The Myths of Puppet Theater

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Published by Eric Bass on Howlround.com, 2014.

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 governmentAll 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.

Another Spoof: ‘Avenue Jew’

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For a World AIDS Day benefit in 2005, the original cast of Avenue Q and the cast of the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof presented a 10-minute spoof of both musicals called “Avenue Jew.” As a brief prologue, Trekkie Monster plays the Fiddler theme and then eats the fiddle. Tevye, his wife Golde, and his two remaining daughters, having immigrated to the USA, arrive on Avenue Jew, an area inhabited by Jewish versions of the Avenue Q characters.

A Brief History Of News Anchors Interviewing Puppets

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TV news has a long and illustrious history of having fictional characters on as guests while pretending they are actually real. Below is a curated selection of some favorite moments.

Kermit’s other half Miss Piggy on NBC’s “Today” talking about her “career”:

Kermit the Frog on CNN’s “The Situation Room” arguing for inter-species relationships:

The infamous ALF interview on “O’Reilly”:

Serious news anchor Erin Burnett interviews puppet presidential candidate Marvin Quasniki:

And, of course, the characters of Avenue Q on MSNBC:

Ernest and Bertram

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Avenue Q wasn’t the first attempt at parodying Bert and Ernie’s intimate roommate relationship. This 2002 short film by Peter Spears ran at the Sundance Film Festival, but was kept from further distribution when its director was served a cease and desist order by Sesame Workshop’s lawyers. The short is based loosely on The Children’s Hour, a tragic play by Lillian Hellman about unrequited love between two women.