File puptcrit/puptcrit.0910, message 73

Date: Tue, 6 Oct 2009 00:33:51 -0400
Subject: Re: [Puptcrit] What is a Puppeteer?

This thread has really struck a nerve in folks- rightly so too I guess  
since it goes to the  nut of our trade.
I've worked with both Taymor and Curry, but have been happy sitting on  
the bank, watching the posts flow past. But now I ought to put in  
something about this.

I've worked with Julie on many of her earlier New York shows up to and  
including "Lion King" (which also included Michael Curry.) One of my  
fondest performance memories was her "Juan Darien". I was fortunate to  
be involved in that show first as a puppet builder and then as a  
performer/puppet master. The cast was an extraordinary ensemble of  
singer/dancers/actors who also had to jump in and grab whatever puppet  
was necessary. The synthesis of vocal, movement and acting skills  
required for that show was extraordinary by Western theatrical  
standards-- perhaps the closest corollary would be the skill-set  
necessary for mastering the Peking Opera roll of the Monkey King.

How I managed to keep up with them was a mystery. I didn't sing or  
dance, I kept my hood on and lurked in the shadows, behind the screen  
and under the set. I did get to open my mouth once during the show and  
shriek like a baby. I suppose the fact that I was the only person in  
the cast who could repair the puppets as they broke made me an  
invaluable cast member-- cerrtainly it wasn't my dancing or vocal  
skills. But I really loved being part of that company. It stretched me  
way past my limits as a performer.

I think most of Julie's recent work has been iterations of the  
techniques she (and composer Eliot Goldenthall) had brought to  
fruition in "Juan Darien". "Lion King" attempts to hit much of the  
same theatrical troupes with a cast, crew and budget ten times the  
size.  Eye-popping, maybe. But not nearly the same caliber of tour-de- 
force ensemble performance as "Juan." Economy of scale rules!

Even though she may have gained her early notariety as a director/ 
designer for her use of puppets, I kind of agree with her that the  
puppets in themselves were never the primary focus of her work. What  
she liked about puppets was the way they extended out the human scale  
and allowed her to play with radical shifts of scale in the stage  
picture. She really loved the process of designing the puppets--  
sculpting and refining the facial planes of her masks and puppet heads  
till they could become articulated simply by shifting them in the  
light. She hated the messy engineering and mechanics however and left  
that aspect of the craft to others.  But since critics, have from the  
beginning, pegged her as "the puppet director", I think she naturally  
wanted to rebel. The new show she is directing for Broadway  
production, a musical version of "Spiderman" is reputed to be without  
puppets at all. (we'll see about that, though).

I think Julie has gravitated to film because it allows her to do the  
same kind of radical spacial shifts effortlessly via the camera which  
she had labor so intensely to engineer for the live stage. Look at the  
way her camera is always dancing around in her films "Frida" or  
"Across the Universe." It's as though she's saying, "Hooray! I don't  
have to be stuck in one seat, looking at one friggin" POV for the  
whole performance!"

I think Michael Curry has absorbed a good deal of Julie's aesthetic in  
his many years of collaboration with her on large -scale theatrical  
projects (beginning with an early version of "The Magic Flute.") In  
his own mega-puppetry work-- for the Olympic Ceremonies in Utah and  
Atlanta, the Times Square 2000 Pageant and his large-scale productions  
in Las Vegas) it seems that the awesome visual effect trumps the  
dramatic content.  But, hey what else can a 50' puppet  be good for--  
spouting Ibsen? Puppet Theatre on that scale is a kind of dance/ 
movement based performance anyway, so it seems right to recruit  
dancers and movement-trained professionals to do the puppet handling.

I'm not sure why he brought the singers in to do the manipulation in  
"The Nightinggale" (I missed the very beginning of this thread). I  
always thought that puppetry was more akin to instrumental musical  
performance than to singing. But who's say? God bless us all.

This doesn't get into some of the other issues raised in this thread.  
Should we be angry at T & C for snubbing us puppet folk?  But sorry  
folks, I'm not going there. Besides, I'm too tired to type on. And I  
have a show that goes up at the end of the week, so I'd better retire  
back into the shadows.

Happy Sukkot and Autumn Moon Festival. Shake a lulav or eat a mooncake!


On Oct 5, 2009, at 2:36 PM, Christopher Hudert wrote:

> thread was:  Nightingale in Toronto: Lepage and Curry
> On Oct 4, 2009, at 4:39 PM, Preston Foerder wrote:
>> I think the problem here is the attitude that anyone can pick up a
>> puppet and be a puppeteer with little or no training.  Conrad
>> expressed nicely the difficulties that actors have in converting  
>> their
>> art to puppetry.  No one doubts that actors, singers, dancers, mimes,
>> etc. all need to be trained in their professions. But somehow it is
>> assumed that because they are trained in their own fields, any one of
>> them can pick up a puppet and be a great puppeteer without training  
>> in
>> our field. Or they'll just pick up what they need to know in
>> rehearsals. Somehow because everyone has puppets when they're kids,
>> the assumption is we all have the prerequisites to be a puppeteer. I
>> have a degree in theater. Took acting, mime, dance, voice, and even
>> singing classes (though out of good will, I spare the world my  
>> singing
>> voice, and for that matter my dancing, unless I've had a few drinks).
>> But to be a puppeteer, it's also necessary to get extensive training
>> in puppetry whether in classes, workshops, or from other
>> professionals.  Why should that seem so odd? I'm also a big fan of
>> crude puppetry, but like Picasso, who said it took him his whole life
>> to learn to paint like a child, it is necessary to learn the skills
>> before you can throw them away.
>> Preston
> Ah, Preston, this is indeed a two edged sword.
>   As I've said before, I believe that Puppetry is a Hobby Profession.
> By its simplest definition, anyone CAN pick up a puppet and be a
> puppeteer with little or no training. Not necessarily a good  
> puppeteer,
> but a puppeteer none the less. The biggest problem, for me, comes when
> that 'anyone' who is now a puppeteer thinks that they have no
> obligation to be trained in the performing aspects beyond  
> manipulation.
> The false assumption that, as a puppeteer I only need to learn to
> manipulate objects well, I don't need the other prerequisites of
> performance. The classes, workshops or training from other
> professionals need (IMO) to include many of the things you mentioned:
> singing, dancing, mime, voice, etc. and not just more manipulation or
> more building.
>  I come first from the acting etc schools, then to puppetry. I am very
> lucky (blessed?) that puppetry came easily to me, probably because  
> of a
> varied performance background (combined with the blessing that I'm too
> stupid to know how hard it really is, even today). So, for many  
> years I
> thought "Shoot, I can do this, so anybody can do this." Yep, that
> anybody can pick up a puppet and do it, especially if they've had
> training and/or a lot of experience in other performance arts.  I  
> never
> knew how lucky I was until I tried to teach some actors and jugglers,
> who were not cross trained or experienced, to work some puppets. It  
> was
> not pretty, nor was it easy. It was a real wake up call for me. I now
> know that not every actor (or whatever) can be a good puppeteer, nor
> can every puppeteer be a good singer, dancer, actor, etc.. Cuts both
> ways. But that is no excuse for not getting the training so we can
> become better at those things, nor a reason to think that a singer,
> dancer, actor, etc. can not become a decent or even a good puppeteer.
> For me, I would rather be really good at a lot of things (and passible
> at a few things that I'm likely to never be really good at) than great
> at only one or two. I'm okay at not being "The Best" at anything, and
> just being damn good at a lot of things. I choose versatility over
> virtuosity.
>   So, what IS a puppeteer? In workshops to puppeteers that I give, I
> sometimes bring this up. Who's definition do we use, and by what
> standard do we measure? Is it enough to extend Baird's definition and
> say "Someone who moves an object, before an audience, in order to
> convey a thought, emotion, and/or story."? Would not then the humans
> hired by Curry, Taymor and others be puppeteers? Because the puppets
> are deliberately limited in their range and the manipulators do not
> come from a puppetry background (as if we knew in every case) does  
> this
> make them less a puppet or the manipulators less a puppeteer? In many
> of his shows David Simpich's puppets barely move. They are exquisite
> and his story and voicing exemplary. If movement is the main standard,
> he is a lousy puppeteer, yet he is outstanding and recognized as such
> by many people in and out of puppetry. (I wish I could be even half as
> lousy!) Joe Cashore has very little or no dialogue in his shows, but
> his puppets and the story they tell are expressive and his  
> manipulation
> unworldly. Yet by dramatic dialogue standards of puppetry, Joe would  
> be
> a lousy puppeteer. (Again, I'd love to be even as lousy as Joe.) In
> most of the shows I have seen by The Puppetmongers, the puppets are
> elementary with minimal movement. Yet they create true theater. Are
> they lousy puppeteers? (Oh, to be as lousy as they are!) These are  
> only
> a few examples. My point is, I can find no single standard or
> definition of either puppets or puppeteers. Yet in most of the
> exemplary examples I can think of, the puppeteers bring much more than
> the object or its manipulation to the stage. The education, training,
> and experience they bring to bare is way beyond how to make or move a
> puppet in a more effective manner, but those things are not neglected
> either. In talking with each of these artist, as well as others, there
> is a synthesis of elements and a deliberate choice of puppet style,
> design, and movement.
> Christopher
> _______________________________________________
> List address:
> Admin interface:
> Archives:

List address:
Admin interface:


Driftline Main Page


Display software: ArchTracker © Malgosia Askanas, 2000-2005