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Puppetry and Theatre (Working In The Theatre #324)

Puppetry and Theatre (Working In The Theatre #324)


Good afternoon. As somebody who has worked my entire career
in what I can only refer to today as “human” theatre, I am endlessly fascinated by the
opportunities, the artistry, and the achievements that can be done with puppets and puppet theatre. As someone who is of the age in which my knowledge
of puppetry is almost wholly defined by “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show,” the continual
revelations that I find in the world of puppetry are incredibly fascinating. And indeed, we are continuing to see the worlds
of human theatre and puppet theatre merge and join forms in a variety of different ways. So today’s panel will hopefully illuminate
some of what I’m finding so fascinating, and I believe everybody else will. So let me first introduce our panelists. Beginning on my right, Basil Twist is the
creator of SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE, which toured internationally and is currently playing Off-Broadway
at Dodger Stages. He developed the puppetry for Paula Vogel’s
THE LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE HOME and is director of the Dream Music Puppetry Program at HERE
Arts Center. Pam Arciero is Artistic Director of the O’Neill
Puppetry Conference in Waterford, Connecticut, where she directed the Emerging Artists Program
for five years. She is a principal puppeteer on “Sesame
Street” and has worked on numerous children’s programs, including “Between the Lions”
and “Eureka’s Castle.” Roman Paska has directed original adaptations
of works by Yeats, Strindberg and Lorca, and his most recent work, DEAD PUPPET TALK, was
seen at The Kitchen in September. He will direct SOULS OF NAPLES for Theatre
for a New Audience this spring. And from 1999 to 2002, he was Director of
the International Puppet Theatre Institute in France. Cheryl Henson is the President of the Jim
Henson Foundation and on the Board of Directors of the Jim Henson Company. Cheryl executive produced the award-winning
and highly influential Henson International Festival of Puppet Theatre from 1992 to 2000,
and she continues to lead the Foundation’s grant-making programs to support contemporary
puppetry. Rick Lyon has played a pivotal role in the
development of the Broadway musical, AVENUE Q, since its earliest workshops, as both puppet
designer and performer. His T.V., film and theatre credits include
“Sesame Street,” “Men in Black” and the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” films. And he writes scripts, music and songs for
his own company, The Lyon Puppets. Welcome to all of you. Thank you, Howard. (APPLAUSE) Before we start our discussion, I was very
struck by some words I heard recently, and want to share with you all a bit of tape on
the topic of puppets and puppet theatre. Ladies and gentleman, “Professor” Bill
Irwin. BILL IRWIN (ON VIDEOTAPE)
Puppet talk has become increasingly riddled with anxiety. The very expressions “puppet” and “puppet
theatre” suggest a heterogeneous range of phenomena that continue to increase and multiply
with virtually no consensus as to what exactly this slippery thing we call a puppet is. It is clearer now what we mean when we say
“man” than what we mean when we say “puppet.” And the concept of “man” has troubled
great minds for centuries. There is, after all, something profoundly
disturbing about a thing that persists in eluding precise definition. It could, of course, be argued that with no
consensus on definitions, we lack the methodology for describing or discussing this phenomenon. But even if we don’t know what a puppet
is, we know that there are these things we call puppets. (LAUGHTER; APPLAUSE) Yeah, very nice. As you might have guessed, that is not Bill
Irwin just sitting around expounding on puppetry. That’s actually an excerpt from Roman’s
piece, DEAD PUPPET TALK, which I mentioned played at The Kitchen last month. But as I watched that piece, it encapsulated
all of the things that I was starting to think about for this panel. So what I’d like to just start off with
is to ask everyone on the panel, what do you see as the profound difference between human
theatre and puppet theatre? Have I already made an assumption that there
is a profound difference? Or, where do those worlds merge? And Roman, since we started with a clip from
your show, I’ll start with you. Well, when you say human theatre and puppet,
versus puppet theatre, it suggests that puppet theatre is “inhuman” theatre. And I think that that’s maybe a good place
to start. It’s also one of the puppeteers, our very
puppeteers, are very insistent about the fact that there is, in fact, a human being behind
most puppets. And it’s really an art form that does always
involve human intervention, and particularly in the theatre. And I think that to talk about the differences,
one should also talk about the similarities – not the similarities, but the way in which
puppet theatre is theatre and not something else, and certainly not something in competition
with the notion of a “human” theatre. Basil? Now you’re, interestingly, we’re talking
about – I set it up as humans and puppets, and of course, you’ve got this remarkable
show, SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE, which doesn’t attempt to even represent a human or animal
form. It’s all shapes and motion. How does that play into the human versus puppet
discussion that I set up? Well, I mean, I think, as Roman pointed out,
part of the excitement of a theatrical experience like SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE or any puppetry
performance is that it is live. There are performers backstage. Even in my show, you can’t see them, but
they’re there. It’s happening live. And I guess, a little in response to what
Professor Irwin said (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL), I think in my show, because I’m trying to
use puppets that are not our standard definition of puppets, in that they don’t look necessarily
like humans, but what’s happening on stage is there is an act of bringing something to
life. Some sort of inanimate material is brought
to life, so to speak, on stage. And that’s what makes it a puppet show. Is there something about the interaction of
the live human figure with the puppet figure that creates particular opportunities? Obviously, AVENUE Q has that going on, in
a way that, on Broadway, we’ve not seen. And to what you were both saying in response
to my narrow “puppetist” question (LAUGHTER) because it’s almost – you know, what is
done, in terms of you as a performer, Rick, who’s visible the entire time you perform
in AVENUE Q? Are you trying to be seen? Is it because of the particular puppet style
that’s been chosen? How do you relate, or are you meant to recede? Obviously, there’s a human behind the puppet
– he’s the guy who’s got his arm in it. Right. How does that play into your performance? Are you trying to recede, or are you trying
to be present along with the puppet? Oh, I think it’s absolutely necessary for
the puppeteer to be present, especially in the style of puppetry that we’re using in
AVENUE Q. It’s a tandem performance. The puppet is part of the character, and the
human being is also part of the character. Each aspect of that performance informs the
other. The humans being on stage with the puppet
– you know, the puppet doesn’t have moveable features, except for the mouth. Its eyebrows don’t go up and down. It doesn’t have, you know, eyes that blink
or anything like that. It cannot express emotion in a way that we
have codified, you know, expressing emotion with a human face. So the performer being on stage with the puppet
can do all those things, and it sort of informs the puppet’s performance. And at the same time, the puppet is the character,
so informs what the human being is doing on stage. So it’s really a very symbiotic relationship. One doesn’t succeed without the other. I think there are degrees of being present
on stage that everybody is at slightly different places in AVENUE Q, and that’s perfectly
valid, too. I, as a performer, am very aware that, you
know, people aren’t paying their money to see me. They want to see the puppet. So I tend to focus more of the attention of
the performance on the puppet. That’s just my sort of personal philosophy
about that. I know other puppeteers in the cast feel more,
you know, present themselves. So it’s a balance. But one does not exist without the other. And I just want to hasten to say, we were
talking about, you know, puppet theatre versus human theatre. AVENUE Q is not puppet theatre. It is a musical that uses puppetry in the
telling of its story, and it’s a stylistic choice. It is not “puppet theatre.” It is not conceived as a piece of puppet theatre. It is a musical theatre piece, for Broadway,
that, like THE LION KING, uses puppetry in the telling of the story. Cheryl? I just want to interject also that this whole
relationship, the visible relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet, is a relatively
new thing, and that it’s something that people in the puppet world and puppeteers
have been fascinated by for years, but it has been behind the scenes. And that it used to always be, with “Sesame
Street” characters, with the Muppet characters, that you would never show the puppeteer. It was very important that the audience, particularly
a kid audience, not be given that opportunity to be confused, that the puppet is what’s
alive. But also, certainly, with Punch and Judy shows,
going way back, that the puppeteers are back – even in Bunraku, the puppeteers wear hoods. It’s a relatively new phenomenon to show
the puppeteers. And I think that some of it might come from
the puppeteers’ fascination with being able to watch the performers perform the puppets,
and that we just loved being able to watch Frank Oz and Jim Henson performing their characters. And there is something really fascinating
about that relationship that now seems to have come to the stage. Well, and it’s a continuation of a sort
of a general trend in modern theatre, the sort of deconstruction. Yeah. We’re laying bare the technology of the
show. I mean, this goes back, you know, many years,
in terms of like, you know, you think of early Brecht performances where, oh, they had the
lights so that you could see where they were on stage! And oh, you saw pieces of backstage scenery
and stuff like that. It’s sort of a continuation of that. It’s not new. One of the things about AVENUE Q that makes
it new is that it’s a style of puppet, as Cheryl indicated, that we have not seen performed
that way, live on stage before. And one of the gratifying things about AVENUE
Q for me is we’re taking a style of puppet that has become sort of irrevocably linked
with children’s entertainment and we’re giving it back to an adult theatre audience. For me, that’s one of the exciting things
about it. Can I just – one more? Yeah, of course. Just that I think that it’s interesting
when you talk about really exposing how something is done, that I feel in some way, this move
towards low-tech puppetry and really showing how it’s all done, also like the Bread and
Puppet style of theatre, just made of papier-mâché, puppets that are very low-tech, is in some
ways a reaction to all of the brilliant high-tech puppetry and animation, computer-generated
things that are available on television and film, and that a lot of people want to embrace
it. And what’s sort of magical about live puppet
theatre, seeing something come to life on stage right in front of you, in a way that
you just feel that it’s coming to life, but you know perfectly well that the puppeteer’s
right there. It’s not trying to fool you. It’s much more organic. I think that’s one of the interesting things
that AVENUE Q has brought us, that organic feeling. You know, that you see the puppeteer, you
see the physical movement that’s creating that, and it’s no longer the big super-special-effects. This is actually how it’s done. And also, I think, one of the things that’s
been happening is very judicious use of revealing the puppeteer and revealing the puppet. I know in MOBY DICK, for example, your puppeteer
often becomes a character, fades away, does the puppet, then once again returns as a different
character. That all enhances our storytelling, which
ultimately, to me, what we do with theatre, whether it be puppet or human, is we are trying
to tell a good story. We are trying to get across the ideas that
are inherent in all of us that we want to share. And you know, sometimes this “puppet theatre
versus human theatre” thing gets going pretty big. And I don’t think there is a difference. I think we’re all doing theatre, it’s
just our form that we choose, very often is a puppet, is an inanimate object, and how
do we make that object live and breathe? And whether we show the puppeteers or not,
the important thing is that that object is communicating to the audience our ideas and
what we want to get across. So, with that, let me say that it seems that
America, compared to most of the world, has pigeonholed puppetry. It’s not as broadly thought of as the other
forms of expressing narrative. And it has been pigeonholed into being thought
of as mostly for children. Roman, you were involved in the Institute
in France. Basil, you study as well at a different organization
in France. And Cheryl, you have this great overview of
puppetry, both in the U.S. and internationally. What do you think has contributed to puppetry
not having the same foothold in America that it has in so much of the world, the Asian
countries, the European countries? Well, I would disagree that it doesn’t have
the same foothold. There is more – you know, as someone who
has just spent four years living in Europe, it is true that there is more puppet theatre
in Europe, per capita or whatever, than there is in the United States. But that doesn’t mean that it’s more interesting
or more experimental or whatever, or that the audiences are necessarily more attuned. Puppet theatre, I mean, any of our preconceptions
about puppet theatre here are inherited from, you know, the European or Euro-centric situation. And it is true that in Asian countries where,
you know, there are thousands of years of tradition that have produced very evolved
forms of puppet theatre, there’s a different perspective. But you know, I think what’s true for puppet
theatre in the United States is very much true for theatre in the United States. It’s just as hard to talk about the – we
don’t have national theatres in every major city, for example. So naturally, we also don’t have puppet
theatres in every major city. So I think it’s a conversation I’ve been
having for a good twenty years now, the notion that somehow the grass is greener in Europe. It’s not, necessarily. And some of the most important work that’s
really, you know, influenced European puppet theatre in the past couple of decades has
in fact come from the United States. Cheryl? What do you think that would be? When you say that, I’m very curious. Oh, I don’t want to name any names! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) I’d like to add, actually, in agreement
with that, in Asia I taught at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. And I brought a Chinese shadow puppet that
I had made in puppet school, which is a very old form of puppetry, because Chinese shadow
puppetry goes way back. None of my Chinese students had ever seen
Chinese shadow puppetry. They didn’t know what it was. And this is a performing arts school! They knew Peking opera very well, but they
did not know anything about Chinese [shadow puppetry]. And I felt a little like coming to America
and teaching kids about baseball, you know? (LAUGHS) ‘Cause I was going to China to
teach them about Chinese shadow puppets, and it was pretty interesting to me that we sort
of assume, because they do have a very long tradition, that everybody knows it and that
it’s well supported. That is not necessarily true. There is the long tradition to draw from,
but just as you said, sometimes it’s not supported. There aren’t state puppet theatres. You know, especially in China, there was not
that much of it. I was very surprised. I would add to the other point that you seem
to be making, about the association with children’s theatre and children. That’s also an inherited notion from the
European tradition. And of course, there are reasons for it, which
are probably too vast to want to go into here. But the idea that we have a sense of a distinction
between children’s theatre and what we call adult theatre, to my mind it’s a little
bit erroneous. You know, I mean, yes, we have children[‘s
theatre] that is more suitable for children, because the themes are not too difficult and
there is no sex, nudity or violence. But it’s still theatre. And I think that I see this, personally, as
a very positive sign, that something that we associated with a children’s audience
has now begun to make its way into the common theatre vocabulary. So let’s jump back now. How do you start to be a puppeteer, very simply? I know that we have people who have graduate
degrees in puppetry on the panel. People may not even realize that you can get
such degrees, both here and abroad. But where does this start? Rick, where do you start? Well, my story is very typical of many, many
puppeteers of my generation. The first puppetry that I saw was on T.V.
“Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” Burr Tillstrom and his wonderful work, was some of the first
puppetry I ever ever saw on T.V. And even other children’s shows, like “Captain
Kangaroo,” like Mr. Moose was one of the first puppets I ever saw on T.V. And it was something that, you know, immediately
fascinated me. And (TO CHERYL) your father’s early work
on the variety shows. You know, “The Hollywood Palace,” and
“The Ed Sullivan Show.” That’s the first exposure that I had to
puppetry. The first live puppet show I ever saw was
a really bad Punch and Judy show at the 1964 World’s Fair, here [in New York City]. But despite the fact that it was not really
great theatre, it was still unbelievably exciting to me, because it was live. That was the first time I’d seen a puppet
live, and that was like a life-changing event. I don’t know – how do people, you know,
where do proclivities for human existence come from? I don’t know. It was something that always attracted me,
right away. And I think one of the reasons that it attracted
me was ‘cause once I found out more about it and started studying, you know, “Well,
who are these people? How do they do what they do?” – it encompasses an incredibly broad range
of artistic disciplines. The average puppeteer is creating his own
material and designing his puppets and creating his puppets and making it and painting the
scenery and making his set, and ultimately gets to perform as well. And it’s really good for someone who has
Attention Deficit Disorder. (LAUGHTER) Definitely! So I started my little pathetic efforts in
puppetry very early on, and strictly a hobby. I’m actually a fairly – I was fairly late,
coming to it professionally. I didn’t really start professionally until
I was twenty-eight. And how did you make the switch from to becoming
a professional puppeteer? Had you had specific training, or was it that
you’d sort of trained yourself in your room? I was pretty much self-taught, and I think
a lot of puppeteers go through the same thing. It was just sort of by the skin of my teeth,
whatever I could sort of gather from books and what I saw other people doing. The first time I ever met somebody else who
called themselves a puppeteer was when I met to the O’Neill. They used to have a puppetry program there
that was affiliated with the National Theatre Institute, the Institute for Professional
Puppetry Arts, which is a program that sadly no longer exists. But that was the first time I ever met somebody
else who called themselves a puppeteer. Up until then, I was completely self-taught,
and it was just really a hobby. And it really just sort of took me over. I think it chose me, rather than me choosing
it. It was something that I could just do 24/7,
and never get tired of. And that’s the story with a lot of puppeteers. And fortunately, now, somebody who has interest
in puppetry can go and get training. There are places that you can get that kind
of training, like the Puppetry Conference at the O’Neill. At the University of Connecticut, at Janie’s
program out at– Cal Arts. Cal Arts, yeah. Well, let me ask Pam, because you are a graduate
of the only degree-granting graduate program in puppetry in the United States. I believe it’s the only graduate degree. Yeah, I think I said “graduate.” There is undergraduate. Yes, graduate degree program. And of course, you do run this conference
at the O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, which over the years we should say, has always
had a relationship to puppetry, which goes back to the fact that, among the founders
of the O’Neill were Rufus and Margo Rose, the creators of the Howdy Doody puppets, and
I gather mentors to your father? Friends. Friends, yes. So tell us about the program now and about
the programs that there are. When I went through the University of Connecticut,
there was only two schools. The other one was U.C.L.A. and they only took
two puppeteers a year into that program. I was actually accepted into both, but decided
to go to UConn, because it was a much broader program. And UConn has continued. They’re a wonderful program. They accept about twenty-five, I believe it’s
up to. They have about twenty-five to thirty people
going through both undergraduate and graduate levels. And there’s multiple graduate degrees you
can get from there as well. And it’s a wonderful program. We study everything. We study directing, we study lighting, we
study costume design, we study dance. You study acting, you study singing, you study
everything. And that’s what it takes to be a puppeteer,
very often. You are, as Rick said, one of the reasons
we become puppeteers is ‘cause we like to do so many things. We all seem to be capable in a variety of
areas, to do them pretty well. Sometimes the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none
comes to mind, but! (LAUGHS) But fortunately, we’re pretty good
at all of those things. The O’Neill program grew out of the fact
that, on a sort of more professional level, there really wasn’t someplace you could
go and intensively study puppetry. And so, one of our main goals is to develop
new works for the puppet theatre. That’s one thing, to have actual wonderful,
you know, shows coming out of here. And Roman has been one of our guest artists
there, developing shows there for us. And basically, the conference, it’s one
of my favorite experiences. We take about twenty-five to thirty participants. And within the context of a week, you will
work with a guest artist or you will be your own independent artist. And within about five days, you come out with
a show that you’re performing at the end of the week, for the community and for the
conference. And it’s sort of an accelerated puppet program
that you get to go to once a year. (TO RICK) And like you said, you don’t meet
other puppeteers other [than this]. Where do you go and find a group of puppeteers
to learn your skill? There’s nowhere to go, and the O’Neill
provided this. There are puppet festivals, with the Puppeteers
of America as well, which are very good, but it’s not intensive. And what the O’Neill does is we really try
to give you tools to go out. And our dual goal is to develop puppet works
and to raise the standards of puppetry, to make sure that good work is being developed
and getting out there, and that people learn these skills. There’s just no other avenue. And that’s a joy of running the O’Neill,
is that we’re able to present that to very creative people. I think that one of the things that is very
special about puppetry is that people do come to it from so many different disciplines. And that, in doing the puppet festival, we
looked at, you know, hundreds of different puppet artists, from all around the world. And some of the most exciting things is the
differences. An artist like Janie Geiser or Theodora Skipitares
coming from art, from being flat artists or visual artists. People who are choreographers, Alice Farley,
coming from the dance direction, coming from a text-based piece. That there are so many different directions
that people can come from, in order to be a puppeteer. Because I think that one of the wonderful
things about puppetry is that it’s not really easily defined, that it can be almost anything,
and that’s really exciting about it. It’s especially a meeting place of the visual
arts and the performing arts. And I know that was one of the real incentives
to me when I was first experimenting with puppet theatre, was the discovery – I began
as a theatre person – but the discovery of the whole visual aspect of it was very
important. And I think it’s true that the whole performance
art movement then, particularly in the 1980’s, visual theatre, the ‘70’s performance
out of the ‘80’s, has really given a huge push to puppet theatre. And it’s also made us start talking about
puppet theatre as something that’s very, very much broader in scope than the notion
of a theatre in which little figures, you know, little humanoids, if you like, are simulating
human beings. I think Basil’s show is an example of that,
where shapes and forms have taken the place of characters. Well, as you talk about shapes and forms,
something Cheryl said reminded me actually of a piece I saw by your sister Heather, which
was one of the earliest puppet pieces that I had seen, in which I watched it and I thought
to myself, “How is this different from dance?” And even as I set up this probably fallacious
relationship, or oppositional relationship, between human theatre and puppet theatre,
I am struck that when I saw Basil’s piece, it is like watching shapes dance. As I said, your sister’s work very much
had people doing what I would look at more as modern dance than puppetry. How do you develop the discipline, all of
the disciplines that are worked at? Rick listed, you know, that you’re the performer,
you’re the writer, you build the puppets. How do you come to that? Basil, what was your experience? Well, I started as a puppeteer very young. I mean, as a child I was heavily influenced
by “Sesame Street,” as so many of my generation were. And actually, it’s also in my family, so
my mother was a puppeteer when I was a kid. She had a sort of children’s puppet company. And I just started making my own puppets. And so, it was the – more the building thing
that I liked. I was very shy as a child, so it was also
a way for me to get attention, but without drawing too much attention to myself, which
I think lots of puppeteers will tell you is the case. And then I came to New York and worked with
a number of different artists, and eventually had this extraordinary experience where I
had training at this school in France. And at that school, I was taught – again,
we covered kind of – it was like, you know, a spectrum of performance and building, and
music and dance and movement and voice and all the different puppetry techniques. So I had a, you know – I mean, I think everybody
has their different paths. I feel like I was really lucky that I found
a training program, because I know that most puppeteers do just find their way. They’re drawn to a certain puppeteer. I remember there was a magnificent puppeteer
named Bob Hartman in San Francisco where I grew up, and I used to go see his shows all,
all, all the time. And I know he taught me so much. And you’re drawn to – you see people’s
work and you just go and try and learn more. Roman was also a teacher of mine, someone
whose work I saw and I was curious about. And I think that’s the way a lot of puppeteers
work. They see work that interests them, and they
gravitate towards it. I was lucky enough to have a training program
that supported that, in addition to it. But it’s really like people find their way. And I think that’s why puppetry is so different,
because everybody finds their own path to it. Well, and to go back to what Roman was saying,
in conjunction to what you were just asking, what’s the difference? You know, what made Heather’s piece a puppet
piece, rather than a dance piece? And I think it is – as Roman just briefly
touched on – it’s that in a piece of puppet theatre, the visual thing, the physical thing
that is the puppet is the focus. It’s the central methodology for telling
the story or presenting the piece, as opposed to it being an aspect of or just a little
part of. It’s the primary venue. It’s the primary conduit for the performance. And that’s, you know, if you want to define
puppet theatre, that would be as close of a definition that I can come to, is that the
focus is not on a person or a dance or whatever. The focus is on that visual element that is
the puppet, whether it’s a rod puppet or a string puppet or a hand puppet or whatever
it is. And that sort of, you know, splitting-hairs
thing that we’re talking about, if a thing is a “puppet theatre” piece, then the
main focus of it is this object, which is a piece of, you know, craft, a sculptural
object, whatever it is, that is the center of the device. Yeah. When we were producing the International Festival
of Puppet Theatre, this came up very often. You know, “Is it a puppet piece? Is it a theatre piece? How much puppetry does it need to have in
it to really make it a puppet theatre piece?” And one question we just kept coming back
and asking ourselves is, “Does it need to be done with puppets? Can you do this piece with human actors, just
as well with puppets?” And if so, then just do it with human actors! It needs to have something special about the
piece itself that it’s trying to convey, whether it’s the story or the concepts,
that the ideas are somehow beyond the everyday human world and everyday human interactions. And, “What is special about [it]? Why does it need to be puppets?” And if you can’t really say that, then you
should just go ahead and do it with people. Well, like Basil’s piece is such a good
example of that. It is so visual, and it’s an abstraction. You can’t deal with a human form. You can’t deal with those same kind of abstract
ideas and those abstract movements and so forth that you can deal with, you know, in
a piece like Basil’s. A person waving his arms around in a tank
of water would look pretty silly. (DEMONSTRATES; LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) There might be an audience for it! (LAUGHTER) Another experience entirely! In fact, there’s that club downtown that
… (LAUGHTER) So the key, for me, is like that visual thing. It’s that abstraction. It’s that reduction. A puppet is, by its very nature, an abstraction,
a reduction, a – I don’t know. A concept, an idea. Yeah. Something that’s boiled down to its very
essential nature. When a human being walks out on stage, even
given the willing suspension of disbelief that is at the heart of all theatre, when
a human being walks out on stage, intellectually, I know that, “Well, you know, this guy’s
name is not Bob, it’s Frank. And he lives at home and he has to commute
in every day and he brushes his teeth.” There’s just so much information that I
know about this human being. When a puppet walks out on stage, it is what
it is. It’s not pretending to be something else. It is what it is. And so it’s an abstraction, a reduction. And there are things that you can do with
puppets, because of that, that you just can’t do with humans. They have too much baggage. No, well – oh, I’m sorry, go ahead. I just wanted to add to that, what I’ve
heard was that, if you think of it, a puppet is to an actor the way a poem is to an essay. I mean, basically, it’s like a piece of
poetry. It’s just taken a few lines of all this
information and made it into one visual piece for you. Well, Roman, you direct what would be seen
as conventional human theatre. You create works which are specifically puppet
theatre. To this issue of making the choice, because
you’ve done – if I read your biography correctly, you have done work with puppets
from what are considered conventional works of dramatic literature. How do you make those choices? Well, I’m not so sure that’s really a
choice. I mean, to me the puppet is a very, very seductive
theatrical medium. I mean in the same way that a visual artist
chooses to work with collage or watercolor, you know, I have primarily chosen to work
with puppetry. And the pieces that I have directed that are
from the dramatic canon or whatever have been pieces that, in most cases, I myself have
chosen because I saw a certain potential for my own particular way or my own particular
theatrical vision, my way of doing things, which normally does include some, if not puppets
per se, what I call puppet technique, which is a pretty broad way of describing it. And I would agree, however, with what Rick
was saying earlier, that when we end up labeling something puppet theatre, it’s because the
puppet becomes the dramatic focus of the piece. And to come back to something that he was
saying at the very beginning about revealing the puppeteer, I think that’s very critical
to understanding what’s going on in contemporary puppetry. Because while traditionally the puppeteer
is discreet, invisible, in the interest of creating a total illusion, puppeteers emerging
from the wings has changed the perception of what puppet theatre is. Now, he was describing a situation in which
the actor and the puppet are basically doubling for one another, in terms of attempting to
present a single character. What we did in DEAD PUPPET TALK, the piece
from which the Bill Irwin segment is taken, was in fact to try to allow the puppeteers
to be characters in their own right, and the puppets, so that while they were manipulating
the puppets at the same time we were trying to push the audience to actually credit the
puppet with its own life, if you like, with its own character, and to see to what extent,
you know, that’s possible. And I think, well, for me, in any case, that’s
the essence of puppet theatre. But without removing the human being from
his direct interaction with it, at which point it becomes animation. I didn’t really answer your question today
about the – (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) But what you say is fascinating. I want to pick up on what you said. You commented about we talk about what’s
going on in contemporary puppetry. What is going on in contemporary puppetry? What are the things that people are looking
to explore? Are there endless new techniques that we continue
to find? Are there trends that you all want to deal
with? Cheryl, you’ve got such an overview. I’m wondering, maybe you can tell you us
a little bit about what you see. Or have I put you too much on the spot? Well, I could talk a little bit about our
puppet festivals, that we did do these large scale puppet festivals here in New York, throughout
the ‘90’s. And we started in 1992 and we did five festivals,
every other year, until the year 2000. And we presented, I think at last count it
was 136 different productions over those five festivals. And so, it was a very broad range. And our focus really was on contemporary adult
puppet theatre. We always had a component for children, because
nobody wants to leave the kids out and there is some wonderful, wonderful work out there
for children. But we wanted to focus the attention on the
work for adults, and to really introduce the New York audience to what adult puppetry could
be. We had seen so many shows – when I say “we,”
actually I’d seen – my father and I and many of us would go to festivals throughout
the world. And we actually first thought of the idea
of doing this particular festival at a Puppeteers of America festival at M.I.T., when I first
met Roman, and we were seeing an extraordinary piece by a German puppeteer. It was a piece called HERMANN (PH) and it
was a very, very simple piece where this very simple wooden puppet completely came to life. So throughout the ‘90’s, we were trying
to introduce people to a very broad range. And within each festival, we’d try to have
something that incorporates dance, that is coming from dance, something that is coming
from visual arts, something that incorporates video, something to really keep the definition
of puppetry as broad as possible, and yet to always have a strong component of puppetry
within each piece. Now, I think that a lot of the younger artists
who are now working in puppetry have picked up that broadness, and that they do see that
the palette is all theirs. They can work with anything. That there aren’t these strict limitations
of what puppetry must be. It can be almost anything. I have to say that some of the most exciting
young new artists that I see working are working at the Dream Music Puppetry Program at HERE,
which is Basil’s program, and there’s a wonderful community of artists there. But what you see is you see them working on
each other’s shows, but incorporating many different techniques, incorporating video,
incorporating music, live singing, and that anything goes. And that, to me, is what’s most exciting. Well, clearly, Basil, you need to tell us
more about that program. Well, that was a program (LAUGHS), initially
just SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE premiered down at the HERE Arts Center in SoHo in 1998 and
inaugurated a new space that was kind of perfectly configured for puppetry, a very intimate space. And it was really just a program to keep the
ball rolling there, to keep that space alive and active. And I had the experience, when I had the success
of SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE that I had puppeteers coming towards me, as I had gravitated towards
puppeteers whose work interested me. And most of them had small pieces that they
were developing on their own. And so, it was just an opportunity, this program,
to give these puppeteers resources and a venue and an opportunity to show their work. And so, we produce some – maybe just three
or four shows a year that are puppeteers who I would call emerging artists. So, artists who have not had the opportunity
to present a full-fledged show and maybe never worked with (LAUGHS) theatrical lights or
a sound system, but we have that available at the theatre downtown. And Pam, when you gather, again, a lot of
young, and you also used the phrase “emerging artists,” at the O’Neill, are there trends? Are there things that these younger puppeteers
come up there wanting to explore, wanting to learn? Well, it’s interesting, because it almost
is going back. Right now, there’s a huge interest in marionettes
again. And for a few years, as far as when we were
getting out of graduate school, marionettes were sort of very old-fashioned and not interesting. But they have blossomed again. We have a huge interest in marionettes. So certain techniques are interesting, but
it also is exploding everywhere, because we are also including now sort of a video arena,
a film arena, because the whole technique of puppets on film has completely opened up
as well. And so, it’s almost as though the trend
is everything. I mean, everything is being used and brought
into the puppet world, the puppet field. Everything that could be a puppet, every technique,
from video to theatre, specialties are brought in. It’s very exciting to see, because my emerging
artists who come to us – emerging artists, in our venue, present us with an idea. They’re puppeteers, like you said, who have
(LAUGHS) maybe never worked with real lights before, or had any support. And what we do at the O’Neill in that week,
we support the artists. We give them puppeteers to work with them. We give them help in building these things
and techniques of getting it built. There’s a staff available to them to say,
“Why don’t you try it this way? This is how it worked previously. Oh, that’s a great idea. Let’s go in that – you know, that avenue
will help you out more.” But the variety of what comes to us is so
broad, from children’s theatre all the way through very serious works of art. It’s a very exciting time in puppetry. I think we are just opening up and being accepted. I think for many years, the puppet field,
we weren’t necessarily all that well accepted into theatre venues. We were sort of shunted aside. And now, it’s wonderful. I feel as if we have so much respect now. You mentioned film and video, and I want to
mention two things that came up in a discussion I had before the seminar with one of our staff. You comment about the upswing in marionettes
again, and I can’t help but wonder, triggered by this conversation, whether the fact that
so many people saw the film, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (PAM NODS), which opened with extraordinary
marionette work by Philip Huber (PH). And in the same way that apparently there
are people rushing to forensic science programs because of “C.S.I.,” (LAUGHTER) — you
know, is that a factor? When a certain type of puppetry is elevated,
just as now we’ve got, you know, how many thousands of people a week seeing AVENUE Q
live, does that affect it? But at the same time, in the same conversation,
it was pointed out that now, almost thirty years ago, we had this extraordinary character
created on film, Yoda, by Frank Oz. And Yoda is now computer-animated. So it’s the push and pull of an ancient
art form that comes up against the modernism. And how much is an opportunity and how much
is it something that has to be fought against? Well, I mean, I think every time that a major
feature film featuring puppets, you know, has success, there’s an impact and it’s
good for puppet theatre in general. But I think one of the reasons for the explosion
of experimentation in puppet theatre has a lot to do with the fact that in the late ‘70’s,
‘80’s, the contact with performance art, if you like, and the re-definition of puppet
theatre as anything – anything can be a puppet, which people keep saying here – has
made it possible for younger or emerging artists to say, “Okay, I want to work with puppets.” But they think about the show before they
think about the technique. In other words, they’re able, they now have
the critical blessing with which to say, “Okay, a popsicle stick is okay. It doesn’t have to have fifteen strings.” And that’s created a very liberating environment
for puppet theatre. And I think that what’s happened personally,
after a certain number of years of people experimenting with what was often referred
to as “theatre of objects,” is the rediscovery of the desire to further articulate the object. So in a sense, we’re rediscovering the technique,
and maybe re-inventing it. Each puppeteer, as someone mentioned earlier,
is kind of re-inventing it in his own way. And that explains the huge variety of shows
that one can see that are, you know, under the rubric “puppet theatre.” Basil, technology obviously – I mean, it’s
underwater technology (LAUGHS) [that] plays into how you achieve some of SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE. I mean, are people actually on tanks at times
when they’re [doing it]? Or they’re just in wet suits? (LAUGHS) No, people just in wet suits backstage. They don’t get in the tank. But the thing about my show, which is interesting,
is that it is – I am a bit of an old-fashioned puppeteer, in that I always, in my shows,
I keep the puppeteers hidden. I’m a little bit – I sort of have, in
fact, reacted to the sort of new wave of modern puppetry where the puppeteer is always visible,
because I really loved the total illusion. So my show, it’s very much – well, in
SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE, it’s very much a little curtain that goes up on a small proscenium,
and the imagery happens within that proscenium and you don’t see the puppeteers at work. The thing is, though, the imagery, as some
people have compared it, it’s very much like a computer image! And it’s square, like a video monitor, and
looks like maybe your computer screen saver (LAUGHS) or something! And that’s part of though, what’s so – You could put that in the ads. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) They don’t put that in the ads, no! But the thing is that you know that it’s
live. It’s not a film when you’re watching it. You know that it’s live. You don’t need to see the puppeteers actually
in action to [know that]. And in fact, our show is very much a low-tech
show. I mean, there’s a lot of lights, but it’s
really just some stuff on sticks and we’re moving it through water. (LAUGHTER) It’s very low-tech. But it has this – it looks something like
computer imagery. And I think it’s just interesting that you
mentioned computer imagery, because people make that comparison with the show a lot. Except for – and people have also asked
me all the time, “Why don’t you make a, you know, video of this show?” Well, because it’s not a video! (LAUGHTER) It’s a live experience. Yeah, sure. It’s too close to a film, in a way. And what really puts it in a different place
is that there is a live element to it. You can feel the puppeteers at work back there,
even though you can’t see them. And in fact, and we talked earlier about the
presence of the puppeteer and where the focus is, while through the entire experience you
are watching, through a very formal proscenium, this show taking place in a thousand gallon
tank, at the end of the show, it wasn’t announced, but the curtain was opened and
the audience was invited to peek behind the curtain and get a sense. And in fact, the puppeteers were explaining
a bit of how they did some of what they did. Is that because you want people to know more,
to understand what they have seen? Is it just to give them more of an experience
in the theatre that night? Just a lot of people want to see that. Personally, I don’t want them to see it
during the show. Not during that show. That’s not my intention. I want them to focus (LAUGHS) on what I’m
trying to show them! But I’m not trying to hide my secrets, ultimately,
and people are fascinated by that stuff. And in fact, you’re selling seats back stage? I saw it – Yes, we are, we are. So people who have seen it can then go back
and watch how it was done. You can actually see how the show is happening
live. Besides, also, people do get to see the show
backstage, after the show. But we also offer an opportunity for people
to watch backstage. It is a complete experience. I know that people love that and enjoy that,
and you know, that’s part of puppetry today that a lot of people want to know how it’s
done. There’s definitely also people in the audience
who come and see the show and they say, “I don’t want to come backstage! I don’t want to know how it was done. I want to leave it as it is.” And I love it when people say that. Well, and that tradition of watching how something
is done, in performance, is not new, either. I mean, you know, I’m going to mispronounce
it, ‘cause I always do, the Karagoz thing, the Turkish shadow puppets. Traditionally, they are performed with anybody
sitting wherever they want to. They can sit behind and watch the puppeteer
perform it, if they want to see behind the scenes, and they can sit in front and just
watch the screen, if they want to. So that’s not a new thing. It’s very interesting, you know, this idea
of revealing, you know, or whatever, is so interesting because there’s an interesting
irony about it. A lot of people go to see something backstage,
or they see a technique revealed and it’s even more of a mystery once it’s been explained
or once they’ve seen it. Yeah. I loved your father on one of the episodes
of “The Jim Henson Hour” said, “Okay, we’re just going to pull back and we’re
going to see all the puppeteers.” And there’s an interesting thing about – you
know, it’s why, like, DVD extras are packed with “Making-Of”s, ‘cause people love
to get that stuff. They like to see how something is accomplished. But explaining it and showing it doesn’t
necessarily take the mystery away. Sometimes, it adds to the mystery. Sometimes, you just go, “That’s all it
is? How do they make it seem so real?” Right. So that’s an interesting thing. And I also just want to respond, really quickly,
to your notion of technology and how that affects theatre, because of course it always
does. And whatever current theatre technology is
available always find its way into commercial and experimental theatre. I mean, can you imagine, like, when electrical
lights first became available? The theatre is, “Wow, what a special effect!” But there are definitely things that happen
because of technology, too. We are such a technology-saturated culture
right now. I think one of the reasons that there’s
been a surge in puppetry is because theatre puppetry is real. It’s happening in real time, right in front
of you. And because it’s puppets, it’s dimensional,
it’s very visceral. And I think people are a little over-saturated
with, you know, DVDs and TV and computer animation and blah-dee-blah-dee-blah. I think people do reach a point where they
get tired of that and something simpler seems innovative. And seeing the puppeteer at work on stage
brings that home even more, that you see that act happening right there in front of you. You see how it’s being done, and still you
can get lost in it. Or even feeling it, as Basil said earlier,
even if the puppeteer is invisible. Feel, right. Because when you asked earlier about the difference
between the actor and the puppet, you know, normally, speaking, a puppet can achieve enough
in about five hours’ of work, what an actor can achieve in about five seconds. So what that means is that the art of it is
in that struggle to achieve that same kind of, if it’s a naturalistic gesture, that
fluidity and naturalness, or the beauty of the moment. And it’s a difficult art form. And I think that for an audience, it’s the
feeling, whether they’re conscious of it or not, of the struggle to produce what the
puppet is producing, the visual effect or whatever it is, is the real core of the art
form. Right. I was just going to say, or maybe not even
the struggle, but the play of it. The tension, right. Because my father was always into the playfulness
of it, and that it’s the fastness. And it’s the human aspect of it, and in
particular, the hand, that a good puppet performance almost always comes back down to the performance
of the human aspect of it, and very often in the hands. And what is the hand able to express, and
put into the puppet, to be able to create a sense of life? And my brother is working a lot now with creating
computer-generated characters that are totally still performed by puppeteers and puppeteers’
hands. And it’s very hands-on, so that you get
the high technology, but that good performance needs the naturalness and easiness and the
playfulness of the human hands. Right, it’s human effort. Yeah, when you address the technology advancement
problem, I don’t see it as a problem. It’s just more tools for puppeteers to use. We are nothing if we are not pragmatic, and
we will take whatever the technology is, and we will figure out how to create and tell
our stories. That’s what we do as puppeteers. We love – see, a lot of times, we’re gadget
geeks. You know, we like how little things work,
and how did that car move across the floor? Well, we’ll incorporate that into something
else, and then we’ll also draw it into learning to make that movement fluid, and learning
to make it really look like the animal we need it to be. And puppeteers are real experimenters. The whole thing of, “Whatever you have,
make that work.” And so, if there is some cool new technology,
you can bet that there are going to be some puppeteers that are going to come forward
and make it work for them. Because it’s really about doing it differently,
doing it in a way that it hasn’t been done before, and taking what’s available. Oh, yeah. Well, artists are early adapters or adopters. Right, exactly. They just take in whatever’s available and
use it, you know? Whether it’s a rubber band or a, you know,
computer animation or whatever. And I do want to qualify what I said. I was responding directly to your thing about,
you know, technology. There is definitely, you know, a pendulum
that swings away from it, but it’s also very embraced. And I mean, let’s just look at contemporary
theatre in general. If you look at very sort of traditional Broadway
musicals now, they’re all using video and they’re all using projections, and they’re
all using, you know – what’s the word I’m looking for? Musical programs that, you know, have scores
– Synthesizers? Synthesized it, and – oh, what is the word
I’m looking for? It’s actually not just a synthesizer, but
it actually plays the thing – Oh, these virtual orchestras? Yeah. And all the technology that’s involved in
scenic stuff now. It’s all, like, computerized. There’s not a stagehand pushing something
on stage. It’s all on, you know, computerized tracks
and all this sort of stuff. So definitely, art adopts technology and exploits
it for all it’s worth, like, as soon as it’s available. Well, I want to do an incredibly un-subtle
segue. Both Basil and Rick have brought a couple
of puppets with them. So I’m going to ask them to kind of bring
them out, because it’s in response to something that Cheryl was saying, about that it all
comes back down to the hand. And when AVENUE Q was being developed, there
were people I know who saw the show and said, “Well, it’s really cute, but how do you
put it in a theatre? I mean, the thing is still this big.” And it does come back to what we keep saying,
is that it’s fundamentally human. With AVENUE Q, the show has gone to larger
and larger venues. The same has happened with SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE,
where the scale of what goes on [has grown]. So does that become a fundamental limitation
of working with many kinds of puppets? That’s not to say there aren’t people
who have created enormous puppets. We look at what Julie Taymor has done in LION
KING. We look even at the Halloween Parade here
in New York, which really had its roots as a puppet event. But how does scale affect what you do, or
limit what you do? Well, certainly there are limitations inherent
in any particular form of puppet, in terms of scale. You can, in theory, make a marionette that
is eighteen feet tall, but the sheer weight of it and the physical exertion that it’s
going to take to move it is going to be rather extraordinary, too. So when you scale up a puppet, the amount
of exertion and force required to perform it is going to exponentially increase as well. With AVENUE Q, the puppets that we use, and
I have a couple here from the show are very much in the tradition of hand puppets. (BRINGS OUT NICKY AND BEGINS TO DEMONSTRATE)
They’re what we call mouth puppets. In this instance, the puppeteer’s hand is
in the head, operating the mouth, and there’s another hand on – this is what we call a
“live hands” puppet – and then the puppeteer’s other hand is in the hand. And this is normally, I should point out,
this kind of puppet is normally performed by two puppeteers. There’s normally a person on the right hand
as well. So again, he’s bigger, requires two people. It’s beyond the scope of one person to perform. But one of the things that I said earlier
about puppetry is, again, it’s going back to the idea of abstractions. And playing in a big space, Nicky’s eye
– this is Nicky, from AVENUE Q – Nicky’s eye is the size of the bottom third of an
actor’s whole face. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) So when we first
moved AVENUE Q from Off-Broadway to Broadway, that was a big consideration, “Will it play
in a bigger house?” And we literally took the puppets to different
theatres and said, “Can you see it from the back row?” And the truth is, you can see Nicky’s face
from the back row in a big theatre better than you can see one of the human’s faces. Well, they’re so graphic. Because it’s abstract, and because the color
is bright, and all those things. Because it’s a reduction, it’s a simplification. I like to think of this kind of puppet – my
sort of design esthetic is, like, “What would Al Hirschfeld do?” You know, what’s the least information that
I can provide that makes the appropriate impression on the audience? You know, his pictures were famous for being
so spare. He could take (PUTS NICKY’S HAND IN NICKY’S
MOUTH SO THAT HE CAN GESTURE WITH HIS OWN HAND; LAUGHTER) a line like that, and “Oh,
my gosh, it’s Bernadette Peters!” You know? With almost no information. And that’s what we’re trying to do when
we, you know, design this kind of puppet, is what’s the least amount of information
we can do. But obviously, this kind of puppet is limited
by how big the puppeteer can be. I mean, this is about as big a puppet in this
style as you can use and still have a human being exert it and still have proportions
that seem, you know, reasonable. Yes, we could scale up the puppets. We could make their heads a lot bigger to
fill, you know, a four thousand seat roadhouse somewhere. But it probably wouldn’t work very well,
because there’s something about the relative scale of them that works. We have taken the puppets to, like, awards
shows and stuff, and yes, they’re swallowed up by a barn the size of Radio City Music
Hall. But we’ve done award shows in two thousand
seat houses, with our producers sitting in the back row, going, “I can see them so
well! Why aren’t we in a bigger theatre?” (LAUGHTER) So yes, there are definitely limitations
to this style of puppet. You can only make them as big as a human being
can perform. And if they get too big, they get too – And those are also in relationship to actors,
so it makes sense that they’d be – Exactly! You don’t want the puppet to overwhelm the
actor, either, in this case, in the case of AVENUE Q. Now, of course, you talk about Julie Taymor’s
work, and like, THE MAGIC FLUTE – have you seen her production of THE MAGIC FLUTE? No. She’s got these huge, huge, like eighteen-foot-tall
pole puppets. But they’re manipulated by four or five
people. And the ones that are not are like, you know,
what we sometimes refer to as “kite puppets.” They made out of, like, rip-stop nylon, and
they’re basically two-dimensional, on frames. And they are performed by, like, one or two
people, because they’re so light. But they have limitations to what they can
do, because they’re so big. So every style of puppet, every choice that
you make about what kind of puppet you use, definitely has, you know, scale issues that
it has to deal with. Well, I just want to say something about the
style of AVENUE Q puppets, because they’re based on the Muppet style. And if you go back to when my father first
created the Muppet style, back in the ‘50’s, he created them for television. And it was actually the first time that puppets
had ever been designed specifically to be performed on television. Before that, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, or Bill
Baird’s puppets, Howdy Doody, were puppets for the live theatre that then made it onto
television. So here he was, creating a new style of puppets
just for television, and that’s why (GESTURES TO HER EYES) they were so simple. And it was back in the ‘50’s, when television
was all black-and-white. In fact, the anchors would wear dark lipstick,
to accentuate their mouths, so you could really see them speaking. And so, he was actually the first person to
do lip-sync. Before that, when a puppet would talk, it
would just go all over the place, like the alligator in “Kukla, Fran and Ollie.” But Muppets were the first ones that would
actually do it right to the words, and that was about the television. So now, it’s really interesting to see that
now gravitate back to the live theatre! (LAUGHS) So I think it’s sort of interesting. Another thing about the scale – so, the
puppet I brought is smaller! And just to say that, as we were saying, a
lot of puppeteers start out because they want to be their own performer, their own stagehand,
their own (LAUGHS) hair and makeup person (RICK LAUGHS), their own playwright and builder. And it’s sort of the idea of – I mean,
I know I used to do shows like these, and I’d still sometime perform by myself. And it’s nice to be able to perform by yourself! It’s the thing of a puppeteer being able
to control their own universe and present it and having it be miniature makes that possible. So that’s part of why so much of a lot of
puppetry we see is miniature. And I also just – there’s a great appeal
to the miniature and to the intimate experience. There was a show we just presented down at
the Dream Music Publisher program that was for only twenty-five people at a time. And it’s a very special, theatrical experience,
to have that, to be in such a small space, with a small number of people, focused on
such a small thing. It’s very different. It requires a very different kind of concentration
than being in an enormous house. So anyway, that’s just – Well, can we see the puppet that you’ve
brought? Yes! Because I need to say, just to share with
everyone while you’re getting it, we had Paula Vogel with us a couple of weeks ago,
and mentioned that you were going to be doing it. And she immediately said, “Oh, he must bring
– ” and I’m not going to remember the name right, so you’ll tell us the name of
the puppet. But the idea that she had seen a particular
puppet that Basil did and said, “Oh, you must see this!” Now, there is a huge world of puppetry. We, very casually, there have been a lot of
mentions of different kinds of puppets. We’re only representing two here. So, yeah, this is obviously a very different
kind of puppet. (BEGINS TO DEMONSTRATE WITH A SMALL WOODEN
MARIONETTE) This is a string puppet. He’s called “Stickman,” is his name. And he’s a very, I don’t know, a basic
string marionette. It’s wonderful that there is more of an
interest in marionettes right now. It’s a really difficult technique. It’s actually a little tricky doing it on
this chair here. And it’s wonderful to know that there are
so many people who are interested in technique. Because there was a lot of puppetry for a
while, with popsicle sticks. And not that that doesn’t take enormous
technique itself, but this is a technique that takes a long time to learn, and it’s
an old tradition, the string puppets. And one of the best things, of course, a string
puppet can do, is fly! (DEMONSTRATES; LAUGHTER) And a beautiful thing
about a string puppet is that it’s separate from my hands. I mean, my hands are obviously working, but
I can have an experience with this puppet where I can really sit and watch him, like
from a distance, because I have a distance from him. I don’t have my hand right in him. And so, in a way, I have even more opportunities
to perform with this puppet. I can relate to him (TOUCHES STICKMAN’S
HEAD WITH HIS HAND) and use him in ways where I am actually in relationship to the puppet,
and that the relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet, that metaphor of someone bringing
something to life, you can see that actually happening. God. And it also bespeaks why you use a puppet,
because puppets can fly! Making a human being do this would take hours
in a theatre! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) Lots of money, and
lots of, you know, flying rigs. Right. And so you get the visual. Then you make the choice to use the puppet. And talk about what we were saying before
about the physical, the human effort involved. Now if we took that puppet away, and we showed
you Basil’s hands just going like this, it probably wouldn’t – I mean, it might
be interesting, but it wouldn’t add up to a whole lot. And what I was just doing with Nicky is this
(DEMONSTRATES WITH HIS BARE HAND, MAKING SMALL MOVEMENTS). It’s very subtle, and it’s very small. Well, Pam, haven’t you worked on a children’s
show? Yeah, we worked on a show called “Oobi,”
which is just eyeballs on the top of the hand. It’s the bare hand talking to you, with
just eyeballs looking at you. And actually, children love it. They sit at home and do this themselves, apparently. (LAUGHS) They talk to their own hands! Which is great, you know, the start of puppeteers. But that’s what it is. He looks, you know. That’s one of the – you know, we touched
on it earlier – one of the great things about – well, why do puppets appeal to children? Why does that happen? Why is not just a thing for adults? And I think it goes back to that abstraction,
that reduction, that simplification. Children glom onto symbols and abstractions,
like we just don’t comprehend. So when this thing that we’ve created, full
of abstractions, reductions and everything, is presented from a kid, they frequently grab
onto it and recognize it, from a visceral point of view that we just don’t know. And so, I think it’s easy to see why kids
are attracted to puppetry. It’s for all the same reasons that we are,
without all the intellectual B.S. that goes with it. Yeah, actually I have a two-and-a-half-year-old
daughter who is an active puppeteer. (PAM LAUGHS) And I think that most little
two-and-a-half-year-olds are, because there is something about just picking things up
and giving them characters, giving them voices, that is so human. And it’s a little bit about controlling
your environment, it’s a little bit about getting the play that’s going on inside
your head out, for somebody to share it, to have an interaction with somebody else, to
have an imaginary friend. But it is so natural, and it’s so immediate. So when you were first asking, “How do people
come to puppetry? What an odd road to follow,” it’s more
like how do they come back to it, because so many kids have it. Right. Well, it’s kind of, at that level, for a
kid to be performing, it’s an empowerment. Yeah. I mean, it gets all into that – It’s control. Exactly. It’s control. And it’s sort of like, you know, as you
start to intellectualize these things as you get older and you talk about, you know, adult
theatre and stuff like that, you wrap up in all these mind games about, well, it’s Frankenstein
and you’re creating life from the lifeless, blah-blah-blah. But it happens at a much more sort of elemental
and essential place. Yeah. And she was putting her hand inside of puppets
and insisting on performing them, from when she was, like, one. And so, it’s a very natural thing. She doesn’t pretend that it’s alive. It’s like the difference, she knows the
difference between when it’s being puppeteered, and is it alive. It’s totally part of human nature to understand
that and still want to do it and be a part of it. That suspension of disbelief that is just
natural to children. They just believe everything, whereas we pull
back on it. But they also want to do it themselves, you
know? Right. Well, and you know, I’ve also used the phrase,
“willing suspension of disbelief.” But I loved – it was in, about a year ago,
I think, the Village Voice, this interview (TO BASIL) that you participated in. And what I loved about the way you said it
was it’s not really the willing suspension of disbelief, it’s the creation of belief,
or the continuation of belief. Because believing, being able to look at something
– it’s actually something that Paula Vogel said, and I’d love to talk a little bit
about that show. Sure. But she just pointed out, it’s not the suspension
of disbelief. It’s that you’re looking at that and you’re
believing in it, you know? Yeah, yeah. (LAUGHS) And even though I can see it’s
on your hand, and I can see that, and how amazing that is. And I was really lucky to work with Paula
on this show, THE LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE HOME, which had puppeteers visible. But there was a really interesting sort of
set-up in that show, and I think it also speaks to why puppetry is popular nowadays, or a
lot of use in puppetry in a larger theatre piece, is the idea of, as we started to point
out here, puppetry as a metaphor. And in THE LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE HOME, there
were actors who used puppets that looked like their childhood selves. And the actor-puppeteer-character stood behind
the puppet and simultaneously, as they were animating the puppet and bringing it to life,
there was an act of them witnessing their own childhood, retelling the story of their
childhood. They were being storytellers of their own
past. They were also witnesses to it, you know,
someone who was just observing what was happening. And I think there’s lots of uses that we’re
seeing. For example, in THE LION KING, my interpretation
of a lot of the magic of THE LION KING is the joy of seeing not just the story being
told, but seeing people telling a story being told. It’s not just the story of a lion. It’s the story of people – there’s people
who are telling the story of this lion, and they have these fantastic costumes, and these
things that they use to tell this story, and it’s a theatrical event, the story-telling
itself becomes – I think it’s being used a lot in – And it is totally a theatrical convention. If you took THE LION KING production on Broadway
and put it on video, it would not be as compelling and it would not be as interesting. You’d rather watch the cartoon. And it’s the same way with AVENUE Q. AVENUE
Q is not a television show. The conceit is so theatrical, having the puppeteer
and the puppet onstage at the same time, it’s so theatrical that you really cannot take
it out of its theatrical context very successfully. Although, it looked great on the Tonys. (LAUGHTER) Yeah, it did look good on the Tonys. It really looked good. I want to come back to LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE
HOME, because that is a play where in production, obviously, there is the choice that the childhood
selves were puppets manipulated by the actors who then, when it flashed forward to what
were actually more present-day scenes, the puppets were gone and those people played
them. Had Paula conceived that immediately, or was
that a directorial concept? Where did that choice come from? And then I have a second question. Well, just a third part of that show was that
they ultimately, then, the puppets were brought back to them. Right. And I think that was, in my sense of the show,
that’s really what almost the entire show was about, was this moment when the puppeteers
start with their childhood selves. Then they play their adult selves. And then the puppets are brought back to their
arms. And I feel like that was the moment that Paula
was really creating mostly the play around, was when the puppets were brought back, when
those characters went back to their childhood selves, once we had gone through their entire
journey. And that was Paula’s choice. That was the playwright’s choice. She had been fascinated by puppetry for a
while, and also by Japanese theatre forms. And Japanese has a venerable puppetry tradition
that is really – it’s almost its highest theatre tradition, in Japan. And so, she felt that was appropriate. There were Japanese themes in the show, and
it was an appropriate technique for that piece. And of course, because you were working with
actors who were not necessarily puppeteers – No, that’s right. And I’m curious to ask both you and Roman,
because Roman, as you say, you make choices, you don’t look at the definitions. You may do pieces where you incorporate puppets,
they may be solely puppet. Obviously, we’ve just been listening to
people who’ve spent lives immersed in puppetry. And then, what happens when you get to the
situation – do you find you have to make a choice of I need an actor, I need a puppeteer? Rick is obviously achieving both. Is that common, or do you find yourself training
people for one or the other? Roman, I’ll put you on the spot first. Well, I think, I mean, the choice is dictated
by the necessity within the production. And yes, if you decide, this – I mean, you’re
talking about character-driven pieces. And so, if you say, “Well, the character
is, in my mind, best represented by a puppet, or a puppet-cum-puppeteer, or a puppet-cum-actor,
or you know, whatever, or just an actor.” I think, you know, the choice should be dictated
by the production itself. And yes, it’s often the case that I’ve
often worked with actors who have no prior puppetry experience. And I’ve, you know, consequently adjusted
my sights in terms of, you know, the level of technical proficiency that I expected them
to have, in terms of accomplishing something that would still be finished and perfect,
you know, for an audience and not just look like a simulation of something that could
be better done if a trained puppeteer stepped into the role. And it’s interesting to work with actors
who have – I mean, it takes – there is a mindset that an actor has to have, a certain
kind of open-mindedness, I guess, to the idea of expressing something through an object
or thing outside of themselves. There is always that element of detachment
that Basil was talking about, when he was doing the stickman. And so, you see, you’re doing it and you
see it at the same time. And one of the more difficult things to achieve,
also, with, I would say, most actors – I’m generalizing, of course, but – is to get
them to a point where they understand that they don’t have to do it all, that they
don’t have to, you know, express facially, for example, every sentiment that’s being
communicated, because the figure is there as well. And to find the balance between what they’re
giving to the puppet figure and what they’re doing themselves. Otherwise, the result which is tragic is that
you just see an actor acting, but holding a thing in his hands. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) And you know, what you’re trying to achieve
is what we’ve talked about earlier, is transferring the focus from the performer himself to the
figure. And in my experience, if the actor can do
it, the audience will follow him there. That if he can successfully develop the necessary
psychology or whatever to transfer his performance to the object, the audience will similarly
focus on the object, or the puppet. Basil? That’s just, like for LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE
HOME, it was key to make puppets that were simple for people to work, so that they weren’t
bogged down by the technique. And once the basics of the technique – it
is best to have something where people can use their hand, because we’re so used to
that, as children maybe, moving things with our hands and bringing things to life as we
tell stories. So I tried to make a puppet that was stripped
of as much technical difficulty as possible. And then just trying to coax that out of the
actors, to believe in what they were doing, the moments. You could see moments when they were watching
their own puppet and they kind of fell for it, you know? They fell for the thing that they were doing. And I would encourage them, whenever I saw
that. And I feel that almost anybody has that capacity. Some people are blocked (LAUGHS) because they
can’t put something in their hands. They’re maybe so present in their bodies
– some actors are dancers. I find that I’ve worked with musicians a
lot who are good, because they’re used to transmitting things through their hands. But that being said, still there’s nothing
like a good puppeteer. (RICK LAUGHS) A puppeteer who has skills and
those shortcuts – Right. And a real facility for entering into that
puppet mindset immediately. There are certain people who just get it,
and you know when you work with a puppet who just gets what it’s about. Because it’s a lot about, as a working puppeteer,
it’s about sublimating yourself and your ego and what’s going on with you, and putting
all of that into the character of the puppet. And some actors who have trained a very long
time, to have the right body and the right look and the right movement in their faces,
losing all that training is almost impossible, and they just can’t make that transition
into, (DEMONSTRATES WITH HER HAND) “This is my puppet. This is who I am. This doesn’t exist. This is what I’m talking about.” Very hard for some people. Oh, yeah, it’s very tricky. Well, but it also goes down to people’s
personal proclivities and what they can do. It’s not all that different from casting
any other show, because in every show, there will be something that the actor has not encountered
before. You know, “Oh, you’re going to be walking
on stilts while you’re singing this opera.” “Oh, okay. I’m not comfortable with that, but I’ll
try.” Or, “You’re going to be performing this,
and your makeup is going to be bright red, with spots,” you know? So it’s like that leap of faith sort of
always exists. But yes, it is difficult to cast an actor
without previous puppet experience to perform with puppets. Frequently, the ones who seem to do best are
the ones who are very in touch with their physical selves, people like Bill Irwin, people
who have physical training and that’s part of what they are. Dancers are frequently very good puppeteers. As you said, musicians. There’s a lot of comparisons between performing
with a puppet and playing an instrument, and going outside of yourself and letting that
other thing do its expressing for you. We’re really down to our last few moments,
and I want to ask Cheryl, again, given your overview, where are the places – can you
just tell people, our viewers, where to look for puppetry, where to find it? Here in New York, what are the centers to
go to? We’ve heard about HERE and Basil’s program
there. Are there particular places that people can
look for information? It’s still a little spotty. La MaMa just had a wonderful puppetry series
where they had eight performances that were extraordinary at La MaMa. HERE just did three. You can always check our web site, at hensonfoundation.org,
and we have a Puppet Happenings listing there that does try to have a good listing of what’s
happening in puppetry. But there is not one puppet theatre that you
can go to all the time. But hopefully, more and more theatres will
include puppetry. But there are resources out there, and people
can look for it. For information on the O’Neill’s program,
they can go there. O’Neill’s web site, yes. HERE, I assume, has that information. HERE.org has it. HERE.org, all very easy. And Rick, your own work at lyonspuppets.com? Mmm-hmm. So there are all of those opportunities. Roman, anywhere that we can look to track
what you’re up to next? No web site! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) Okay, well, we will get there! (ROMAN LAUGHS) I have obviously revealed the
biases and the limitations of coming to puppetry late in my life. But as I said at the beginning, it is really
remarkable what you all achieve, what you support, and the horizons that are opened
up by this form which, even in talking today, it’s pretty clear we shouldn’t try to
define it as any one thing, and just incorporate it into our concept of performance, of theatre,
of art, of creativity. And I thank you all very much for opening
these avenues up to us, through this discussion and in all you do. So thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for having us. (APPLAUSE)

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