When I was two, my family brought home two kittens, a brother and sister. My older sister, who was four at the time, quickly decided that the sister kitten should be named Whiskers. I, on the other hand, tightly latched onto the fact that this other kitten was a brother just like me and so refused to name him any but Brother Kitty.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been so literal with my affection. At this point, I already kept with me three adored objects, two dog stuffed animals and a small, tubular pillow that my Grandma had originally made as a sort of bumper in my first baby-basket. These three I named Dog and Dog and Pillow. My older sister had two stuffed animals of her own, a rabbit named Bun and a different dog named Doggy, and together these five would embark on scores of adventures invented by our parents. The tales of Bun and Doggy and Dog and Dog and Pillow.
Try as I might to return to them, these stories sit somewhere too far back for me to remember well. The phrase, “Dog and Dog and Pillow" does something to that small area beneath my sternum and above my belly, but most details packed within remain a mystery. I don’t know, for example, how Pillow fit in with the others, if it hopped or hovered, or if it spoke. Nor do I know which dog is which Dog. I do know, however, that they were always together, and that their adventures were not those of four creatures and their inanimate companion, but simply chronicled the life of five friends.
A part of me wishes that I could re-tell these stories about my childhood relationship to beloved objects in order to reclaim them as a collective focal point for whatever line of descent I’m currently exploring. I suppose that we’re all free to do what we will with our pasts to construct narratives for better explaining our present and orienting our future, but this one feels too easy— not to mention a little disingenuous. To do so, I’d feel it necessary to leave out certain other stories, like the longest adventure Dog and Dog and Pillow have weathered thus far in their lives: the eight to ten years they spent snugged away inside a closet drawer in my bedroom. That story didn’t end until this past summer when I returned home between graduation and the beginning of my Watson. I found Dog and Dog in that drawer while cleaning out my room and put them back on my bed, where they yet again await my return. I don’t know where Pillow is, though I suspect my Mom does.
And yet, your past is your past; no matter how you spin it, it all happened— and I’ve been taking comfort in this fact lately, as I’ve been returning to Dog and Dog and Pillow and even Brother Kitty more and more, feeling a new relevance in my life.
I’ve been thinking about this because my time in London has reaffirmed that when theatre is at its best, it has the ability to present things before an audience in such a way that you will see them all for just what they are, and yet also experience them as so much more. Somehow, you marvel at an actor’s skill or an actress’s ability to give everything she’s got onstage without losing sight of the dramatic scenario or inner theatrical world within which her character inhabits.
Puppetry re-enforces this phenomenon because it necessarily inhabits a space somewhere in between these two poles. In a puppet show, a pillow can come to life and still be a pillow. Here, for example are two pillow chickens from a wonderfully inventive post-apocalyptic show I saw by the company Folded Feather, called “Life Still."
This kind of theatre thrives through a focus on the Any yet… And yet! sensation we feel while watching— how poignantly simple and yet mechanically complicated; how emotional and yet empty; how artificial and yet overwhelmingly real. At an international puppetry festival earlier this month, I saw a one-man, 5 puppet show draw audible gasps from the audience. An old female puppet told the story of a man who accidentally shot his own child while aiming at a bird. The puppet played all the parts, putting on different puppet-sized masks as she assumed different roles— which is to say, the puppeteer played all the parts, for his wonderfully neutral face was not hidden by a screen of darkness. I sat enraptured as I watched a performance by one man from Vermont and yet experienced a woman telling a story in a field and yet also experienced a master puppeteer and yet also saw four characters steadily heading towards tragedy. The story was simple; it was clear that the man would eventually shoot his son and yet, still, gasps.
Paul Woodruff put it nicely in his kind-of-philosophic-treatise, The Necessity of Theatre, when he wrote, “Theatre is the art by which human beings make human action worth watching, in a measured time and space." I’ve heard echoes and variations on this idea in the conversations I’ve had with various puppeteers here in London. There seems to be a consensus among many of them that London is experiencing something of a puppetry renaissance right now. Audiences and theatre-makers alike are growing more interested in unshakable immediacy of puppetry and in its ability to turn storytelling slightly on its head. And while I’ve heard and read various theories on why here and why now, the recurring theme I make out of them all centers upon the very simple notion of returning to something— be it a return to crafts as a celebration of real work and the non-capitalistic value of materials, a return to materiality as a celebration of the immediacy of live performance in response to digital displacement, or perhaps most of all, a return to human struggle, to the humility needed to animate an object, and to the joy of choosing to suspend your disbelief instead of having all the work done for you. As a speaker put it at a recent symposium on directing puppetry, it’s about working towards a theatre that never suffocates the audience’s imagination.
American (and fellow Watson winner) Julie Taymor— whom its only fitting I mention too, since her Lion King probably played as important a role in laying the groundwork for whatever return to puppetry we’re experiencing right now— spoke about just this in an interview with Richard Schechner back in 1999. She says [bolding mine]:
The ideograph for The Lion King was the circle. The circle of life. This symbol is the actual, most simple way of talking about The Lion King. It’s the biggest song. It’s obvious. So before Richard Hudson was hired [as set designer], I already was thinking about wheels and circles. And how whatever Pride Rock was I would never do the jutting Pride Rock from the movie. I knew it had to be abstract. You had the sun, then you had the first puppet I conceived, the Gazelle Wheel. The Gazelle Wheel represents the entire concept. You know what I’m talking about? The wheels with the gazelles that leap? With one person moving across the stage you get eight or nine leaping gazelles. Which is a miniature, too. So you get the long-shot and the close-up. I brought the miniature to Michael Eisner [of Disney] and I said, okay, in traditional puppet theatre, there is a black-masking or something that hides the wheels, and you see these little gazelles going like that. The puppeteer is hidden. But let’s just get rid of the masking. Because when you get rid of the masking, then even though the mechanics are apparent, the whole effect is more magical. And this is where theatre has a power over film and television. This is absolutely where its magic works. It’s not because it’s an illusion and we don’t know how it’s done. It’s because we know exactly how it’s done. On top of that, this little Gazelle Wheel is the circle of life. So then over and over again, with the audience conscious or not, I’m reinforcing this idea of the wheel.
As an American myself (and, as I’m finding, thoroughly an expat wherever I go), I think we can include the United States in this puppetry renaissance, as well— and for similar reasons. The Jim Henson Retrospective is concluding its national tour with an extended run at the Museum of Moving Image, Phantom Limb’s "69°S." raised over $45,000 on kick-starter and just had a run at BAM, soon followed by BAM’s Puppetry on Film festival. Meanwhile, the documentary Being Elmo is opening around the nation after winning the Special Jury Prize at Sundance while, the TV show Community is including a shadow puppet play, and Occupy Wallstreet just recently used some of its funding to build massive puppets for its Halloween parade and demonstration.
And— if I may be so self-centered— I’d like to see myself somewhat in this all, too. A decade ago, while Dog and Dog and Pillow explored forgotten drawers, I grew more and more consumed by movies, video games, and the internet. And as a result, these days I often find myself wishing that being a Luddite came more naturally to me. I wish I had spent more time learning real crafts instead of digital tricks, that I’d read more books instead of watching all those movies, and— essentially— that I had spent my formative years generally rejecting my generation’s inclinations towards the immaterial and disconnected.
Given all of this, I think it’s no coincidence that I find myself so drawn the sheer fact that theatre is live. Although you don’t always see it, there really is something about the way that live theatre that can own up to its artifice without being utterly anti-theatrical. It can vary drastically from project to project, but on a more general— though hopefully no less important— level, I think it reflects a particular way to invite the audience in instead of keeping them at bay. In my opinion, the best live performances don’t take the audience for granted and as a result, don’t hide from the fact that spectators are as multifaceted and complex in their seats as the performers are onstage. I think this is one of the first steps needed to make a human being onstage just that and also so much more, to be literal and imaginative, flesh and blood and yet also fiction; all immediate, all true, simultaneously.
Which reminds me— I haven’t yet mentioned that Brother Kitty did one day get a new name. My parents, who felt understandably unenthusiastic at the prospect of shouting in public “Heyyy Bro—therr" or any of its variations whenever Brother Kitty needed to come inside, had been gently pressing me for a different name to no effect. A few days later, however, we three were sitting at the edge of the stairs petting Brother Kitty when I suddenly threw my arms around him in a big hug and proclaimed, “He’s my buddy." My mom jumped on the occasion, telling me how great a name Buddy could be. I agreed, and that was that. Brother Kitty became Buddy, which, as I think about it more and more lately, isn’t that much less literal a name than where we began.
Dog and Dog, doing a far better job than I at synthesizing the current zeitgeist back in San Diego (courtesy of my favorite American, Elsie)