Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Opinion: Caroline Reck on Austin's 'New Puppet Revolution,' Howlround.com, April 15, 2013

Published at
Howlround Theatre Commons

Caroline Reck
April 15, 2013
Caroline Reck (photo via CreativeAction.org)
Caroline Reck (photo via CreativeAction.org)


I was invited to write this entry about the response of Austin audiences to the “New Puppet Revolution.” Each word in this phrase makes me smile: “new,” because Austin is such a nourishing environment for new theater, “puppet,” because puppet theater (particularly shows geared toward adult audiences) is killin’ it in Austin these days, and “revolution,” because puppets have been aiding and abetting revolutions since people first started moving objects around. Put the whole phrase together, and I’m suddenly thinking about time, objects, and anarchy: a great crossroads to talk about puppets.

Mention puppetry to most people, and the image conjured up is of a creature, perhaps made of felt, probably adorable, with a moving mouth that’s talking to you (or your child), most likely through a television screen. There is really great puppetry like this in America—with the extraordinary Jim Henson Company topping the list. There is also a lot of other puppet work being made that looks nothing like this, and for some reason that is baffling puppeteers in caves and attics across America, audiences are starting to take notice.

Puppetry is a diverse and ancient art form. I won’t get specific on the timeline, but sometime between developing opposable thumbs and the invention of broadcast television, people began animating objects and giving them soul, voice, and intention. These objects have served as great entertainment and meaningful ritual to people young and old for a really long time. Then, very recently, the world industrialized and certain children in lucky nations weren’t an obligatory part of the workforce anymore. Someone noticed that bored children get into mischief, and started gearing puppets shows toward the little ones. Meanwhile, collective common memory in this country forgot that puppets are for grown-ups, too.
Austin audiences like to be presented with new ideas, and to be presented with old ideas wrought in a new way, and they like how puppetry can do both. Glass Half Full and Trouble Puppet both consistently sell out shows, and both make a majority of their income from ticket sales.

Puppetry is a rigorous art form that uses movement, timing, spatial relativity, scale, breath, and gravity to create a sense of visceral recognition in the gut of the audience. Puppets can simply do and be more than humans. They can be beasts and spirits, inanimate forms made animate, ideas made manifest. They make use of scale in a way humans cannot; they can be large in one scene and tiny in the next, which effectively changes the dimensions of the stage. Puppets can fly, breathe underwater, grow onstage; they can vanish. They can be publicly incinerated, internally lit, transparent, and show that they have “no heart” by literally carving out the absence of a heart in their figure. They make costume changes in a flash (two different identical puppets). They evade the stereotypes of the traditional actor. A tiny female puppeteer can perform a giant puppet; an aging puppeteer can play a young hero. They are a democratic, constantly evolving, revolutionary art form that can take many shapes and forms and tell stories that are whimsical, or demonic, or profound.

So there is really nothing new about puppet revolution. But the recent popular response to the puppeteer’s ongoing revolution feels new. The popularity of puppets on Broadway (Lion King, Avenue Q, War Horse) nudged people to find out what else is out there. The puppet has a special relationship with the audience. We know, intellectually, that the puppet is an object. Yet seeing an object repudiate everything our intellect knows to be true, by moving, feeling, being, invites the audience to take that extra step toward believing. Part of the work of puppetry happens in the audience, when they lend their collective imagination to the scene; when the mind’s eye erases the marionette’s string, fades out the tabletop manipulator’s body, and ignores the arm rod sticking from the elbow of the puppet. The audience is uniquely implicated in the energetic triangle between audience, puppeteer, and puppet. They are viscerally involved, part of the magic, moved to laughter and tears.

I’m the Creative Director of a little company called Glass Half Full Theatre, which was founded in France in 2004. We relocated to Austin in 2010, and have had great audiences and critical response to our original, puppet-based work since we arrived. This is in part because Austin audiences are open-minded; they are happy come to see what they’ve never seen before. It’s also because the other puppeteers beat down the path to adult audience in Austin before we got here.

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