Puppets are sexy. They are fun. They are provocative. Some are beautiful. Others, grotesque. But most importantly, they allow audiences an opportunity to escape into a world otherwise unknown. They allow stories that may otherwise remain untold, to be shared, as puppets can do things that humans cannot. These are the facts.
— When the Puppets Come to Town, via Howlround.com
“Puppetry is a completely controllable means to attack your characters in every possible way. The artist has the possibility to create a much larger landscape with puppetry. The human becomes more human in that sense.”
Julie Taymor, as quoted in The New York Times, 1991.
An example of how Kate Monster and Trekkie Monster’s bonding over the Internet might have gone, had Sesame Street been telling the story.
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.
A 2007 article by Charlie Brooker published in The Guardian, illuminating why offensiveness might be one of the most powerful tools a writer (or in our case, a theatrical production) can wield:
I hate offended people and I love offending them. They’re the very worst people on the planet…No paper wants to gratuitously offend the reader. Pity, because gratuitous offence, when performed with aplomb, is the funniest thing in the world. There’s more unpretentious joie de vivre in a single issue of vintage-era Viz than most artists or singers manage in a lifetime. I’d like nothing better than to fill the rest of this page with an unnecessarily florid description of something utterly disgusting happening to a well-known public figure – an 850-word fantasy in which, say, David Miliband unexpectedly develops extreme and explosive diarrhoea while entertaining a group of foreign dignitaries in a pod on the London Eye on the hottest day of the year, to take just one example. But I can’t, because a tiny handful of you would complain.
In my view, the delight such an unnecessary and puerile description would give to myself and others far outweighs the pain it would cause these oversensitive life-spoiling idiots. The offended people.
This New York Times article examines how the neighborhood from which Avenue Q is derived has completely changed in recent years, making it almost unrecognizable for those who identify it as the run-down, bohemian icon that was spoofed in Jeff Marx’s and Robert Lopez’s musical:
NOT too long ago, the name Alphabet City evoked images of burned-out buildings, rubbish-strewn lots, squatters and drug dealers. These days, the marketers of the high-priced condominiums and luxury rentals that are sprouting everywhere in the neighborhood are more likely to refer to it as the East Village, of which it is only a part, or to sweep it into the even-broader domain of the Lower East Side.
But whatever its title, it has been clear for some time, as prices soar and crime rates tumble, that the area encompassing Avenues A, B, C and D from 14th Street to Houston Street has acquired a patina of affluence and stylishness even as it remains a bastion of middle class dwellings and subsidized housing.
”In the last year and a half, I would guess 1,000 new units of housing have been built here,” said Harvey Epstein, a Legal Aid Society lawyer and chairman of the housing committee for Community Board 3, which has jurisdiction over Alphabet City. ”When rents skyrocked throughout Manhattan a few years ago, landlords in this neighborhood realized what an opportunity they had to make a real profit, so from Avenues A to D, there is construction of new housing on every space available. There is also a lot of rehabilitation of existing housing to get more market rate tenants into buildings.”
Indeed, it is impossible to take a stroll around the avenues and their connecting blocks without encountering concrete being poured, foundations for new structures being sunk, and old town houses and tenements undergoing facelifts.
What’s more, the kind of buildings rising now would probably have been unthinkable even five years ago.