Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Kenneth Gross: Puppet

One week into rehearsals, our actors have begun to explore the space in Leeds Theatre and the amazing set by Oona Curley to create the scenes of the densely poetic play by Erik Ehn. From the very beginning, the work with the puppets has been paramount to this creative process as the puppets themselves often demand a specific way of realizing a scene. In this sense, the puppets have become co-creators in this theatre endeavour.

One book has helped the entire creative team and the ensemble to understand the intricate and complex nature of the puppet off and on the stage and to negotiate their presence:  Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life by Kenneth Gross explores the various kinds of puppets, from Bunkaru to shadow play, and how they stand in communication with our world. For as Gross makes clear, the puppet is foreign and familiar at the same time. He explains wonderfully that the puppet is an object in waiting, not being dead but somehow un-dead, thereby able to connect the worlds of the living and the dead. As life is locked in, so is the memory of that life - but also of death, a memory yet to come for the living. By its mere existence, it demands of the human being, whether it is the puppeteer or the audience, to reflect on their own status within a world of objects. What follows are some passages from the book, compiled by the creative team, that were most illuminating, inspiring, and challenging.

"There is something in the puppet that ties its dramatic life more to the shapes of dreams and fantasy, the poetry of the unconscious, than to any realistic drama of human life. That is part of its uncanniness, that its motions and shadows have the looks of things we often turn away from or put off or bury." (2)

"The puppets' link to death is not simply due to their having no one to move them, to make play with them, though that is part of it. [...], in many of their earlier manifestations, and still in certain Asian traditions, in Japan or Java, puppets were brought to life precisely to provide homes for the souls of the dead; they served as a means to repair a loss of life or to keep ancestral spirits alive, to give them a way to speak to the living." (22)

"The puppet serves as an ambassador or pilgrim to human beings from the world of things. [...] It may remind us by contrast of our human tendency to turn ourselves , our thoughts, our memories, and our words into fixed, frozen, inanimate, or mechanical things - though we also lend to things imaginary and unliving an illusion of animation such as makes them powerful, and potentially destructive. We bring objects to life in a world where human beings make themselves into their own effigies. The life is provisional, always emerging, or recovered from life that has been lost." (33)

"If they echo our sense that our bodies are liable to become dead, intractable objects, such puppets also play out a fantasy of surviving so many outrageous forms of death, so much violence, dismemberment, and devouring: they remind us how inanimate objects themselves may supply what is lost or dead in us." (35)

"As in the puppet theater, a small part can suddenly become a new and more mysterious whole. We see things at once smaller and larger than themselves, in continuous oscillation of perspective, with no clear sense of what is microcosm and what macrocosm. The small and the large give birth to each other." (46f.)
"The power of a particular puppet-actor, even as it mirrors a human face or gesture, will lie in the fact that the object given life inevitably retains something of its specific gravity, its thing-ness, as an object. In its form, and in its motion, it will keep its resemblance to the artifact, tool, machine, or musical instrument. In such a case, any human expressiveness makes that thing-ness all the stranger, the more penetrating, among other things by its power to show us something of the mechanical side of human life itself, and how it conditions the movements of its manipulator. Each depends on the other." (65)

"The life of puppets does not just survive destruction; it feeds on it. [...] the domain of puppets is itself, at its most animated, a world of destroyed things. The puppet always exists in the shadow of its own destruction. being a thing made to be destroyed. [...] The puppet belongs to a family of things partial, fragmented, and broken, a family of relics, remnants, and skeletons, a world of small pieces gathered to make up an image of a larger world, parts enacting a whole, transforming our sense of the whole. The poetry of the puppet is a poetry of inadequacy, which feeds more fragile, vexed gestures of substitution, revision, replacement, [...]. The life of this theater takes form from ruin, though ruin with its own form of generosity, like a form of nature." (95)

"Here the figure of the blackened puppet, or the blackness of the puppet, suggest that the puppet's life, its pathos and power, has something to do with survival, with an earliness that is wrapped up with a sense of violence suffered, a sense of things destroyed yet strangely preserved, alive in the present." (112)

"Such a control is the instrument of the puppeteer's mastery but also that through which he registers the impulses of movement that ride up to the human hand from the puppet suspended below, the place where the manipulator must feel and put to use the weight and momentum of the puppet, translate its direction or indirection; it is where the puppet masters him." (122)

"They are made alive, animated, by the living pool of light created by the flame of the palm oil lamp, the damar, that hands suspended behind the screen, so that the shadows move even when the puppets themselves are still, fixed in a tableau." (126)

"At the same time, the shadows on the screen are the shadows of the dead, images of ancestors who remain very much alive, always an influence on the lives of the living, always bringing help or menace, objects of prayer, chant, and charm." (128)

"The demands of the puppets, the work of giving them life, exacted from the performer a more unsettled language of physical gesture, hard to read but capable of lodging long in memory." (155)

"They are like things excavated from the ground, with dirt and dust still clinging to them, thick with time, but light, light. It is a space where shadow becomes substance, where accidents become forms of intention." (159)


Please watch the video of the Balinese shadow puppet, which Kenneth Gross talks about in Puppet: the kayon, which translates to "the Tree of Life". It is the most ornately decorated and opens the floor before each shadow show. 

Check back tomorrow for a visit to our Puppet workshop!
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