caja lambe-lambe show has designs by Marcos Leal and was made by Brazilian puppeteers, if I’m reading the YouTube description correctly. I like the neon colors and the way it gets so much story out of very simple objects. I also think the movement really works with the ragtime soundtrack!

There are a couple similar versions of this show online, this one is by Rogério Pett. It includes one aspect of lambe-lambe that always fascinates me, which is how the puppeteer comes up with a costume for their hands, to better incorporate them into the scenario. It can be distracting, so it’s definitely a delicate balance, but it’s always interesting to see.

This video by Leonel Arregui, is probably my favorite of the three. It definitely has the most complicated design, and takes full advantage of the 2-D puppet form. The movement of the set and characters almost reminds me of Japanese theater such as dogugaeshi, with its many sliding screens.

Shows I’d Like to See

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A Heart at Sea. Photo by Half a String. 

The wonderful thing about social media is that it enables us to maintain connections with theaters in other parts of the country and the world, and find out about the shows they are performing. The frustrating thing about social media is that I see all these cool pictures of inspiring shows that I won’t get to see in person. Here are three shows either currently running or that have just closed that I wish I could magically teleport to go see.

JUNK at Little Angel Theatre in London.
This immersive kid’s show using recycled materials looks like a really fun way to learn about the recycling process! Some of the puppets look like they have a resemblance to some of our characters from Cabinets of Kismet and I’d love to hear what the voices sound like and see how the audience is encouraged to move from space to space during the show.

NO BLUE MEMORIES at Manual Cinema with the Poetry Foundation and Chicago International Puppet Festival.
I’m a huge fan of Manuel Cinema and their innovative ways of combining actors and overhead projector shadow puppets. I also like Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry, so this show looks amazing and I hope some day I’ll get to see it!

A HEART AT SEA by Half a String, currently touring the UK.
The live music and mechanical set is what attracted me to this show about a boy who bottles up his heart and throws it in the sea. I love puppetry that includes interplay between actors and puppets, especially if there’s a big variation in scale. The intricate workings of this tabletop set are fascinating and I hope in the future they bring it to the US and share it with audiences here.

The Limitations of Puppetry

By Genna Beth Davidson

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Genna Beth organizing puppet rods for Saudade.

Those of us at Wit’s End Puppets think about puppetry a lot. I’m always interested in materials and the characteristics and possibilities of those materials. It occurred to me recently that it might be helpful to think about the limitations of puppetry.  How limited or limitless is it really? 

I think of amazing puppet works I’ve seen across the globe. There’s Royale De Luxe with their giant puppets controlled by dozens of people as they move through the city streets telling magical and gigantic stories. I think of the animatronics of Hollywood especially my favorite puppets from Underworld that one would assume are computer generated images, but they aren’t; they’re extremely sophisticated puppets. I think of the most basic puppets like a folded sheet of paper turned flapping wings of a bird. 

Obviously there are physical and mechanical limitations, only so many solenoids are fit in an animatronic mask, but what’s not limitless is the imagination. The most basic puppet designs allow the mind to explode with ideas, and I want to know how to do it all. Personally I’m limited by skill and access to the machinery and materials of my small shop. I don’t have a drill press or a vacuum forming machine (Christmas presents? Hint, hint!). Even so you can do a lot with just a hot glue gun and cardboard. So am I really limited? It’s easy to say “well I could have done this or that if I just had the means.” My gut tells me that’s a cop out. 

In the world of puppet performance on stage, one of the biggest limitations is how many hands one has to control a puppet. It really doesn’t make sense to have too many hands on a puppet because the bodies of those performers overtake the space and obscure the puppet. But I fall easily into the trap sometimes of thinking that more hands create more nuanced puppetry. I know it’s skill that creates the nuance because I’ve seen it done. That’s why one must be dedicated to practice. There’s no excuse for not getting out the mirror and working those muscles.

I heard recently that over 600 muscles control the human body. TV shows like West World tell of how one day we will be able to create ourselves to such an extent that we can’t tell organic human from android. Honestly I like that we cannot replicate the human form so exactly yet, because the suggestive power of puppetry is what makes it so memorable. It’s a shared imaging between presenter and audience. We silently make a pact at the beginning of every show in which all agree to believe that the inanimate have life and story. I love this and fear we will lose that joy as technology brings us closer and closer to creating life itself.

These musings lead me to the conclusion that there are limits in puppetry; materials, tools, engineering, number of hands, and skill level of builder or puppeteer. These are all limitations I bump up against regularly, and it’s where my problem solving brain gets to take center stage. Oh, and gravity! We are all limited by gravity for now. But all of that doesn’t really matter because the imagination of your audience is limitless. A shoe box becomes a treasure chest. A shoe becomes an opera singer. A ticking clock becomes a beating heart. For those who care to follow, it’s all possible.

Puppets in Podcastland: A Podcast Roundup

By Nina Budabin McQuown

Puppetry and podcasting belong together. Both are having a moment, as the journalists like to say, edging in on the big stage of American media. But if you search for “puppet” in the itunes podcast app, your top hit will probably be a podcast with helpful tips on writing modules in “Puppet,” which is a code you can write modules in. I’m doing that thing where you define a word with the same word like a beekeeper is a person who keeps bees or a puppet coder is a person who codes in Puppet and not a member of our secret sororal order with rings and cowls and handshakes and stuff. Anyway, it’s disappointing unless you’re super excited about software development. Which the ads targeting me on Facebook tell me I should be, but I am not.

I do however, like both puppetry and podcasts. So this week for our Wit’s End blog, I’m rounding up the few puppetry podcasts out there on the digital airwaves. As it turns out, the vast majority of shows with puppet in their name have nothing to do with actual puppets, so I’ve sifted them for you here, and I’ll be leaving out the defunct and disingenuous. Sadly, there’s no longer a Jim Henson Company Podcast, and Pension Plan Puppets is a hockey podcast about the Toronto Maple Leafs and not a puppet show taking place in a zany Nordic retirement community like I thought it would be. Ah well.

Part I: Puppetry Podcasts

The top of the list here is Grant Baciocco’s interview show Under the Puppet. Baciocco has wUnder the Puppetorked with the Jim Henson Company, Sesame Street, and Mystery Science Theater 3000, and his guests display similarly impressive accolades.  Produced by Saturday Morning Media, the show sounds good, with clean production values and good editing. The real pleasure here however is in Baciocco’s interview style. He manages to be both intimate and unobtrusive. He encourages puppeteers to get personal about their art, then lets them talk, so the great majority of the show is their stories. Guests also know they’re speaking to a peer audience, since this show is aimed at discussing the “art and business of puppetry” with “working puppeteers.” Guests are often generous—in the most recent interview, with Dan Milano of Greg the Bunny, for example, subjects range from the relationship between character and voice acting to the perils of puppet plastic surgery. Under the Puppet is a relatively young podcast, and it updates about once a month, so you’ll get through all of the episodes thus far fairly quickly. I’ve enjoyed every episode I’ve listened to, so far, and learned a lot about puppets on American television.

 Getting Felt Up is another interview podcast featuring professionals in the big time of feltAmerican puppetry—its hosts Nate Begle and Dan Becker interview puppeteers hailing mainly from Sesame Street and the Jim Henson Company, but also discuss stop motion animation and voice-over acting among other arts. It’s been going a while, with episodes mainly clustered in the Spring, so there are plenty to download. Unfortunately, in episodes I’ve listened to, the podcast tends to live up to its awkward and creepy name. If Under the Puppet is the Terry Gross style interview, with its sonic implications of intense eye-contact across a table, Getting Felt Up has the atmosphere of a morning show, with a bro-y bluster that makes it a tough listen despite the interesting work the guests do.  Production values are also uneven—sometimes they’re studio quality, other times it can feel like you’re listening in on a three (or more!) way skype conversation between a bunch of people who are all talking at once and also making dinner at the same time. This is a favorite of Muppet and Sesame Street fans, since it often allows for a behind-the-scenes conversation with builders and puppeteers on these seminal shows. These dudes would definitely giggle because I used the word seminal.

Part II: Puppet Shows on the Radio: Before we even get to the podcasts, let’s admit that the idea of puppets on the radio rocks the very conceptual foundation of puppetry which is object theater is it not? With objects? How do you hear an object? I think it’s an interesting and not all that silly question for puppeteers who’ve spent their careers thinking about the ways that sound and voice give conviction to their object performances. Play on, puppets on the radio.

Lolly Lardpop’s Radio Playdate! I learned about Lolly’s podcast from an interview with lollycreator Leslie Carrara-Rudolph on Getting Felt Up. It’s a podcast for children, and Carrara-Rudolph performs it for live audiences who sound like they’re having an excellent time singing and dancing. Lead by sock-puppet Lolly, this show emphasizes acts that work in both audio and visual forms simultaneously and does it well. Carrara-Rudolph does a lot of great voice acting and her years of experience as Abby Cadabby on Sesame Street definitely show in the strong production values, kid-friendly writing, and far-too-catchy-for-my-own-good songs (the theme music’s been playing on an endless loop in my head for twenty-four hours now). There’s lots of great stuff in these, but there’s also the occasional thing I think I’d want to discuss with my kid if I had one. I’ve only listened to a few of these, but there’s a character named Madam Velveeta, for example, who’s described as a “gypsy” in episode one, and while I’m sure my imaginary child would enjoy all the singing and dancing, I wouldn’t want them to come away thinking that was an alright thing to call somebody, or that Roma people are here to be our scarf-covered-stereotype friends. That’s what Stevie Nicks fans are for.

Radio Free Puppets is a radio variety show built in loving parody on the format of A Prairie Home Companion and performed as part of the Kansas City Fringe Festival. A neat radioidea, in practice this show feels incomplete. It’s kind of like being seated behind a really, really big pillar at the theater in question. As I mentioned above, I think the idea of a radio puppet show is a cool one, but these seem to be written with their live audience far more in mind. Audio production values are low, and punny conversations that might work if delivered by a physically interesting puppet aren’t enough to hold my attention when they’re all I have to focus on. That said, it’s a cool way to disseminate your show to audiences outside the theater. I’d rather hear more from host and puppeteer Justin Howe about creating his puppets, or hear a production from him designed only for audio.

huntFinally, in a class by itself is Puppet Hunt. It’s not a puppet show, it’s not exactly about puppetry. Instead, it’s a pastiche on golden-era radio series like Johnny Dollar and Dragnet, led by two detectives solving puppet-crimes in the burg of Large Neck, a town overrun with ventriloquists who frequently meet grisly ends. Like a lot of fictional podcasts here in the early days of the medium, this one has a framing device, where Puppet Hunt is supposed to be real old radio, recovered by a pair of archivists. It’s an enticing conceit, especially since the noir in these episodes is so much more feminist-friendly than 1940s radio generally was, but the sound quality ultimately gives it away. If you’re a Big Broadcast listener on WAMU, you’ll get all the forties radio references, but even if you’re just a connoisseur of stupid jokes about ventriloquists, this one is definitely worth checking out.

That’s it for puppet podcasts according to my searches—there isn’t much. If you know of puppet-focused podcasts that I’ve missed in the list above, definitely tell us about them here! In the meantime, happy listening.

Writing the Inhuman: Eco-Spirits without Nature in Malevolent Creatures

by Nina Budabin McQuown

 

Fairies aren’t human. That’s been one of the key concepts we’ve kept in mind as Wit’s End Puppets has developed our current show, Malevolent Creatures. For us that’s meant spending some time thinking about what it means to represent non-humans. We’ve made some technical choices—representing adult humans with actors and fairies with puppets, for example. For me as a writer, trying to write non-humans with agency is one of the most interesting and important challenges that we might face as makers of art. We understand humanity as subjectivity, the capacity to say “I am,” and that’s why stories about the consciousness of trees and the memories of prairie dogs so often make people uncomfortable. If another being is understood to have consciousness, to know time, to feel pain, we have certain responsibilities toward it: maybe we shouldn’t be cutting down trees or shooting prairie dogs or boiling lobsters alive. What’s even more disturbing, of course, is that nothing really needs to change just because we understand trees to be conscious. Cognitive dissonance is always there to help us out. Humans are notoriously good at revoking the privileges of subjectivity from even their neighbors of the same species when it suits them to do so.

In European fairy-tales since the nineteenth-century, the question of humanity has been ditched entirely in favor of a display of morality, but that’s partly because these stories aren’t really about fairies at all. They’re about people, so they have good fairies and bad fairies. There’s Sleeping Beauty’s wicked fairy queen, and Cinderella’s good fairy godmother. These characters are “good” or “bad” according to human moral systems—do they encourage vanity or sex in young women, or do they reward the values of hard work and humility?

We tend to tell stories about the environment, too, as if they were stories about people: Owls versus loggers, pipelines and banks against native communities, cattle ranchers versus national parks. Human stories have good guys and bad guys, moral stakes and happy or unhappy endings that are based on human social structures and norms and timescales.  Growing up on Captain Planet in the nineties (it played on Sunday mornings, when little Jewish kids like me got to watch cartoons), I was raised with that view of environmentalism. There were the bad guys who like to loot and plunder, and the “you” that the show referred to constantly, an us who held the power to save the world by stopping pollution. The world we were supposed to save was “ours,” just like the power to save it—and the environment that Captain Planet described was ours too, a common resource for human beings whose lives and health were negatively affected by pollution. To put it another way, Captain Planet told a story of environmental advocacy based in human rights. Because humans need the land (for water, for shelter, for energy resources, for enjoyment, for food production), it’s their rights we’re defending in conservation efforts. That’s also often the way that we describe conservation in law. Take Juliana v. U.S., a law suit currently being brought by young people to challenge the USA’s inaction on climate change. They’ve based their case on the constitutionally guaranteed right to life, liberty, and property. That means that to make a legal case, they have to bring the radically planet-altering changes of global warming—the sixth extinction, rising sea levels, dead oceans—down to an impediment in the way of a group of individuals’ happy human lives. 

As we at Wit’s End now try to tell a story about environmental destruction for the sake of resource extraction, we find ourselves dealing with a story that challenges all of those features—that centers the inhuman in an even more prominent way than the stories of Black Annis or Selkie do.  The third part of Malevolent Creatures focuses on Tiddy Mun, a figure from the folklore of the Lancashire and Cambridgeshire fens who represents the whole murky, flooded, malarial, fecund aviary of the fen ecosystem as it was before largescale drainage projects destroyed it starting in the seventeenth-century. 

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Burwell Fen in Cambridgeshire during a flood. 

Yet though he’s certainly a defender of the earth, Tiddy Mun is hardly a champion of human rights. Instead of saving “our” world, he’s out to protect his own, and that means he’s ambivalent towards the humans who inhabit that world and are part of it. It’s Tiddy Mun who brings the floods that destroy houses and crops and lead to outbreaks of malaria, it’s also Tiddy Mun who listens when the people beg for those floods to end and Tiddy Mun who abates them. In the story that’s most often told about Tiddy Mun, he fights back against the destruction of the ecosystem he embodies by destroying the drainage equipment of the engineers who’ve come to drain the fens, killing the engineers themselves, and flooding everything until the common people appease his wrath.

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One visual interpretation of Tiddy Mun, by Susan Sorrell Hill.

The story of that drainage, which is a real historical event in seventeenth-century England, is a complex one. In it, the clarity of right and wrong—at least from the point of view of human beings—can be as murky as bog water. On the one hand, the drainage was a clear case of the wealthy and powerful destroying an ecosystem for their own financial gain. King Charles I wanted the fens drained to produce valuable farmland so that he could circumvent the financial control of a hostile Parliament, and local landowners just wanted to cash in. On the other hand, common people in the fens were not necessarily as mad about the fens’ destruction as they were about being cut out of their share of the profits and displaced by foreigners. Before the land was dried out, malaria was an enormous problem in the fens. The common people who lived there and made their living from fishing and fowling were displaced, but on the other hand, the Dutch engineers who performed the drainage were primarily refugees. As Huguenot protestants living in France and the lowlands, they had been persecuted with massacre and expulsion, and they found a sanctuary and a new life in the fens. The several sides to this story are reflected in its histories. In some of them, the fenmen are the heroes, fighting a losing battle against all the most powerful forces of their society. In others, Dutch refugees heroically persist in their drainage project in spite of the anti-progress and anti-foreign violence of the locals. 

So from the human perspective, the story of the fen drainage is as complex at least as a modern day tale of gentrification or disaster capitalism. From Tiddy Mun’s perspective though, it’s something else. As the story is told (in dialect, unfortunately) in an 1891 article for the journal Folklore, Tiddy Mun’s rage is against all humans, at least for a time. As the fens dry out, he begins by kidnapping Dutch engineers, but when more engineers come to replace them, he starts to persecute the locals as well. Fevers spread, harvests and livestock die, and so do babies. The people perform a ritual of appeasement to Tiddy Mun, pouring out bowls of water and asking for his forgiveness. It’s interesting to me that the ritual is meant to show Tiddy Mun that “Car-folk wished un well, an’ that a’d give un tha watter back if tha only could.” They’re aware that the water they pour out is just symbolic. They can’t turn the fens back into swamps. They can’t save that ecosystem or the spirits that inhabit it: “that poor au’d Boggarts an’ Jack o’ Lanterns wor clean delved away.” It’s almost a mourning ritual, both for the dead children lost to fever, and for Tiddy Mun himself. The story teller in this article agrees that Tiddy Mun is gone by the time of her telling: “Tiddy Mun’s bin frighted away wi’ tha new ways an’ gear.” 

That nothing is “saved” in Tiddy Mun’s story is part of what makes it so interesting to the company as we work on the third part of Malevolent Creatures. In recent studies of the rhetoric of environmentalist and “green” writing, critics have called out the way that nature is often treated as an object of human agency, something outside of human subjects that we act on to save or destroy. This idea of nature as “outside” is, as Timothy Morton has put it, “a fantasy.” We’re just as much a part of “the environment” when we’re sitting in our bedrooms at home or riding in climate-controlled airplane cabins as when we’re perched on top of a mountain, looking out at the clouds below.  When it comes to the world we exist in, there is no below. We can’t really save or destroy “our” world, but with radical changes to the ways that we understand what it means to be human, people might be able to start participating in a world that belongs to everything in it. Tiddy Mun’s is an important story in part because it’s a story not of saving the environment, but of human entanglement with the processes of an ecosystem. It’s a story with no good guys and no bad guys, one that can, perhaps, represent the being and agency of inhuman things, the way that we understand some of what the land says to us not because it speaks in our language, but because it’s what we are.

We’re Gonna Eat Their Trash: Making and Wasting Art

This post was written by Nina Budabin McQuown and was originally posted on their blog Yes We Have No

On the Bread and Puppet tour bus this spring, my young company-mate and I made up a song about our experience traveling. It started with woe over the aching back and stunted dreams of the traveling puppeteer, then abruptly switched styles: "Just kidding! My back doesn’t hurt at all, / we’re going to the mall, / and we’re gonna eat their trasht; The line refers with jubilation to dumpster diving in upstate New York, an enterprise that netted us, after alchemical transformation, an enormous pot of butternut squash soup and a pan of bread pudding. 

It could, however, as easily be a reference to puppetry in general. Puppets, at least the kind I find myself most often behind, under, and within, are made of trash. My own car is filled with broomsticks, bits of stiff wire, and other likely materials. At Bread and Puppet, the foundational political puppetry theater of 1960s New York City and twenty-first century Vermont where I apprenticed last summer, the workshop is lined with boxes of reclaimed wire, bike tires, rope ends, bottle caps, scrap wood and, of course, all-important cardboard. Most of the puppets at Bread and Puppet are made of this most versatile material soaked, separated, and layered with cornstarch glue onto clay forms covered with more recycled plastic. They’re finished with paint much of which has, notoriously, gone bad, its oils rancid enough to smell sort of like raw beef but still good for making faces and bodies, buildings and landscapes of abstract capitalist destruction and transgressive revolutionary joy.

We were performing Faust 3, a show written by Peter Schumann and developed by his vast, amorphous company over the course of 2016 and 2017. Its series of scenes take up motifs of light, the movements of refugees in crisis, the surveillance state, the strange emotional relationships we as observers have to international crises, the idea of vacation and play as banal or revolutionary responses to capital’s exploitation of workers, and other stuff. In the show I was a door, a refugee, a two-dimensional horse, a snob, a gargoyle, a proletarian hand puppet, two gods, and a lower-middle- class un-employee.

I especially liked being a gargoyle. It’s pure rough kinetic pleasure. In Faust 3, the gargoyles are figures for state surveillance and law enforcement. On stage, I shielded my body with the giant cardboard face and comparatively little naked cardboard body of a big-eared, bright-eyed, lump-featured fellow, jumping, screaming, and body checking at full-speed the gargoyle trainer, who informs the audience that gargoyles are “excellent fearmongers,” ideal for instilling in the populace “manageable, custom-tailored satisfaction” during times of unrest. At the end of the scene we drop our faces on the stage for later. Painted side down, the gargoyles become a pile of trash: sticks, staples and wires, leprous layers of cardboard torn and patched and re-patched every afternoon with cracked grey pools of wood glue and staples that glint like piercings at the
corners of their torn mouths in the lights.

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Garbage-goyles

As trash, even when they’re piled center stage, the audience doesn’t see them anymore. Most of the time it seemed to genuinely surprise the crowd when we lifted and flipped the faces and became gargoyles again, hooting and jumping behind the gathered masses and terrorizing everyone off the stage. 

The difference between a puppet and a pile of trash is movement and sound. As you create that movement and sound day to day, learning the subtle difference between demure gliding and sluglike trailing, or real horse and mechanical horse in your muscles if not in your mind, you get deeply familiar with your puppets—the angle at which you must hold the head so that the eyes are looking at something, the weight distribution of this gargoyle, the place not to put your hand on that one if you want to avoid arm-slicing wires, the heft and sightlines. In the show, for example, the blue mama was an enormous and regal or sometimes ragged and silly six-person puppet who carried us all offstage repeatedly in her healing arms. For the blue mama, the difference between a tower of rags that set the audience giggling and the compassionate world mother who made people cry was all about wing span and movement.

Then sometimes the difference between trash and art is lighting and space. I saw a lot of
transformed trash on our tour of the east, which was also incidentally a tour of east coast college art-school student shows. A barrel of bottles and electronics glued together with spray-foam in Maine, for example, reminded me of WEE Man, the giant tech creature at the Eden Project in Cornwall. It had a similar understory about the abundance of trash we produce, its plastic barrel spilling up bottles and foam, the art transforming the valence, but not the sheer material there-ness of the trash.

The RSA WEE Man

The RSA WEE Man gazing out at the Cornwall hills

But trash art also creates a striking awareness that when we’re talking metal and especially plastic, this iteration of objects doesn’t stop the cycle. What will this student do with their art when the exhibition is over? Keep it in storage for a while? Decide it’s too huge and chuck it? Chip off the detritus and spray foam and turn it back into a rain barrel? What happens to the WEE man when Cornwall is under water? Art doesn’t suddenly create a final and coherent meaning out of an assemblage of trash. It’s a rephrasing. Trash art gives trash identity, but like a body made of immortal molecules, the art will eventually break apart. The bottles and rain barrels and computer monitor cases that make it up keep circulating forever, making new assemblages that may have to be interpretable—as shelter, as tool, maybe again as art, by other eyes after the human ones are gone.

psv

This futurist hermit crab, for example, wins boggiest ensemble for it’s mini-jam-jar look.

Of course, there’s nothing new about art as an inadequate tool for self-preservation. The
relationship between art and immortality is one of those great themes. Shakespeare’s sonnets are all about it, following an artist’s effort to preserve in language the beauty and selfhood of a love-object who is ultimately completely eclipsed by the artist and his art. “The young man” as he’s often known in scholarly essays, ends up going down in history as an object without a name.

Shakespeare’s sonnets undo the self at the center of the idea of immortality—they’re concerned with what it means to represent a self in the first place, let alone preserve it forever: “Thou in this shalt find thy monument” he insists in 107, right after admitting in 106 that the artist has already failed to preserve the object’s beauty: “these present days, / Had eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise” At least Shakespeare lived in a moment when there was probably some chance of a human future. Even allowing for the apocalypse (always popular), there was still supposed to be some universal interpreter, a God that sees us and preserves us in his eye/I. Art right now is grappling with an end of interpretation altogether. What’s the point if there is no posterity at all?  In that context, the stakes for making work out garbage that will ultimately just turn back
into garbage seem higher. A barrel of bottles and tech things and foam feels like an exercise in pointlessness. Just circulating stuff. Like breathing.
In her most recent performance art piece, “The Ship is Sinking” Emma Sulkowicz asks a
basically identical question inspired by Berthold Brecht, and maybe also by the great twentieth-century film Titanic: What’s the point of art if it’s hanging on the walls of a sinking ship?
 

zne

No taste, Billy Zane, no taste at all

 Our world is the ship of course, sinking under the weight of people, carbon, plastic, capitalism, fascism. In her performance, she combines the imagery of the ship’s female figurehead with the practice of BDSM. And if you watch the video, you see that as much as it’s concerned with a coming apocalypse, it’s also about a more immediate kind of endurance: what it means to the body to be a figurehead and representative for women in art. Sulkowicz’s art (she first became well known for “Mattress Performance,”  her performance/demonstration against Columbia’s handling of her rape complaint) is masterful at projecting shame all around it. It makes viewers squirm: “Is she bothering you” asks the dom Master Avery (playing “Mr. Whitney” in the show) of audience members who try to talk to her. They do shameful things—Master Avery’s looking
away when an audience member asks to slap Sulkowicz on the face. She requires bodily
endurance of herself and her audience, who have to figure out what to do with their bodies in the demanding space of the real-world room. So there’s the endurance of the artist’s person and personhood in the real world then there’s the endurance of the artist’s personhood as art, and that brings up the big Brecht question—why bother enduring so much when the ship is sinking and there’s no future to preserve you? “Aw you can’t take it? She can’t take it, she’s had enough. You don’t want to be an artist?” he lets her down.

Performance art exacerbates that question. Time-based and ephemeral, for most of us,
performance art only exists as leftovers—bits of video, stills, online discussions and anecdotes from those who were there in the room as they process their own immediate experience into a narrative they can hold and tell. It’s an art form that’s recirculating as new gatherings of reassembled bits and pieces even as it’s created. The people who were there walk away with some version of it in their minds. The rope and rig come down—a group of people, interestingly including the slapper, untie her body. The rope and rig go—somewhere else, too. Midway through the video, we see Sulkowicz arranging them, her eyes going over them with the confidence and experience of a person who has chosen these pieces to practice with, has been through this with them many times, knows how they work.

emma

At the end of the tour, we unpacked the bus. Everything must go. The show was essentially being retired, the frenetic ever-changeful pace of productions at Bread and Puppet means it will rarely if ever be performed again in spite of all the meaning we’d packed into it. If you saw Faust 3, you are one of the few hundreds of people who ever will, no matter its creator’s storied centrality to modern political performance. No matter the show’s implicit grandiloquent claim to pick up where Goethe left off. Last year as we began the process of performing it, I remember another apprentice telling me that this was Peter’s opus, the work that draws a straight line between Peter Schumann and Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe as unsatisfiable makers of light. But like all Bread
and Puppet shows it was written in a couple of weeks, performed for a year, and scattered.

Late the final night of tour we executed our last duties for the theater, helping to vet potential summer apprentices ahead of the deadline for acceptances. Essentially, we were upcycling ourselves, performing one more act towards the theater’s future before the touring company disassembled. In one letter, a potential apprentice delighted me by describing her art, in which she rearranges trash on the streets and then leaves it there. Sometimes it’s recognizably altered into art, sometimes, she said, it still resembles trash. There was a time when I would have considered those methods pretentious. Why make art no one knows is art? I remember, for example, feeling moved to enraged derision in an artist’s retrospective at the Whitney when a tour guide paused to discuss the meaning of a partially inflated balloon affixed to a wall some feet above a vertical line drawn in pencil. That didn’t feel like art to me. You couldn’t even see it if nobody pointed it out.

But now I know that interacting with things enlivens them, and leaves something behind—not a trace, not your name, not immortality, just a new assemblage. The garbage artist who rearranges and then leaves piles of trash is only acting as another anonymous agent. And while we could read her intervention, if we wanted to, as a kind of desperate human ploy to insert our agency everywhere, including into the apparently random distribution of objects on the street, I can also see it as an acknowledgment that human acts aren’t fundamentally different from other kinds of forces. In the long, long game we don’t control the effects of our arrangements any more than wind or water do.

How do we see ourselves as agents? That’s a central concern of protest art. I missed the climate March in April for the tour, but I hear it was a glorious event, especially as far as art, trash, and paper go. Enormous paper mâché puppets, masks, mobile parachute performances, and our now-requisite hordes of witty signs tweeting analogically at the lenses and the heavens. After the march, apparently, marshals went around with bullhorns encouraging people to throw their trash away, but as always, not everyone did. Part of this response, very likely, is that people are not quite ready to see their statements slough their meaning. An attribute of the ephemeral, singular and repetitive nature of protests, which like new cars, depreciate the moment they’re off the lot, is that their participants rarely seem prepared for this moment of abandonment. Hence shoals of
placards and stranded mobile sculptures left speaking out in national mall spaces zoned for more durable monuments expressing more sanctioned sentiments.

gallatin

Like this guy, at the Treasury Building: something about a bored-looking Swiss moderate/ overseeing one of the most active spaces of performative American democracy just strikes me as peak neo-liberal shade. 

And in response to all this matter out of place, like the dark twin of my mother in law (who always, every time, comes in with the “lettuce eat” pun whenever we have salad), right wing news outlets trotted out their perennial response. There were pictures of overflowing garbage cans and signs arrayed on the street. There were articles about how hypocritical leftists want somebody else to come clean up their mess. Indeed, the strategy itself is recycled, from as recently as the raids on the camps at Standing Rock, and as distantly as the first big climate march in New York City in 2014. Back then, Jeff Spross, writing for Thinkprogress.org, took note of the right-wing garbage angle by drawing a parallel between it and right-wing attitudes toward climate change. Spross wrote that,

“This line of reasoning is basically individualist: it says that combating climate change and moving to an ecologically sustainable society requires adding up hundreds of millions of changes in individual habits and values. Under this frame, when the People’s Climate marchers demand policies to combat climate change, they’re seen as demanding more virtuous behavior from their fellow citizens as individuals. Which makes all their trash evidence of their hypocrisy.” 

On the contrary, Spross continues, it is the fossil-fuel embedded systems that Americans inhabit that need to change, not so much the individual Americans. Even the least thing-dependent American has a greater carbon footprint than a wealthy European. Not littering can’t change the trajectory of climate change. Switching away from fossil-fueled agriculture and methane producing beef, from dirty engines and fracking as a society, can. This is not something that individual human agency can accomplish, no matter how virtuous the doer, except by insisting on a changed system overall.

That offers a little moral solace in its way, right? We ourselves did not travel particularly light on tour. After the suitcases, sleeping bags, food, books, knitting projects, games, instruments, and set pieces came off the bus, we unpacked the puppets. I had a gargoyle over one arm, the other holding one end of the blue mama’s central pole, with her cloth body and long hair wrapped around it. “She goes up in the loft,” our tour director told us, “you’ll see the place for the gargoyles. The blue mama goes with the other blue mamas. You’ve seen the brown papa, right?” 

I hadn’t. Indeed, I’d always thought of her as a single mom, totally directed towards the nurture of frail humans, no time for a mate of her own kind. We carried her huge body as a series of sticks, mâché and rags—two other puppeteers having preceded with her great blue hands. We marched across the muddy springtime paths of the farm and back up through the winding stairs over the dirt-floor theater. There, sure enough, two other puppets in the same style leaned against the rafters. Back in the context of the storage spaces you can see it—a whole wooden rack of gargoyles, a colloquy of mamas and papas. There were some other shows for which these were conceived, their new context in Faust 3 was a reuse, another life. We broke them and put them back together again with salvaged boxes and paper bags from the co-ops and groceries we visited along the way. Some of these puppets have been around for twenty years or more, getting this treatment from generations of puppeteers. They aren’t trash up there, they’re honored configurations, waiting for their next context. Even here, it’s a matter of time. And if you’re imagining a wavering mountain of decomposing cloth and cardboard, clotted together, growing mushrooms, full of rat shit and mouse shit in the wind and rain, I am too, I am too, there’s nothing wrong.

ICYMI: Saudade Trailer!

Our March tour of Saudade is halfway done and it’s World Puppet Day! If you haven’t had a chance,  check out this new trailer and a few other blog posts about amazing puppetry and puppeteers from around the world.

An Interview with Gabriela Cespedes from Argentina

A Brief History of Puppets and Social Justice

Recycled Puppets by Ashley Bryan

A Few Puppeteers You May Not Know